Some YouTube Advertisers Still Staying Away (Jun 21, 2017)
Apple Poaches Two Sony TV Execs to Lead Video Programming (Jun 16, 2017)
Apple has hired two executives who previously helped make Breaking Bad and The Crown on behalf of AMC and Netflix respectively as its new heads of video programming globally. Those two pieces of content are powerful examples of the role of original content in boosting video brands – Breaking Bad was a major plank of AMC’s push over recent years to turn itself into more than just a catalog player, and while The Crown isn’t Netflix’s most popular bit of original content, it’s very good and a sign of the kind of big-budget stuff it’s going to be making more of going forward. As such, these are fascinating hires, given that for now at least Apple is on the opposite of that process – commissioning rather than producing original video content. These hires could be a sign that change is coming, given that these two new execs have experience producing and not just commissioning video, but that’s a somewhat unusual model for original content compared with other major players like Netflix, which have still tended to farm out original content rather than lead production internally. It’s possible that they will merely become equivalents of Ted Sarandos at Netflix, using their expertise to commission and oversee outside projects, but they seem somewhat odd hires in that context. All of this, meanwhile, seems much less plausible in a continued narrow focus on video content in Apple Music, and much more as part of a broader push into video ahead of a subscription video service. Two other things worth noting: Apple put out a press release on the hires, something it does very rarely indeed, suggesting it wants to make a fuss out of this. Secondly, these two will report directly to Eddy Cue, which will set up an interesting dynamic with Jimmy Iovine, who has seemed to loom large over all of Apple’s content efforts, but especially in video, and who I’ve speculated before is a bit of a loose cannon in this area. I’m hoping these two coming on board provides some more clarity in who owns original video content at Apple.
Facebook has been doing a great deal to reach out to news publications recently and let them know that it has their interests at heart, something which has occasionally been in doubt. However, despite all the soft enticements it’s offered to get publications to work with Facebook and use its Instant Articles feature, the big thing publications have wanted is a business model other than advertising, namely subscriptions. It sounds like Facebook is now working on that feature, which would allow users to pay for subscriptions to publications from within its apps. Apple News, of course, already offers that options, but it’s been a closed rather than open platform so far and though I was expecting it to open up more in iOS 11, there’s no word of that so far from Apple. I would guess Facebook would start with a narrower program too and open up somewhat over time. So although this is good news for whichever pubs get included in the first round, many will likely have to wait even longer. But this is a good first step in giving news publications something they probably want more than anything else from Facebook right now.
Back in December, four big US Internet companies signed a voluntary code of conduct with the EU under which they agreed to improve and accelerate the removal of hate speech from their platforms. Now, the EU is reporting good progress on those goals, with twice as high a percent of offending content removed, and Facebook and Twitter removing substantially more content within the first 24 hours, while YouTube slipped a little in this regard for reasons that aren’t clear. As Facebook has discovered, policing content is an expensive and labor-intensive task at the best of times, but having external standards set like this raises the stakes even further. The big risk in the EU and specific European countries is that this moves from voluntary codes of conduct to actual laws with significant consequences for non-compliance, so the big US companies are wise to do what they can to play nicely to try to ward off such outcomes.
Mid-Tier TV Networks Dial Back Spending on Original Content (May 25, 2017)
In our second news item about proprietary news formats today, Apple has hired Lauren Kern as its first Editor in Chief for Apple News. She was previously executive editor at New York Magazine and then took on more of a managerial role across several publications owned by the parent company. Apple has lots of editors today, but their role is curatorial rather than truly editorial, and I wonder if that will change with Kern’s appointment. Apple is purely an aggregation platform for today, but we could see it do more with pulling news together on a particular topic and perhaps highlighting the best coverage. Kern’s magazine background might also suggest a focus on more long-form content, which Apple could either continue to curate or perhaps begin to create or commission itself. Apple News as a platform has done relatively well, driving some decent traffic for at least some publishers, but doesn’t have nearly the reach of Facebook’s Instant Articles or the Google-led AMP format. It’s also at the early stages from a monetization perspective, offering only ads as a business model broadly and then subscriptions only for a handful of publications today. I would expect the subscription model to open up later this year, probably with an announcement at WWDC in a couple of weeks, so that would be another interesting angle for Kern to work on.
I’m generally a skeptic of proprietary or customized forms of web publishing because I believe they create extra work for publishers, which in turn takes us back to earlier eras when smaller publishers weren’t able to compete with larger publishers on a level playing field (this is something I’ve written about in detail here). But they also have other objectionable aspects, including making some very powerful companies more powerful. Facebook’s Instant Articles is a great example of all that, and it’s struggled to gain momentum in part because it’s not clear to most publishers that it actually helps them make more money than simply linking out to their sites, and in part because it doesn’t support any kind of payment method today. Facebook’s Journalism Project, on the other hand, is supposed to address some of publishers’ frustrations, and as part of Facebook’s response to those frustrations, it’s tweaking its SDK for Instant Articles to add support for the Google-led AMP format and eventually also for Apple News. That could help assuage concerns about having to publish in four different formats separately (FB IA, AMP, Apple News, and the web), but it’s obviously only helpful to those publishers big enough or tech-savvy enough to work with an SDK and a custom CMS to feed it. And it does nothing to address the very real monetization issues or the sense of loss of control that has caused some publishers to pull back from Instant Articles lately. This feels like an inadequate bandaid rather than a real solution. Above all, Facebook needs to bring on the monetization tools pronto.
via Facebook Media
I’ve been both intrigued by and enormously skeptical of LeEco’s US market entry from the beginning, as this piece I wrote after its US launch back in October suggests. The company had been successful in China on the basis of a slow evolution from a content to a hardware company, and yet its US launch seemed to have turned that strategy almost entirely on its head without the compelling content that helped it succeed domestically. It also made many of the same mistakes as other Chinese companies attempting to expand into the US by not making enough changes to its playbook when it moved to the US. There have been reports for a few days now about an impending massive cut to the US business, and today has brought official confirmation. There’s no schadenfreude here from me given the large number of people losing their jobs, but hopefully LeEco’s story serves as a cautionary tale for other Chinese companies entering the US market. As the essay and video in the related narrative suggest, this has always been a tough task, and no Chinese company has really succeeded in building a big, successful ecosystem in the US. Even those that have done well more narrowly, such as in low-cost hardware, have taken years to get there and even then aren’t considered in the same class as leaders like Apple, Samsung, LG, or even Sony. Ironically, LeEco’s retrenchment now to serving Chinese-speaking residents of the US would have made a ton of sense as a market entry strategy last year, starting much smaller and more modestly, and slowly expanding out from that core into the broader US market. Instead, that new focus is the result of a somewhat humiliating defeat, caused in equal measures by an overly hubristic and poorly thought out market entry and financial constraints at headquarters that gave that strategy very little time to play out. This could – and should – have gone very differently.
Facebook Moderation Guidelines Leak (May 22, 2017)
Facebook is Pushing Back Launch of Original Video Content (May 22, 2017)
Facebook is taking additional steps to lower the ranking of clickbait articles in the News Feed, something it began explicitly targeting last year. In the past, it’s used a combination of signals including the ratio of reads to shares to determine whether an article over-promises and under-delivers, and down-ranking sites and domains which persistently post clickbait. But it’s now examining the actual content of the headline for both withholding information and exaggeration and lowering the ranking for those pieces which exhibit these characteristics. On the one hand, this is a good thing: less of this content in Facebook means we’re all more likely to read worthwhile stories that actually tell us something useful or meaningful. But on the other hand, this stuff has always existed and no-one has ever attempted to regulate it in the way Facebook now is. Unlike fake news, which has the power to sway elections and have other significant negative real-world impacts, clickbait has far less real-world impact. And if people continue to click on those headlines, it suggests they’re interested in reading the contents whether or not the headlines are misleading or manipulative. The stuff wouldn’t be shared by users on Facebook or show up in the News Feed in the first place if it wasn’t popular, which means Facebook is making value judgments here which not all of its users would agree with. As with Google’s frequent tweaking of its search algorithms to suppress sites with behaviors it disapproves of, I always feel this is dangerous territory.
Amazon Buys Rights for 40 Movies at SXSW Film Festival (May 10, 2017)
Facebook Hiring For Original Video Content Roles (May 4, 2017)
Facebook has a job opening on its site for a “Film Producer”, and the description for the role talks about “motion picture content” in a way that makes it sounds like this person is being hired to make movies. On the face of it, that’s an odd thing to do: movies aren’t made by in-house producers, they’re made on an ad hoc basis using the filmmakers (directors, producers, cinematographers, writers etc.) who make sense for a particular project, so if you’re looking to make original content you hire people good at commissioning it, not the people who actually make it. However, the detail of the posting makes it seem as though what this person will be responsible for creating probably isn’t movies for consumption by Facebook’s audience. I think Facebook means video where it says either film or motion picture, especially as it talks about “shareable content”, and a 90-minute movie is not overly shareable. I actually wonder whether this person will be creating content for internal use or to promote Facebook to its audience rather than to be enjoyed by the audience as entertainment. But Facebook’s earnings call this week reinforced the idea that Facebook is getting more serious about creating and seeding video content on the site to boost its video ad revenues, which are very dependent on longer-form video.