In the wake of the many allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, allegations of sexual harassment by Amazon Studios boss Roy Price have resurfaced, and have led to his suspension by the company. As with the Weinstein allegations, it appears those against Price have circulated for some time but never been talked about publicly much, though The Information did have a story a little while ago about the specific accusation that’s been reported again this week. Price has already been somewhat embattled recently as Jeff Bezos has begun overruling some of his decisions as head of Amazon’s original content efforts, so it’s possible that he will be forced out over these allegations whether or not others emerge as a way to clean the slate and complete the shift towards the new programming strategy. Needless to say, as with Weinstein, if the allegations are proven to have merit, Price ought to go for those reasons alone.
Update: BuzzFeed has a copy of the internal memo sent to Amazon staff about the suspension and related issues. Something I should have mentioned earlier but neglected to: Amazon was made aware of the allegations some time ago and instigated an independent investigation, which ended without any apparent action against Roy Price. That he’s been suspended now appears to be entirely the result of the public attention this is now receiving rather than any new information that’s come to light. That feels like hypocrisy, a sense exacerbated by the references to Amazon’s policy on abuse in the internal memo.
The American Cable Association, a trade group which represents 750 smaller pay TV companies with around 7 million subscribers between them, says Comcast is making it very difficult for them to offer smaller pay TV bundles. In addition to being the second largest pay TV company in the US itself, Comcast owns several regional sports networks, and is allegedly attempting to force those smaller pay TV companies to carry them on the vast majority of their subscription packages, raising prices and preventing companies from offering increasingly popular “skinny bundles”. The companies have filed a formal complaint with the FCC, but only in response to a broad annual enquiry into the state of competition in the market, rather than as an accusation of broken rules. As such, it’s not clear what effect if any this complaint will have, but it’s indicative of the fact that big TV companies are increasingly attempting to fight consumer disinterest in their programming with forced bundling to stem the loss of subscribers and the associated revenues. That’s clearly not a workable solution over the long term.
Update: later in the day, Viacom executive Bob Bakish sent a memo to staff saying that Charter has been blocking attempts by the company to create its own packages and bundles in response to being dropped from some of Charter’s programming tiers. So this is not simply a one-way issue, but something which affects both sides of the coin here.
AT&T has pre-announced some figures for its third quarter results in an SEC filing, including nearly 300,000 DirecTV Now streaming subscriber additions in the quarter, but around 90k traditional pay TV losses. Assuming that latter number is reported on the same basis as in the past and therefore excludes the DirecTV Now customers, it would represent a significant improvement, as the company lost over 300k subs in Q3 2016, and over 200k subs in Q2 this year. But losses are losses, and although the company through hurricanes into the mix as a driver, it’s clear that the underlying drivers that caused previous declines are still big factors too, and those include competition (and have in the past included the challenge AT&T faces of not being able to provide broadband-TV bundles in big chunks of the US).
Two wireless items in the filing are also worth noting. Firstly, the company said it saw 900k fewer postpaid phone upgrades in the quarter, a continuation of a long-standing trend at AT&T of lower upgrades over time, which has seen it fall to by far the lowest upgrade rates among the big four US carriers. Secondly, it’s breaking out certain prepaid IoT connections – notably those associated with connected cars – in its reporting for the first time, and it sounds like it has just over half a million of those as of the end of the quarter. That’s a tiny fraction of its overall connected car connections, which stood at a cumulative 13 million connections as of the end of Q2, the vast majority of which are low-revenue telematics connections sold to car manufacturers rather than directly to end users.
The Wall Street Journal reports, with confirmation from NBC but not Apple, that the latter has signed a deal to reboot Steven Spielberg’s 1980s TV series as part of its big original video content push. This would be the first deal that’s come to light since Apple brought in two Sony TV execs to run the initiative, which I think of as version 2.0 of its original content push, with the first characterized by a variety of smaller projects with ties to its ecosystems like Planet of the Apps, Carpool Karaoke, and a variety of one-off music documentaries. Amazing Stories wasn’t a huge hit back in the day, running for only two seasons with limited ratings, but the Spielberg name will likely do a lot for it, and with a big budget ($5m per episode) and some good stories it could well be an interesting hit. Apple will obviously need quite a few more of these to use up its billion-dollar budget and secure enough content to become a draw for whatever service Apple wraps around this content, but this seems like a promising start.
As with this morning’s Facebook item, I’m covering three separate news items relating to Hulu here. Firstly, Bloomberg reports that Hulu has paid top dollar to acquire some TV shows which might historically have gone to Netflix, notably NBC’s This Is Us, Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, but also older shows including NYPD Blue, The Bernie Mac Show, Will & Grace, and 30 Rock. It’s also acquired rights for some e-sports, a “sports” category that’s also attracted interest from other big names including Amazon and Facebook, and is temporarily lowering its entry-level price from $8 to $6.
Hulu has already announced that it’ll spend $2.5 billion this year on shows, and that increased budget seems to be allowing it to be more competitive in bidding for some of the bigger traditional TV shows and thereby flesh out its lineup with both more of the current season stuff it’s known for and more library content. It’s helped also by the fact that its sometimes ambivalent network backers seem to have decided it’s one of their best shots at preventing a Netflix hegemony. E-sports have small but dedicated and growing audiences, and represent one of Hulu’s first forays into sports, albeit a very small one – just 15 hours in total. And the price drop seems designed to attract new customers at a busy time of year for traditional TV series premieres, and also to act as an on-ramp for Hulu’s much more expensive live TV service, which it’s just begun promoting aggressively. Hulu still has a long way to go to achieve Netflix-like levels of awareness and especially adoption – a survey I ran earlier this year suggested it has about a quarter of Netflix’s penetration in the US – but it’s clearly keen to change that.
Google Fiber is rolling out in San Antonio and Louisville, two markets to which the company committed to before halting expansion, but won’t be offering pay TV service in those markets alongside its broadband service. That’s a first, as Google Fiber has always offered broadband and TV (though not always phone service) in its previous markets, in keeping with the most popular pairing of services taken from cable and telecoms operators. The reality is that Google Fiber TV wasn’t nearly as popular as its broadband offering, with just over 80,000 subscribers at the end of 2016, a small fraction of its broadband base, which is thought to be in the high hundreds of thousands at this point. Besides that, the economics associated with pay TV, especially for smaller providers, are not that attractive, with much of the revenue being passed straight through to channel owners and little opportunity for real differentiation. So, with all that as context, it makes perfect sense for Google to drop TV from its bundles and go purely for the broadband market, where its differentiation is far stronger, and where the economics should be quite a bit better. With the launch of YouTube TV in many markets, Google even has its own streaming TV service to offer now too.
, via 9to5Google
YouTube has licensed nine of its original shows and movies, which were until now exclusive to its Red subscription service, to a third party in order to generate additional licensing revenue. Two of the great advantages of producing original content are exclusivity and licensing rights, though the two are often somewhat mutually exclusive, but YouTube appears to be playing both sides here, keeping the shows as exclusives for a period of time before broadening availability to develop a content licensing revenue stream too. That’s not a strategy I would ever see most of the other companies developing original content employ in such a windowing approach, but it likely suits YouTube reasonably well given its smaller subscription footprint and the increasing presence of aggregators and others who want to show YouTube content to fans on other platforms like traditional TV, somewhat ironically. But this will also allow YouTube to monetize its content in other geographies where the Red service hasn’t launched, whereas Netflix is now very focused on its near-global presence.
This LA Times piece has some good numbers on how this season’s broadcast fall TV premieres fared, and the answer is that they saw another drop year on year in live viewing. The ongoing drop in life NFL viewing was a big contributor to the overall drop, but there were broader drops for dramas and comedies as well, despite a fairly strong performance on the comedy side overall. None of this is new, nor should it be surprising at this point – the trend away from live viewing and towards DVR and streaming viewing of the same shows as well as digital-native streaming through services like Netflix is well established and unstoppable at this point, with significant implications for legacy TV companies. As measurement of non-live viewing – both DVR and streaming – both improves and increasingly gets counted in official figures used to calculate ad payouts, some of the effects on ad revenues will be mitigated, but certainly not all.
via LA Times
Online Pay TV Streaming Services Have Few Subscribers (Oct 4, 2017)
In a blog post I wrote in August about cord cutting in Q2 2017, I noted that there were likely around 3 million online pay TV streaming subscribers as of June, compared to around 4 million subscribers that had cut the traditional pay TV cord during the period those services had been available. The Information today reports that there are around 3.4 million of those online pay TV subscribers, including 2 million at Sling, half a million at AT&T’s DirecTV Now and slightly less than that at Sony’s PlayStation Vue, with just 200k at Hulu’s new live service, with a few more at YouTube. The Information uses this information to suggest that these services haven’t yet been all that popular, and that’s certainly one way to look at it, but given that until this year they mostly either came from unknown brands like Sling or were heavily limited in terms of their mainstream device support like PlayStation Vue, I’d bet we’ll see some faster growth going forward with the entry of Hulu and YouTube into the market, and I’d argue that AT&T’s rapid growth to the same scale as Sony in a much shorter period is evidence of that. With both Hulu and YouTube gearing up for big promotions in the coming weeks for their services, that growth will accelerate further. Meanwhile, cord cutting is also accelerating, and that acceleration is likely to be exacerbated by this growth in streaming options, leaving cable networks with fewer subscribers as users both cut and shave the cord. None of this is great news for the traditional TV industry.
via The Information
Third party social media metrics company Delmondo says that across a selection of Facebook Watch videos it measured, average watch time was 23 seconds. That’s a little higher than the 17 second average for videos in the News Feed, but not much. It’s notable, too, that 20 seconds is the minimum amount of time a video must run before a mid-roll ad can be shown to the user, and I wouldn’t be surprised if those mid-roll ads are a big reason why average watch times are around that level. I continue to believe that Facebook’s mid-roll focus is going to harm viewing and ultimately ad revenue for its video platform, and it badly needs to re-think that approach. It’s still early for Watch in particular, and it’s clearly more of a destination for video rather than something users stumble across accidentally as with the News Feed, but it needs to grow well beyond 23 seconds if it’s going to be worthwhile either for Facebook or its content creators longer term.
YouTube TV Will Advertise During World Series Games (Oct 3, 2017)
Google’s YouTube TV online pay TV streaming service will be a sponsor of this year’s baseball World Series, marking its first big ad push to gain new subscribers. That’s a reflection of the service’s broad reach now that it’s secured rights for local channels and launched in 49 of the 50 largest US markets, covering 2/3 of the US population. But it’s also something of a funny choice given that YouTube still doesn’t have the Turner channels, of which TBS carries the National League playoff games leading up to the World Series, though of course it’s possible that YouTube TV will have added those channels by the time baseball season rolls around again. In general, though, YouTube TV feels like it has very low awareness among cord cutters in general, in part because it has limited its rollout to areas where it can offer local channels, and hasn’t made a ton of noise about launching in new markets. With a big sponsorship like this, that could change, and it could quickly become one of the more popular pay TV streaming services out there, giving existing brands like Sling, DirecTV Now, PlayStation Vue, and others a run for their money.
Digiday has done some digging on the CPMs (payout rates for advertising) on Facebook’s video platform, and has found that on the whole they’re pretty low. One publisher suggested an average CPM of 15 cents, which is indeed low by industry standards, and that theme if not the exact amount was confirmed by others Digiday spoke to. One big challenge, though, in measuring CPMs or other industry-standard ad metrics is that many publishers publish videos which don’t use the mid-roll ad format alongside those that do, so the denominator may be skewing the results a little. But what seems clearer is that mid-roll ads perform far less well than the pre-roll ads YouTube has used very successfully, something I predicted in this piece a few weeks ago on Facebook’s big video pivot. I suspect Facebook will struggle to compensate creators adequately as long as mid-roll remains essentially the only way to monetize videos, and when it likely drives a high abandonment rate.
Roku has announced updates to pretty much its entire hardware line, just days after very successfully going public on the NASDAQ. The new range of devices is mostly priced the same, with the exception of the top tier, which has dropped $10, leaving the price range at $30-100, while the other notable change is ever smaller devices, with most of the line now actually plug-in sticks or very close to the same size. Roku promises increased speed through better processors, wider 4K support, and other hardware changes. But it also debuted version 8 of its Roku OS, which includes better support for integrating antenna-based viewing of over-the-air channels, something which has become increasingly common as a complement to online streaming of cable channels among cord cutters. As with recent changes from Amazon, these improvements and price tweaks further separate the three market share leaders from Apple and its new Apple TV boxes, which now start at $50 above any other box from the three major competitors and rise to twice the highest price of a Roku device. I continue to believe Apple can carve out its own niche in this market, but it’s certainly never going to have substantial share as the rest of the market shifts towards cheaper sticks, often sold at or below cost. That’s a market Apple simply isn’t going to compete in.
via The Verge
Disney and cable operator Altice (owner of the former Cablevision properties) came to a last-minute agreement on Sunday to avert a blackout both sides had been warning customers about as they negotiated new terms. This has been one of the first big renegotiations for Disney since it became clear how badly the ESPN business is going from a subscriber perspective, and as such is seen as a bellwether for how the next few years will go for Disney. All the details haven’t emerged yet, not least because the sides are still apparently hammering some of them out, but it’s clear that Altice did pay for price increases, though not as large as Disney wanted. That’s critical because regularly contractual price increases have been the thing keeping many cable operators’ revenues growing even as their subscriber numbers have been falling. If the increases aren’t large enough to offset the declines in subscribers, that picture starts to change, and so far we don’t know for sure whether that’s the case. But whether Disney is able to get the price increases it needs to stay ahead of subscriber declines is the critical factor in future negotiations. Altice is one of the smaller pay TV providers in the country, and if it had sufficient leverage to negotiate price increases down, that likely doesn’t bode well for Disney going forward. You’ll see headlines saying that the deal demonstrates pay TV companies will still pay for sports, but that was a given – the question was how far Disney would budge to ensure that remained the case.
Amazon Saw Under 400k Viewers for First NFL Game (Oct 2, 2017)
This is the second piece I’ve done on Amazon’s Thursday Night Football debut last week – see here for the first. After I wrote that piece, the NFL released audience numbers for the broadcast, and they show that just under 400k people watched the Amazon version, while 14.6 million people watched the live broadcast on CBS and the NFL Network, and 243k watched Twitter’s debut broadcast last year. On the face of it, it’s impressive that Amazon, with its much smaller number of members relative to Twitter, and with a sign-in requirement, was able to achieve broader viewership, but it also arguably promoted it much more heavily than Twitter did last year before its first game. It was certainly promoted heavily within the Amazon Video apps on various platforms the day of the game, making it hard to miss if you logged on planning to watch something else. And it’s also possible that interest in all NFL games is heightened at the moment because of the recent controversy over kneeling during the national anthem by players. The real question, of course, is what Amazon’s goal is here, and whether it’s achieving it. My guess is that it sees NFL games partly as a value-add for existing customers, and partly as a ploy to gain new subs for Prime. I’ve no doubt it will achieve the former, but the latter is a tougher sell – signing up for a Prime subscription is a lot to ask when the game is broadcast on TV.
Amazon streamed the first of its Thursday Night Football games last night, and this Mashable piece does a good job summarizing the experience for fans (I had other commitments and only tuned in very briefly). It appears the stream mostly held up bar some audio hitches, which hasn’t always been the case for new streaming video services in their debuts but should be par for the course with a provider like Amazon that already has massive streaming scale. The most noteworthy thing about the broadcast is how little innovation Amazon built around it, with the only meaningful departure from a normal broadcast being an alternative audio feed with British commentators providing color for those more familiar with a version of football where people actually use their feet. Twitter, of course, had the rights last year, and at least tried to pair the video feed with relevant tweets, an integration that offered little value at the time, but one on which Twitter has iterated since with more recent live events. By contrast, there was seemingly nothing about last night’s broadcast which felt uniquely Amazon-like, while the ads suffered from the same problem as most streaming video: too much repetition. I’m hoping Amazon was playing things reasonably safe with its first broadcast and will do more interesting things later in the season, because at this rate the NFL might as well just license the streaming rights to traditional broadcasters too.
If there are two big recent trends in voice assistants, they’re control of music and control of TVs. Every major company in this space is making announcements about these two areas, with Amazon adding voice control to its music apps and then Alexa to its new Fire TV box, Apple preparing the music-centric HomePod for launch, and Sonos prepping an event next week which is also likely to be music-oriented. In that context, then, it’s no surprise that the latest set of devices to get Google Assistant support are those running Android TV, of which there are currently very few, notably the gaming-centric Nvidia Shield and Sony’s Bravia TV sets. The Nvidia Shield support was actually announced way back at CES in January if I recall correctly, but support is only rolling out now. More broadly, Apple TV and Amazon’s Fire TV already support voice control, while there’s also an Alexa integration with DISH’s satellite service, and Comcast offers its own native voice control through its remotes, so this is becoming table stakes for a TV interface. The specific voice functions Android TV supports seem roughly on par with those offered on other platforms, though perhaps a bit more limited.
Roku IPO Sees Stock Rise Over 50% on First Day (Sep 28, 2017)
Roku went public on the NASDAQ today after filing its S-1 earlier this month with the SEC, and saw its stock pop on its first day of trading, rising from its $14 opening price to as much as $23 in the middle of the day before falling a little, settling in at around $21 at the time I’m writing, about a half hour before markets close. That’s a great start for Roku, which was far from a shoo-in as a consumer tech IPO given its big business model pivot, its losses, and the fact that it competes against three of the biggest names in consumer tech in Amazon, Apple, and Google. Other big consumer tech IPOs this year haven’t fared well, notably Snap Inc’s, but the main reasons for the poor stock performance have been grounded in poor company performance, so we’ll have to see how Roku fares in its first couple of quarterly reports, with the first one likely coming a month or so from now. To commemorate the Roku IPO, I added a Roku deck to the Jackdaw Research Quarterly Decks subscription service today, and will be recording a video voiceover for the deck shortly (a discount is available for those who buy both subscriptions, so contact me if you’d like the discount code for that).
Amazon today held what many publications described as a “surprise” event (in that Amazon embargoed the very existence of the event) to announce broad updates to its Echo line of devices, as well as a new version of its Fire TV box. The announcements represent a maturing of the Echo product line, which went from three main entries to five, now with a good, better, best approach to pure speakers and small and large options for speakers with screens. I’ve just created this image for the column I’m writing for Techpinions for tomorrow, and it’s a good overview of the Echo lineup before and after today’s announcements. Amazon also announced two new accessories: the Echo Connect, which acts as a bridge between an existing landline phone and Alexa calling, and Echo Buttons, the first of a new category of accessories called Alexa Gadgets, which will serve as companions to Echo and other Alexa-enabled devices, offering additional functionality (the Buttons are envisaged as interfaces for family members playing voice games, for example).
What we’re seeing from Amazon here is a consolidation of its early leadership in the voice speaker category, re-emphasizing its desire to dominate that market, if necessary through pricing hardware at or below cost. It engaged in some clever positioning around the pure speaker space by moving its core Echo product down in price by $50 while significantly improving its industrial design and audio performance, and introducing a new tier at $150 under the Echo Plus name. The Echo Plus also serves as a smart home hub in its own right rather than merely using cloud services and APIs to control devices through existing hubs, which is an interesting step forward but will require smart home gear to integrate with it in new ways. Amazon also announced Alexa integration in BMW cars from the 2018 model year onwards and Minis from mid-2018 onwards, which is another step in taking Alexa out of the home, albeit one which will take many years to reach a meaningful proportion of cars on the roads. Lastly, Amazon updated its Fire TV box, now in a quasi-dongle form factor, with 4K and HDR support and an Alexa remote (but not the always-on feature in the box itself which had been rumored), and at a slightly lower $70 price.
Both the timing and content of Amazon’s announcements today are a big thumb of the nose towards Google, which of course is holding its fall hardware announcement next week, and in the context of the secrecy around today’s event, I wonder if Google got wind of it yesterday and decided to rain on Amazon’s parade ever so slightly with its yanking of YouTube from the Echo Show. The only big move in the voice speaker space we’re expecting next week from Google is a smaller device to compete with the Echo Dot, so Amazon just wiped the floor with those announcements, making its own hardware more price competitive even at list price and adding new options for discerning customers. All of this also makes life a little tougher for both Sonos and HomePod, with Sonos announcing its first voice-enabled hardware on the same day as Google’s event next week. Audio performance on basic voice speakers is now getting good enough that both Apple and Sonos need to demonstrate significantly superior performance and better experiences with multi-room audio to compete.
Amazon Begins Selling Apple TV Hardware Again (Sep 26, 2017)
Amazon has quietly begun selling Apple TV hardware again, as part of the thawing in relations between the two companies. Apple has already announced that an Amazon video app is coming to the Apple TV shortly, so this is the first half of that two-part move, suggesting that the other shoe should drop soon. As I said a few months back, though some have suggested there was some tit-for-tat in Apple and Amazon’s frosty relations, the reality is that the barriers to playing nicely were all on Amazon’s side – the company could have built an app for the Apple TV as soon as the platform launched an App Store, but chose not to. I assume that was because of the App Store cut, but that’s been a feature on iOS too, and hasn’t stopped Amazon from launching video apps for that platform. Regardless, it’s likely that Apple has made some concessions on the App Store cut, and that that’s finally got Amazon on board as one of the last holdouts from the Apple TV, which should further increase the appeal of that hardware platform for those willing to pay the Apple premium to get their Transparent or Man in the High Castle fix.