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.
Five major movie studios have banded together to join a successor to Disney’s Movies Anywhere service, which serves as a digital locker consolidating digital movie purchases across major retailers like iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Video, and Vudu. This is a pretty big deal, because the service was Disney only in the past and competed with UltraViolet, a competing platform. This partnership now brings together five of the biggest names in movies, and it’s fairly compelling – I just signed up and was able to consolidate my past purchases from iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Video into one big collection, which I can now view on various devices and even download for offline viewing on a phone. That’s important to me because even though I’ve tended to favor one particular storefront over the last few years, I have at various times acquired movies on other platforms for pricing, availability, or testing purposes, and they’ve been kind of lost on there. This therefore feels like the first time something like this might actually take off in a meaningful way.
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.
Janko Roettgers at Variety has done a great bit of analysis on the impact of the removal of YouTube from the Echo Show on sales and reviews of the devices. What he found is that the sales ranking in Amazon’s bestseller list seems to have fallen significantly over the past week or two. That’s not surprising given that as I said when the news was first announced, YouTube was a somewhat integral part of the value of the device’s screen, and Amazon had far more to lose from the end of the partnership than Google. It’s still not clear what exactly prompted the end of that relationship – right at the end of the Variety piece, there’s a quote from the Google executive who manages its competing Home portfolio there, in which he says the company is still evaluating the speaker-with-screen segment. So that competition may or may not have prompted it, and I’m still inclined to believe that it may have been a tit-for-tat against Amazon for scheduling a big hardware unveiling the week before Google’s own.
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.
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.
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.
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.
GoPro today held an event at which it announced two new cameras: the latest in its core Hero line, the Hero6, at $499; and a VR camera called the Fusion, which will sell for $699. The Fusion had been pre-announced back in April ahead of a pilot program which has been running over the last few months, but the suggestion at the time was that this was a camera for professionals, implying a price point in the thousands of dollars. However, what we’ve actually ended up with is something which – if not exactly consumer-grade – is at least within reach for serious hobbyists. The concept is very clever, combining video from two overlapping lenses to create 360° video in a unique way, which can eliminate the pole holding the camera from the shot and make it appear as if it’s floating in front of the subject. But it’s also designed to allow creators to edit videos after the effect, choosing the angle they want from the 5.2k video the camera outputs to create more conventional videos. The Hero6, meanwhile, is a more conventional device, with some predictable upgrades from earlier models, and it’s notable that it maxes out at exactly the same resolutions as the iPhone 8 – 1080p at up to 240 frames per second, and 4K and 60 frames per second – though obviously with a larger camera, sensor, and so on. As a reminder, GoPro has recently returned to growth at a rather lower scale than at its peak, and is losing money as a result, so devices that can provide new revenue streams are critical to its future. The Fusion looks like one of the more unique products it’s launched in recent memory, but at the $699 price it’s not likely to sell in huge numbers, while the Hero6 will be a nice upgrade for some existing owners but not likely by itself to pull new people into the GoPro ecosystem, something the company has anyway been de-emphasizing as a goal.
Google Pulls YouTube from Amazon’s Echo Show Device (Sep 27, 2017)
Amazon announced last night that Google had pulled its YouTube app from the former’s Echo Show device, the company’s first screen-based voice speaker. YouTube was one of very few video options available on the Echo Show, with Amazon’s own Prime Video being the main alternative. YouTube videos would show up in response to certain searches, especially ones relating to video, and although I doubt anyone bought an Echo Show solely to use YouTube, losing it is a blow to the company. There’s a certain irony that this breach in the relationship between Amazon and Google has occurred in a week when we’ve seen signs of detente between each of these two companies and Apple, with Amazon again selling Apple TV hardware and Apple replacing Bing with Google as the search engine in Siri and OS-level search in its devices. I joked on Twitter that it’s almost as if there’s some universal equilibrium of big tech companies not playing nicely with each other that has to be maintained.
Of course, this is all part of the broader ongoing competitive dynamic between these various companies, which all need each other to varying degrees but often place limits on their interactions in areas where they can afford to do so. Though Amazon says the decision was unilateral and unexplained, Google said the implementation of YouTube on the Echo Show violated its terms of service, which makes you wonder whether the companies launched in a hurry and agreed to settle terms later, or whether Amazon simply built the YouTube app without Google’s input and hoped it wouldn’t mind. My guess is that the ToS violation in question here revolves around the lack of options for managing a YouTube account – I sent my Echo Show back after testing it for a review, but if I recall correctly, many of the standard YouTube features on other platforms were not available there, which was reflective of the Echo Show’s broad limitations on interactivity and functionality, something I pointed out in my review. YouTube was in some ways very much behind a platform wall which Amazon erected in front of it, and it seems Google finally decided it had had enough.
It’s worth remembering that Google and Amazon compete directly across several areas and have limited their cooperation in several others as a result: they compete in voice assistants and devices, for starters, but also in cloud services, in product search, in tablets (albeit indirectly), in grocery deliveries, in TV boxes, and so on. And as a result there have been limits to their cooperation – Amazon stopped selling Chromecast devices a while back and generally doesn’t participate in the Google Shopping feature alongside other major retailers, and appears to have resisted adding Chromecast features to its video apps. It’s possible that Google pulling YouTube was a way to exert pressure to get Amazon to sell Chromecast devices again as it has Apple TV devices – the timing likely isn’t coincidental. And Google certainly has far more leverage in this spat than Amazon – the Echo Show is a meaningless contributor to YouTube’s overall success, but the presence or absence of YouTube on the Echo Show is a much bigger deal for that device and its appeal. I don’t think Google will be in any hurry to settle the dispute unless it’s able to extract some concessions, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that includes Amazon selling Chromecasts again.
via The Verge
Facebook Signs Deal with NFL for Highlight Videos (Sep 26, 2017)
Given that the live TV rights for major US sports are pretty much all sewn up for years to come, the major online platforms have been relegated to pursuing other rights, including second-tier sports (and e-sports), sports rights outside the US, and meta content including highlights and sports-centric talk shows. The latest example of that comes from Facebook, which has paid the NFL for the right to show highlights to its users immediately after games end, as well as doing a deal for NFL-created shows for its new Watch tab for video. The highlights deal kicks in immediately and the overall contract is for two years. This feels like one of the more promising deals Facebook has signed – I’m really not convinced anyone wants to watch long-form sports (like pretty much all US sports with their massive ad loads) through a social network, but highlights seem much better suited to both mobile and social contexts, because they’re very shareable and digestible in small chunks. I already regularly see highlights from various sports in my Facebook feed, but they’re almost all videos from within articles hosted off Facebook – this deal would bring the content into the platform and therefore enable monetization through advertising. As I said yesterday in the context of YouTube’s enhancements, Facebook’s video ad tools are still very rudimentary in comparison, but at least it now has ways to show ads in videos. The challenge with highlights is going to be that they’re so short and so widely available, I wonder whether anyone will want to stick around beyond the mid-roll ad break.
FX, a division of 21st Century Fox, today announced a broadening of its FX+ add-on service for pay TV operators to Cox Communications’ pay TV subscribers, in addition to its existing partnership with Comcast. But in some ways more interesting were comments its head made about the network’s future approach to licensing content. In essence, FX has had to pay a lot of money to undo past deals which gave various other entities rights to its content so that it could put that content back on its own streaming service, and he says he doesn’t plan to make that mistake again. Netflix was singled out in particular as a streaming service FX had licensed content to in the past but wouldn’t again, and Netflix’s shares were down around 5% today seemingly as a result. All of this of course validates Netflix’s decision a number of years ago to invest much more heavily in its own original content, which has three major drivers of which hedging against such decisions was one of the big ones. Netflix needed to control its own destiny when it came to content, and there was always the risk that it would lose its licensing deals as it increased in popularity and power. I think the 5% drop based on comments from one content owner is likely overblown – there certainly wasn’t such a strong reaction to Disney’s recent pullback, at least not right away – and in general Netflix is in pretty good shape content-wise and retains some of FX’s most popular shows for now. FX, meanwhile is pursuing a very limited strategy with its add-on network, limiting it to pay TV subscribers rather than going after cord cutters, either independently or through Amazon’s powerful Channels product, which has driven lots of subscribers for similar packages. That feels like a mistake, and something FX should rectify sooner rather than later if it wants to reach a considerably larger potential base of customers.
Google has announced several new tools for advertisers using its platform to reach users with video ads, and they highlight just how sophisticated the YouTube ad platform is becoming, at a time when Facebook is still struggling with basic formats and helping creators tweak their video formats to work with its ad limitations. There are four parts to the YouTube announcement: custom affinity audiences, which allow advertisers to reach users based on profile-based interests including recent Google searches; customizing video ads by context on the fly using automation; stringing together multiple ads to tell a story or react to user responses; better online-to-offline attribution. To my mind, the custom video ads are the most interesting thing here – they allow advertisers to upload a set of assets and have the system automatically mix and match them to create ads that feel like they’re customized based on the video the user is watching. As this TechCrunch article points out, that’s likely to make the videos more memorable, but it may also cross the “creepy” line for some viewers, and that’s the risk all highly-targeted advertising takes. Various elements of what Google is announcing take advantage of its increasingly strong AI and machine learning techniques as well as the breadth of its tracking of users (for better or worse) across the various properties it owns, and the latter may in future be hampered by increasing limits on this kind of targeting which will come into effect in Europe soon.
Twitter Sells Enough Ads to Launch All Planned Live TV Shows (Sep 25, 2017)
It certainly wasn’t clear at the time Twitter made its big blitz of announcements around its live TV plans that some of the shows weren’t guaranteed to air if they didn’t get sufficient ad backing, but now that they have that backing, Twitter is apparently trumpeting that fact. Since many of the shows Twitter is hosting are existing properties which will come with ads from the original sources, Twitter likely didn’t have to sell that many ad slots itself in many cases. There certainly are some unique-to-Twitter shows, so it’s impressive that it’s sold enough ads on those too, but in many cases I’m guessing that spend is experimental – no-one really knows what kind of audiences most of these shows will attract, and the level of spending involved is likely small enough to fit into niche budgets (as Snapchat long did). The big question is whether, following the first few months of this experiment, those advertisers want to re-up and commit to additional shows and seasons. That will depend largely on a combination of viewership and engagement with the ads viewers see. We don’t have many figures for individual Twitter shows to go by, but we do know that just 55 million or 17% of monthly active users spent any time watching any live video on Twitter in Q2 of this year, so Twitter and its advertisers are clearly hoping that that translates into more committed audiences for specific shows in order to justify continued investment.
This AdAge report on BuzzFeed’s coming Twitter live morning show is long on facts and short on analysis but nonetheless provides some interesting detail. It sounds like the show will be roughly an hour long and focused on covering the day’s news in a fairly lightweight and Twitter-centric way, and will feature four two-minute ad breaks featuring 30-second commercials. Because it’s BuzzFeed there will also be some sponsored editorial content within episodes, and because it’s Twitter some of the ads and related content will also be parceled up as shorter-form content for the platform. This is all, of course, part of Twitter’s broad expansion into live video with many different partners, and a good test of whether people actually have the time and inclination to watch something like this on Twitter, which I suspect for most people is something they dip in and out of rather than something they have permanently “on” in the way they might do with Twitter. The time slot reference in the article is vague – it merely says 10am, but doesn’t state which time zone that refers to, while earlier articles had suggested an 8am slot, which would put it extremely early in western time zones. 10am ET would certainly make more sense, catching at least some of the country in the pre-work slot when they’re more likely to be able to watch a live show than when they get to work.
Fox and Twitter Partner Around New and Returning Shows (Sep 20, 2017)
Fox Television and Twitter have announced a partnership around new and returning shows, which will see some episodes as well as new content broadcast through Twitter’s live video platform. Empire, one of the most popular shows on broadcast TV, will have a live pre-show featuring interviews and other material broadcast live on Twitter, while another returning show, The Mick, will have a mini-marathon broadcast on Twitter, and new show Ghosted will have its premiere episode broadcast live on Twitter four nights running this week. It’s an interesting attempt to create buzz and additional audiences on Twitter around shows which are currently watched almost entirely through traditional channels and more established streaming services, and will serve as a good experiment for both companies. In a world where much of viewing is moving on-demand, forcing live streaming feels a little contrived, and I’m curious to see how viewers respond to that. The Mick marathon will be shown fairly late in the evening, while Ghosted will debut in an early evening slot on Twitter, presumably to avoid conflicting with Fox’s own primetime lineup, though the Ghosted premiere it precedes the network premiere by a week and a half. We’re going to see lots more of this kind of experimentation over the next little while, and I’m guessing much of it will fall flat, but no doubt some useful concepts will come out of it, and the fan-type shows like the one Fox and Twitter are building around Empire seem the likeliest to take off, both because they’re exclusive to the platform and because other networks have already run these successfully – notably AMC’s Talking Dead.
Last night’s Emmy awards once again provided an interesting set of insights into the winners and losers among both traditional and online streaming TV properties. HBO won the most overall awards with 29, while Netflix beat out the other streaming services with 20. Hulu did much better than in the past, almost entirely because of one show – The Handmaid’s Tale – which has been extremely well reviewed but may also have garnered additional favor by being deemed particularly relevant in today’s rather dystopian real-world political scene. That’s a huge coup for Hulu as Netflix has never won best drama, but it would be dangerous to read too much into it, given Hulu’s lack of past or broader success. Netflix won twice as many awards overall, including wins for multiple shows in different categories. Amazon, meanwhile, took away just two wins. In addition to HBO, NBC did well among the traditional TV companies, coming in third behind Netflix, while ABC, Fox, and CBS all took home single digit trophies. It still feels like HBO and Netflix are the real powerhouses when it comes to high-budget, high-quality TV, but the Hulu wins show that others in the streaming world aren’t being shut out entirely, which should be heartening to Apple and others coming into the game late but with big budgets and ambitions.