May 17, 2015

The Real Threat To Pay TV: Bad Customers Experience


Originally published at Digiday on May 13, 2015

Verizon’s recent posturing around the need for smaller, slightly less expensive bundles is a classic case of treating the symptoms not the cause. Because the real threat that Big TV is facing is the disconnect between the monthly cost and the perceived value of the customer experience they’re delivering. Right now, that experience, to put it mildly, stinks.

The bad experience starts when you turn on the TV to find something to watch. You go to the program guide, which has no rhyme or reason any sane person could figure out. Thanks to byzantine legacy deals, TV providers need to do things like make sure that CBS is Channel 2 (or 502 or 902) on the lineup because they were Channel 2 on the circa 1975 dial … and then make sure that’s the default home screen.

There are many ways to make the experience better — Comcast’s X1 system has managed to bring the set-top box interface into the 2010s— but unfortunately none of the other providers seem to realize how important this is. It stems, at some level, from the fact that they are in either a monopoly or duopoly situation and thus don’t have a whole lot of impetus to create a positive customer experience either on the set-top box or off: If you live in their region and you need video-capable broadband and/or pay TV, you don’t have any other options.

But imagine what consumer reaction to paying over $100 per month for pay TV plus broadband would be if they were actually given an elegant solution, something that felt like 2017 not 1997. Would they be complaining about too many channels … or not enough? What if the entire system (including video on demand and the DVR) was seamlessly integrated into their mobile apps the way Netflix is so they could move from room to room, device to device, without skipping a beat. What if customer service was a positive experience rather than a mine field filled with missed appointments, phone trees and hostile reps?

Or go one step further: what if discovery wasn’t limited to a wild goose chase around an antiquated program guide, enabled by hunt-and-peck typing with the remote control. What if there was a system that recommended shows based on prior behavior, that created a Watch List like the one on HBO Go, even sent out reminders when a new episode of a favorite show was available. (There are companies like Yidio, Jinni, ThinkAnalytics and NextGuide that are already doing some or all of this— the technology is out there, it just needs to be adopted.)

People would find the aforementioned system (and the responsive customer service that would need to go along with it) to be worth a fairly hefty price tag because it would feel like a high-end luxury service, one that many consumers could easily afford, one that touched their daily lives far more than other luxury good or service. It would dovetail nicely with the renewed emphasis on quality programming, where well-written, well-cast, well-reviewed shows are starting to outshine the morass of reality programming that has dominated the industry for the last 10 or 15 years. In short, it would feel like the medium was finally keeping up with the message and the second golden age of television would actually have a delivery system worthy of the content.


Buzzfeed Pounds It Out


Originally published at BRaVe Ventures

Buzzfeed has long been the bane of the traditional media world. The web upstart is, after all, the creator of the dreaded listicle and other slights against Western civilization. But just as Buzzfeed surprised the world (or at least that part of the world that works in media) with a recent spate of well-reported, well-conceived articles, they’re surprising a slightly different segment of that world with their unconventional take on data.

Unlike other web publishers who use data to make sure certain content only appears in front of certain audiences, Buzzfeed uses its data to fine tune its content so that it is sure to attract a specific demographic, who will then take it and share it across the web.

In order to enable this phenomenon, which puts me in mind of using certain species of wildflowers to attract butterflies, Buzzfeed has come up with a proprietary data analysis system called POUND (Process for Optimizing and Understanding Network Diffusion) a name I suspect was at created to annoy the same people who hate listicles.

What Pound does is track the path of Buzzfeed content across the various social media, providing insights as videos are shared on Twitter, texted, posted and otherwise spread across the world. By understanding these relationships (rather than just tracking them in silos on individual platforms) Buzzfeed gets a more complete view of its world and better insights into why and how its audience shares content.

This is a brilliant move in and of itself. But what makes it even more brilliant is that Buzzfeed uses it to enable the Butterfly Effect: by understanding their audiences , they can create articles and videos that will attract those audiences and not have to resort to showing different content to different users.

And that in turn enables serendipity and serendipity is the most important thing that’s missing from our hypertargeted digital world.

Serendipity means that while I may be a monarch butterfly, one day I may decide to watch a video intended for an arrowhead blue. I may wind up loving it and sharing it and learning all about something I would have missed if I’d been only been reading articles that had been targeted to me. That sort of discovery is so incredibly important and if Pound lets Buzzfeed enable it, then I’m more than willing to overlook the name.

Data can be a creativity crippler but it can also be a creativity enabler. It’s all in how we use it, all in how we interpret it. Using data as a tool to enable serendipity, which in turn rewards creativity, is a positive use for data, something we should always be aware of as we rely more and more on statistics to decide what and how we create.


Ostriching Their Way Through INTX


Originally published at BRaVe Ventures

Wedged between the newfronts and the upfronts, it’s easy to forget about the Cable Show, (newly rechristened INTX — Internet and Television Expo.)  But some of what went down in Chicago last week bears analyzing as it’s indicative of greater trends in the industry.

The biggest trend we’re seeing is something we’ll call “ostriching” — MVPDs and networks burying their heads in the sand and pretending that massive changes aren’t happening all around them.

Evidence? Comcast’s announcement that they were adding voice activation to their remote control was greeted as if they’d announced remotes with mind control. Voice activation is a nice feature, to be sure, but it’s already available on Amazon’s Fire TV and on Roku. And while it may rate a big shrug, what’s even more telling is that none of the other MVPDs are even close to Comcast when it comes to revamping their circa 1997 set top box interfaces.

That may well be because they’re planning on outsourcing them to the likes of Roku and Apple— Comcast is the only MVPD that’s still embracing the set top box. But it’s still another year of slapping the consumer in the face with the dual whammy of overpriced packages and underwhelming service.


The MVPDs were far more concerned with throwing FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler some shade for his stand on Net Neutrality. Acting more like Regina George and her clique from Mean Girls than a bunch of C-level executives, the MVPDs made sure to call out Wheeler for his stance on the net neutrality issue every chance they could.

Let’s examine that one a little deeper too: if all net neutrality is about is making sure that large companies can’t pay to ensure upstart competitors have slower connections, why would the MVPDs be so adamantly against that? It’s like being against puppies.

The short answer is that net neutrality in the MVPDs eyes is about letting big media companies pay for dedicated fast lanes which does not translate to everyone else being in the slow lane. It just means that if there ever is a slow lane, the guys who paid won’t be in it, not that the MVPDs are expecting any sort of slow lane, mind you.

So that’s issue one. Issue two is a bit deeper: the MVPDs fear that all this posturing about net neutrality is step one on the road to a situation that ends in them losing their monopoly over broadband in the US. That is, of course, the underlying issue around net neutrality, why it is that one company can effectively control access to the internet.

And the solution to that issue of course, is to create a situation where that’s no longer the case, where no one has a monopoly on access to broadband. That may happen through government intervention or through the development of an alternate access mode (super LTE.) But for now the MVPDs are guarding their position fiercely as they realize that “we want to hold on to our monopoly” is not going to be a very popular position. Ever.

As for the networks, they were more or less silent during INTX, keeping announcements to a minimum and letting the MVPDs hog all the glory. It may just be that they’re saving everything for the upfronts this week and we can’t say we blame them: if you’re a network, the upfronts matter a lot more than the Cable Show. Which is why we’ll be covering the upfronts, providing you with BRaVe insights throughout the week.


The Newfronts Blend Into The Upfronts and No One Bats An Eye

 
Originally published at BRaVe Ventures 

 Meet the Newfronts. They’re the same as the Upfronts. And maybe that’s the way it should be. The division between network television, over the top television and online video is an artificial one, based on fifty year old business models, not on the way that consumers currently watch video programming. 

But since they’re the ones paying the bills, perhaps we should pay attention to them. If the newfronts and the upfronts are any indication, the networks and MCNs already do seem to be paying attention. They may not be ready to admit that they’ve been listening, but the evidence indicates they are. 

Slowly but surely they’ve been changing, shifting what’s important and emphasizing the assets that will be important in the years ahead. So while everyone was talking (again) about “reach” that wasn’t the real story at this years shows, which is that everyone from networks to MCNs to hybrids like Hulu is starting to adjust to the new reality. 

There are four pillars to the new ecosystem that’s starting to form within this new reality and each one will help to shape the future of television. 

Data
 The first pillar is data and this is probably the most important of the four. Years of relying on imperfect Nielsen data put the television industry in data avoidance mode. Yet data is the key to so many decisions: programming choices, audience acquisition and retention plays, targeted advertising. Everyone was talking about data this year, from long-established broadcast networks to just-formed MCNs and the story was the same: the more we know, the better decisions we can make, the more that benefits everyone involved. 

Content
The second pillar is content. Quality content to be specific. With the rise of binge viewing, studios and showrunners all realized that their shows could have a long tail. That high quality shows that resonated could now look forward to attracting audiences for 10, 20, 30 years and that like movies, well done TV series could become classics. This realization resonated throughout the entire ecosystem as streaming players like Hulu announced additional investments in original content, TNT and TBS promised a major content upgrade and MCNs plussed up the production values of their web series. 

Social
The third pillar of the new TV universe is social. MCNs have long known the value of social media as their stars rack up millions of fans across multiple platforms, providing a ready made audience for their videos and, as stars like AwesomenessTV’s Cameron Dallas have shown, their movies. Traditional TV is fast catching up as studios and showrunners are beginning to see the value that authentic second screen content and social interactions can bring and how they can help build audiences (particularly among the #massivepassives) while providing valuable data for programming decisions as well. That’s why everyone was announcing their social plays like Turner’s Sociology, a tool that provides advertisers with social data, insights and optimization around branded content. 

#CreatedWith
As viewers get used to watching more and more TV without any advertising (thank you, Reed Hastings) it gets harder and harder to get them to suffer through blocks of interruptive advertising. That’s why #createdwith content — branded content that’s created with talent from MCNs and television— has become more and more popular. #CreatedWith content feels more like entertainment than advertising and thus the creators don’t sound like shills. Many major brands are jumping on the #CreatedWith bandwagon as are programmers: Hulu even introduced their own version of branded content created in conjunction with stars of their original series. It’s a win for everyone: brands, networks, talent and the folks at home. 

Verizon/AOL
The Verizon/AOL merger landed smack dab in the middle of the upfronts and temporarily stole some of the thunder from the networks. As well it should have. While many in the media dismissed AOL as a leftover from the Clinton era, it has, as we pointed out, transformed itself into an ad tech powerhouse. What’s more, AOL’s deals with the likes of NBCU  and Verizon’s deal with Awesomeness.tv gives the combine organization a range of content to offer viewers, everything from short form to long form to binge bait, which is exactly what the people want: a range of options, all available through the same provider. That is the future and a perfect synthesis of what we saw coming out of both the newfronts and the upfronts. 

The (r)evolution is here. Viewership habits have changed forever and the people who produce the programming, whether they are networks or MCNs or somewhere in between, are starting to change along with them.  Stay tuned.


May 13, 2015

Verizon's AOL Deal Is So Money And The Media Still Doesn't Know It

Co-written with Jesse Redniss and originally published at www.braveventures.com.

The media has been doing a lot of snickering about Verizon’s purchase of AOL today, because, after all, who actually admits to watching something on AOL or even knowing what’s on there. It’s all so 1998.
Media types may not watch AOL but clearly someone is: over 65 million Americans to be exact. In fact, when it comes to video, Comscore consistently shows AOL a not-too-distant third behind YouTube and Facebook, a fact not unnoticed by ad buyers. While it may not be sexy, it is the future of TV, which isn't about "shows" but about great stories both long and short form, something AOL has in spades.
While the perception may be that AOL is stuck in the “You’ve Got Mail” days (note the number of headlines that will pun off of this today), the reality is quite different: AOL is a sleek 21st century media company that has wide-ranging content deals with everyone from the very successful millennial-focused MCN AwesomenessTV to NBC to the Huffington Post to dozens of other niche creators. It’s that range that makes them so strong: AOL covers a broad spectrum of demos which not only enables consumer choice (do I want to snack on video or do I want a full meal),  it also gives advertisers the breadth and depth they want for better, more focused targeting.
Which is really what the AOL deal is all about: targeting. If there’s an audience segment you want to reach, you can find them on AOL. And if you want a way to deliver it, they’ve got that covered too.
You see, while no one was looking, AOL made the transition from chat room organizer to ad tech powerhouse. With first quarter revenue from their ad tech units well north of $200 million. AOL has bought up a number of technologies like Adap.tv, AdLearn Open Platform, Vidible, Gravity and Convertro, which they’ve recently relaunched under the One by AOL moniker, giving advertisers an end-to-end solution across multiple screens.
Verizon, on the other hand, has a way to serve that up, via its VDMS (Verizon Digital Media Services, a content and ad delivery system that competes with the likes of Brightcove and the Platform.) And while VDMS has yet to live up to its potential, combining that platform with AOL’s ad tech services gives Verizon the ability to serve up ads to whatever segment you want to reach.
That’s just on desktop. The problem AOL, Yahoo and other web-based services have run into is that more and more views are coming via mobile and mobile means no cookies. No cookies means all that sexy ad tech software is pretty much useless, which is where Verizon comes in: as the nation’s largest mobile provider, they have all sorts of data about mobile usage, including the ability to track user identity across devices, which can make those ad tech platforms useful again. 
While the tech is clearly driving this deal, it’s AOL’s content play that make it all the more interesting,  particularly if Verizon is planning on using all this new AOL content in its upcoming V-POP (Virtual Pay-TV Operator) play.
Oh right, that.
Verizon’s V-POP is more than just a rumor, it’s something the company has actually announced it’s planning on rolling out sometime this summer and if you look under the hood, the pieces are all there for a really kick-ass system.
There’s the UX piece that they have from OnCue, the failed Intel V-POP they bought last January. There’s the distribution piece from their mobile network (we’re thinking video watched over the Verizon V-POP is exempt from bandwidth caps.) And now there’s the additional content, both short and long form, that they get from AOL to supplement the network content they’ll negotiate through FIOS. 
The combination of short and long form content reflects the way people watch video now: a two minute clip on the phone while you’re waiting for an appointment, a sixty minute show at home on the big screen TV. And it’s baffling to viewers why the same company can’t provide them with all of this, why they have to switch inputs, switch apps to go from one to the other.
A fully integrated experience is where the future is going as it gives viewers the option of choosing their own experience, sort of like a Sleep Number mattress: everyone can get the exact bundle they want with the right mix of short and long form content. (Remember Verizon’s recent pick-your-own-bundle fiasco? While ESPN and NBC certainly weren’t happy, the notion of “dialing in” the perfect bundle might just be the secret sauce behind Verizon’s new V-POP service.)
So let’s review what we have here: a strong tech play that boosts the value of AOL’s ad tech products by giving them some much needed mobile juju.  A strong content play that may form the nucleus of the upcoming Verizon V-POP’s broader content strategy. A dial-your-own content bundling option.
Looks like a win from here.


May 5, 2015

Periscope Up, Set Torpedoes To Stun The Media Market


It’s all about the headline folks, but here’s the real punchline: if you logged onto Periscope or Meerkat during the Mayweather/Pacquiao fight this weekend, you were greeted by the sight of dozens of live streams of a fight many people paid $100 to watch.

That’s right: someone paid $100, and then out of some Robin Hood-esque sense of fairness, the desire to grow their follower base, a misguided notion of sticking it to the man or maybe even some “Hey, let’s turn this on and see what happens” hijinks, some of the fans who’d paid $100 for the HD broadcast on PayPerView turned on their smartphones and broadcast the event to tens of thousands of other people who didn’t pay $100 for the privilege.


Some of the more popular Periscope streams had close to 10,000 viewers. Meerkat, which was the night’s clear runner-up, was running closer to 3,000.

Either way, there were a lot of people pirating the boxing match which equated to a whole lot of copyright violations going on.

So should HBO and Showtime, who hosted the PPV event and whose revenues stand to be affected be concerned?

Absolutely. AsAdAge reported today, during the night of the fight, copyright holders sent Perisciope 66 takedown requests and only 30 of them were removed. But should the onus here be on the copyright holders to monitor and send in requests?

Aswe pointed out when YouTube quietly shut down Katch a few weeks ago, the platform provider needs to make a concerted effort to monitor the content they are hosting and proactively shut down streams that are clearly in violation of their Terms of Service. This is the very reason YouTube spent nearly a decade in corporate litigation with Viacom, and why they are now extremely diligent in monitoring the YouTube universe with their Content ID system.

Based on the reporting that only 30 streams were shut down, Periscope could have done a much better job to identify the offending streams. The process is simple: use searchable key terms and concurrent video load alerts to identify high demand streams, manually check them out and then shut them down… by hand using humans… without having to wait for a takedown notice from the copyright holder, a notice that’s particularly futile as streams are only live for 24 hours and the appeal is watching them in real time.

Which brings us back to the headline: during the early days of social and UGC, big media lawyers spent a great deal of time trying to get comfortable with a myriad of issues such as Privacy Policy, Rights Management, Copyright Infringement, Trademark Infringement and Fair Use.

And now, thanks to live streaming, we have a Meerkat in a coal mine.


Because all these live streams create a new wave of legal and broadcast rights issues that we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of. And the answer is going to be a lot trickier than it ever was for tweets and Facebook posts.

How are we ever going to track and compensate these athletes, musicians and rights holders for all of the streamed performances once they go big time? On top of that, what’s going to happen once anyone tries to monetize these platforms?

Imagine what would happen if Jared Leto, one of the most popular casters was at the Meadowlands and decided to start casting a Jets game along with Gary Vaynerchuk, another popular caster (and big time Jets fan.) Combined, the two of them could drive a considerable audience to their streams. What if Periscope started running ads against those streams… Who owns that revenue? How is it tracked? How furious (and litigious) would the NFL be, let alone CBS, ESPN and NBC?

It’s not just about advertising. The PGA Tour had a meltdown this week when Stephanie Wei, a well-regarded blogger, Periscoped the tour’s golden boy Jordan Speith taking some practice rounds. This is not footage anyone would ever broadcast, but the PGA reacted as if Wei had drilled a peephole into the locker room: they’ve banned her from the tour for the rest of the year.

The question here is who owns that footage. The PGA says that anything that happens on the tour is their intellectual property, even if it never would have made it on air. The very fact that it could have made it on air is enough. Wei and her supporters (who boosted #FreeWei to trending Twitter status) contend that they are just enhancing the overall experience and driving more fans to the main event. But that just raises a larger question: since Wei is a “journalist” does she get a free pass? What if a couple hundred fans were Periscoping that practice round? Would that make it different?

The controversies are only going to continue as more and events from sports to concerts to court proceedings are live streamed without the “express written consent” of the people who own the rights to the event. It’s a huge boon for anyone specializing in media and copyright issues and it’s sure to spur a number of court cases challenging everyone from Twitter to fans to rights holders for years to come.

However it shakes out, one thing is clear: social and mobile based live streaming is here to stay. But, Twitter is sailing in deadly waters, do they really want to use Periscope to seek out their next battle with the major media companies?


Originally published at www.braveventures.com and co-written with Jesse Redniss


May 1, 2015

The Sleeping Giant: Hulu Finally Wakes Up.




Hulu has always been the Jon Snow of streaming services: the bastard child of three of the four biggest networks that always had a lot of potential if it could ever figure out just what it wanted to be.

And like the erstwhile commander of Game of Thrones Knight’s Watch, it seems that Hulu is finally coming into its own. At this week’s upfronts, the service unveiled a number of deals that seem likely to clarify its value proposition for consumers, though there is still work to be done to make that proposition bulletproof.

The deal getting the most buzz was the acquisition of all nine seasons of Seinfeld for a sum larger than the gross national product of several developing nations. This will allow a whole new generation to binge watch the show that reinvented the sitcom, helping Hulu to become masters of their domain. With Friends now on Netflix and a Clinton running for President, the ‘90s synergy will be even more intense.


Hulu made a number of other substantive moves this week too:

•They dropped the “Plus”from HuluPlus (but not the $7.99 monthly fee…or the commercials)

•Struck an exclusive deal with AMC to stream the highly regarded networks’new shows.

•Announced Difficult People, a buzzy new series produced by SNL alum Amy Poehler and starring social media savvy Billy On The Street star (and fellow Stuyvesant alum) Billy Eichner.

•Obtained rights to Stephen King’s 11.23.63, which is to become a series from Lost creator J.J. Abrams starring James Franco.

•Cut a deal with Cablevision whereby Cablevision will sell Hulu subscriptions dirctly to its customers.

Not a bad day.


On the other hand, there are times where it seems like Hulu still knows nothing.

They have yet to do an even workmanlike job of explaining the value of the service formerly known as Hulu Plus. What exactly does the viewer get for their $7.99 month? (The answer is not too shabby: access to the full current season stack for shows on ABC, NBC and Fox, a hefty back catalog of shows from those same networks, movies, and the full seasons of Hulu’s expanding original content. But how many current subscribers actually know that, let alone potential ones.)

Then there are the commercials. It’s only natural for viewers to wonder why they’re paying for a subscription and still seeing ads, something that doesn’t happen on Netflix or Amazon. Here again, Hulu has done a poor job of communicating the reason why to subscribers and making the whole experience seem less onerous.

One adjustment we’d strongly recommend as a way to ameliorate some of that ill will is for Hulu to stop running commercials during their original programming, especially now that they’ve got series on deck that are certain to be buzzed about.

These series will be competing for mindshare with shows from HBO, Showtime, Netflix and Amazon. None of which have commercials. If Hulu wants consumers to view their programming the same light as the other premium networks, then they need to make them feel similar and the experience of watching a show without commercial interruptions is unique and creates the sense that the program is special. Hulu needs to do this with their original series too — if nothing else, it answers the consumer question of “so what exactly am I getting for my seven dollars a month?”

That’s a question Cablevision customers will be asking now too, as the cable giant begins selling Hulu subscriptions directly to its customers. One less bill to hassle with is an answer, but not a particularly compelling one. It’s unclear what the Cablevision deal will look like: will Hulu be packaged with HBO Now and other streaming services in a broadband double play aimed at cord cutters/nevers? Or will it be integrated into the Cablevision program guide so that viewers can watch the service without having to locate the remote and switch inputs, one of the more annoying aspects of watching streaming services via the current MVPD system.

As this year’s upfront showed, Hulu is definitely beginning to forge its own identity and define what it is, not what it’s not. With a few tweaks and a few hit shows, it should provide Netflix and Amazon with a formidable competitor.


Originally published at www.braveventures.com.


Apr 30, 2015

Time To Step Away From The Buzzwords

There’s a very funny video (below) making the rounds from Defy Media that mocks the new fronts. And while much of it is over the top, there’s a lot that’s true and the industry definitely needs to cut through all the bullshit and buzzwords about “snackable content” and more clearly explain the superior value proposition behind #CreatedWith content.

#CreatedWith operates under the premise that brands are forgoing the in your face product shill of old. Instead, they are identifying the passion points of their audience, embracing the storytellers, creators and celebrities who might be associated with the brand. They’re not creating the old school endorsement, hold up the package and smile, but actually making something entertaining in the creator’s own voice that seamlessly (and more effectively) promotes the brand.
That’s a strong value proposition and one that’s much easier accomplished with the new legion of video stars who have a much more personal connection with their audiences than old school Hollywood celebrities. They’re not just available on YouTube, but on a range of social media outlets from Twitter to Snapchat where the person engaging with the fans is the creator themselves… not some hired PR flack or social media intern. The difference, and the resulting level of authenticity is tremendous and it’s why smart brands are looking to #CreateWith influencers rather than #RentOut celebrities.
That authenticity is what makes #CreatedWith content so powerful: viewers feel they are getting an endorsement from a trusted friend, not a hired shill. They also get to watch something that’s enjoyable, the sort of content they actively seek out, not thirty seconds worth of sales-speak, no matter how cleverly crafted.
As we move through the new fronts, we’d love to see the companies that are best able to enable #CreatedWith content — whether they are publishers, portals or MCNs — put that front and center as the reason why advertisers should pay attention to them. Yes there are many “eyeballs” and pre and post roll ads get a lot of views. But the real value proposition, that one that makes digital video so appealing right now, is the ability to enable #CreatedWith content and get it in front of people who won’t just passively watch it but will actively engage with it, share it and take its message to heart.
That’s a lot more effective than a clever TV spot and a whole passel of buzzwords. #CreatedWith — the only buzzword you ever need. How’s that for a tagline?
Originally published at www.braveventures.com