Oct 1, 2014

It's All About The Showrunners

For all the debate around who should be in charge of second screen and social TV efforts, one thing is becoming very clear: the key to success rests with the showrunners.

That’s because when the showunner is involved, along with the actors and the writing staff, it seems like the second screen experience is an actual part of the show, not some sort of bolted-on afterthought. In fact, a recent study from Twitter, Fox and the Advertising Research Foundation revealed that 40% of viewers prefer to see tweets from cast members versus 18% who wanted to see tweets from the official show handle.

This stands to reason on many levels: the type of viewer who is fan enough to want to tweet about a show is the type of viewer who’s likely formed some sort of connection with the actors and wants to read their tweets. It gives the sense of having a conversation with the actor and if the actor responds to or favorites a tweet, even better.

But success is dependent on more than just a cast that’s willing to tweet: it depends on having a long-term, well-planned strategy that takes more than just Twitter into account. Depending on the type of program and the type of audience it’s aimed at, the production company needs to have thought out everything from how the show translates on a gaming platform (as an actual video game), what sort of content to feature for behind-the-scenes, backstory or alternative story lines, how to film all of it, when and why and then of course figure out who is going to supervise all of it.

It’s a lot more complicated than just pulling together a couple of stills for the website and letting an intern wander around with a camera shooting “behind the scenes” footage.

But it’s worth it because when it’s done right it feels authentic and even more importantly, it feels organic— like everything is a part of the same show.

It’s worth it because the people who watch the show months, maybe even years, after it first airs are going to want a way to engage with the show, to talk about it, learn about it, to essentially recreate the water cooler chatter they long missed out on. And the strength of that second screen engagement is going to play a big role in propelling them from watching just one episode to watching the entire series

It’s worth it because second screen creates an additional advertising platform and thus an additional revenue stream, which more than makes up for the time and effort spent on creating that second screen experience.

But it’s got to start with the showrunners. Third party apps and network apps have their place, but they’re only as good (and desirable) as the content that’s on them. If the experiences around the shows are things fans want to engage with, then they’ll take off. But if it’s just IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes and a Twitter feed, that says “we don’t really care about you” and fans will take their loyalty to a show whose second screen experience indicates that they actually do care about their fans.

Your call showrunners.

Sep 2, 2014

Big Changes Afoot

A whole bunch of exciting changes this month. The main ones being that I am leaving Piksel to relaunch my own consulting service and that as of today, I am taking over as Chairman of the 2nd Screen Society.

The parting with Piksel was quite amicable— they are actually one of my first clients— but there’s just so much going in the Future TV space, it seemed like the right time to pursue some of the opportunities I'd been seeing. I’ll be offering a range of consulting services to companies in the media and entertainment industries through Toad Stool Consultants. The primary focus will be on digital/future strategy, product marketing and thought leadership. You can see the complete list here.

One of those great opportunities I was referring to is that I am taking over as Chairman of the 2nd Screen Society. (Chuck Parker becomes Chairman Emeritus.) There’s a real revolution happening in the broader 2nd screen space with social TV, multiscreen and everything in between, and S3 will play a crucial role in helping this nascent industry gain traction. Among the ways we'll be doing that is by introducing standards, by getting both content creators and advertisers more involved and by promoting the actual success stories our members now have. It’s thrilling to be riding this wave of change as it becomes more and more mainstream-- I have been very involved in the 2nd Screen Society since its inception and the people who run it are incredibly smart, passionate and (most importantly) just plain good people.

So I’m really looking forward to hitting the ground running.

The final announcement for this morning (and one that should come as no surprise to many of you) is that I’ve written a book about the TV industry and it’s due out later this fall. Called Over The Top: How The Internet Is (Slowly But Surely) Changing The Television Industry it’s comprised of three sections. The first details the current business relationships in the TV industry: who pays who for what, why and when. The second section deals with the changes currently buffeting the industry, everything from the rise of binge viewing to streaming services like Netflix to second screen and social TV to the empowerment of fan communities. 
The final section are my predictions about where we’ll wind up in the next ten years and why it’s a lot better than where we are now.

Writing the book chewed up much of my evenings and weekends over the past six months, but it's finally done and I’ll be sure to keep everyone posted on the publication date.

Thank you all for your support these past 7+ years and I look forward to having you along on the next part of the journey.

Aug 28, 2014

The Mobile Web Still Matters. A Lot.

The mobile web only seems like an anachronism. Because seriously, who actually opens up Safari or Chrome on their phone and goes searching for a website, particularly one that already has an app.

I say “seems” because the thing about those apps, particularly the ubiquitous ones like Facebook and Twitter is that any link you find in them gets opened up in either the app’s own browser… or in Safari or Chrome. So a New York Times article found on mobile Facebook gets opened in a mobile browser. Not the New York Times app. Ditto video. In fact the more popular an article or a video is (see how I successfully avoided the “c” word there), the more likely it is to be seen via the mobile web.

That’s why it’s so important for sites to be optimized and designed for the mobile web. No matter how many smartphone apps they have. Because until Facebook agrees to link to your iPhone app, you’re going to have millions of Facebook users watching on their iPhone’s Safari browser. And if the experience is suboptimal, you’re the one getting dinged. Not Facebook. Not Apple. Not Safari.

It’s an obvious thing, but I’m always surprised by how many times I hear people say “but we already have an app” as they dismiss the need for a well-done mobile website, particularly for video-heavy sites. No quicker way to lose your audience than ignoring the mobile web.

Aug 25, 2014

HBO GO: Still Not Netflix

Last week Barclays analyst Kannan Venkateshwar put together a report that attempted to show the various ways HBO GO could launch as a web service and impact Time Warner’s market cap without destroying the network’s extremely profitable relationship with the MVPDs.

Venkateshwar laid out two possible scenarios:

  • An $11/month option that forces digital-only subscribers to wait for a six-month window before being able to watch new shows. (This offers a $4/month discount from the $15/month the average MVPD charges for HBO.) He assumes that 20% of HBO’s current audience would cut the cord if this model was available.
  • A web-only version with no windows that sells for a premium price of $18/month and is aimed at people who don’t currently have HBO or pay TV.

He assumes that HBO could make $600 million revenue by launching both these options simultaneously.

It’s a premise that makes for good headlines, but I don’t see it working for a number of reasons.
  1. The Cost Factor: Netflix, for $9/month, has thousands more movies, hundreds more TV shows. In comparison, both proposed versions of HBO Go look pretty light, especially the “full” version at double Netflix price.
  2. The Homeland Factor: HBO and Showtime are usually bundled together. So HBO benefits every time someone decides they want to watch “Homeland.” That also means viewers aren’t all that aware of how much HBO costs on its own via their MVPD, and it makes the paying for both HBO and Showtime into a much more expensive proposition. While HBO is more popular than Showtime, I’m not sure how many viewers are willing to drop the latter for a marginally better experience on the former.
  3. The Hassle Factor: HBO would have to set up a billing system and track down millions of dollars every month. Similarly, viewers would have yet another bill to keep track of and pay every month. While this doesn’t sound like a deal breaker, it’s one more factor that would keep people from making the switch.
  4. The Cheapness Factor: It’s not the $15/month for HBO that’s got people concerned about their cable bills, it’s the other $150 worth of other charges. Given the ease-of-use HBO currently provides pay TV customers with both linear TV and HBO GO, it’s going to be a tough sell to get them to excise just HBO from their cable bills…. especially if the resulting service isn’t superior to what they have or (more importantly) any less money. Cutting the cord and keeping HBO is certainly an option, but I suspect that HBO fans also enjoy watching AMC, ESPN and other networks that require a pay TV subscription. What’s far more likely is that if HBO chose to go it alone, the MVPDs would roll out variations on the low-cost basic cable + HBO packages that Comcast, Verizon and others tested last year.
  5. The Watercooler Factor: I’m still trying to wrap my head around the audience for 6 month old HBO content at a savings of $4/month. People who’ll pay money to watch HBO want to watch their shows live— or at least close to live— so they won’t be left out of the water cooler buzz (real or digital) around shows like Game of Thrones. Waiting six months to join the conversation seems counterintuitive.
While it seems logical to the digerati that HBO Go should be unbundled, the realities of the marketplace make it highly unlikely, at least in the near future. Right now, the prospect of going direct to consumer is a good negotiating tactic for HBO to use with the MVPDs, but the audience for such a product seems rather limited.

Aug 19, 2014

The Internet Isn’t Beating Television, It’s Becoming It

A number of articles this week trumpeted that fact that US cable companies now make more money off broadband subscriptions than they do off pay-TV subscriptions. “The Internet Is Officially More Popular Than Cable In The US” crowed Wired. 

Not so fast cowboy.

The internet is very quickly becoming television and vice versa. IPTV, which is delivered via digital signals is on its way to becoming the default. And as we discussed last week, what is the real difference between a linear broadcast watched on an iPad in the bedroom and that same broadcast watched via a set top box in the den? (A lot, if you’re the people keeping track of digital rights issues, but the bigger question is why should it be?)

Then there’s Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Yahoo, AOL and everyone else creating high production quality long-form programming that’s only available via a streaming service. Does that count as the internet, television or something in between? 

Video On Demand (VOD) is going to be delivered on a variety of devices, some tethered to a set top box, others available via wifi. Which brings up the question of whether HBO Go is the internet or if it’s television.

The TV Industrial Complex isn’t going anywhere. If anything, it’s expanding into more places than ever. Including the internet. 

Aug 17, 2014

In Defense Of Authenticity

I’ve been helping a friend tune up a social media profile this past month and I often find myself reciting things the social media pros call “best practices” only to find my friend rebelling and telling me “that’s not me, Alan. I sound like a shill.”

Sometimes I push back because there’s a part of me that argues that sounding like a shill is relative and that at worst, my friend will be at about 5% of the level of the biggest shills in the industry.

But then I remember being on the other side of that coin and I stop pushing. Because whether it’s for a friend or for myself, there’s nothing more valuable than authenticity.

Authenticity is personal and everyone has their own level of what it looks like. For me it’s always meant staying true to my unique writing style and to my innate blend of optimism and skepticism.

So to begin with, I’ll never drink the Kool-Aid. Never gush like a 12 year-old Justin Bieber fan about the newest app or tactic or piece of hardware. Unless I really do think it’s awesome. And even then there are caveats. Because there are always caveats. Things that could go wrong. Things that could go better than expected. Things we just don’t know and need to stop pretending we do. And it’s the role of the analyst to point those things out.

That sort of stance seems to shock people, and time and again I’m surprised to hear that something I thought was even-handed and common-sensical is being branded “bold” or “controversial.” As if the truth were bold and controversial. But it's not in me to pretend otherwise and you'll never hear me do so.

I don’t engage in social niceties on social media either. At least not the sort of social niceties the punditocracy swears by. Like ending posts and tweets with “what do you think?”

I cringe when I see those lines. An actual physical reaction. Because nothing feels quite as forced and heavy-handed. I’ve worked with publicists and gurus over the years who’ve tried to persuade me to add them and except in moments of great personal weakness, I’ve refused. I get that asking a question brings greater engagement and all that— I’ve no doubt it does. But it’s just not me. I don’t offer topics for debate, I write what I’m feeling and the comments I get are from people who feel strongly enough about what I wrote to want to respond to me. Which is never going to hinge on whether I ended the post with “What do you think?”

Now the reason I’m laying all this out isn't to brag about what a reckless bad boy I’ve been but rather to rally the troops back to the cause.

Because if everyone starts to sound the same, if every blast on social media ends with “what do you think?," if every post religiously adheres to some ninja’s “5 Ways To Conect With Your Audience," if every piece of "content" (and you all know how much I loathe that word) sounds like it was cooked up in the same corporate kitchen, then who can blame audiences for tuning it all out? For not believing a word of it? For not caring?

Authenticity is more than a word: it’s an attitude, a belief system, a way of doing just about anything and everything. Whether you’re a person or a corporation or a fictional character. It’s always unique and it's always consistent. No matter where you find it.

Those voices that manage to remain authentic are the voices that resonate, the ones that stand out, the ones that inspire, the ones that anger.

The ones that never have to ask “so what do you think?”

Aug 12, 2014

Video: Still Not Dead? Debating The Future of Pay-TV

I've been neglectful about uploading this to the Toad Stool. It's a really well shot video of a debate we had in June at the always wonderful TV of Tomorrow Show in San Francisco.

The Cast:

Team TV Is Alive:
Ashley Swartz, Furious Minds
Hardie Tankersley, Fox TV
Jeremy Toeman, Viggle

Team TV Is Dead:
Mark Ely, Simple TV
Janko Roettgers, GigaOm
Seth Shapiro, New Amsterdam Media

Aug 7, 2014

The Black Screen Of Death: Failure To Create A Workable TV Everywhere Advertising Model

If you’ve ever tried to watch live programming on your MVPDs TV Everywhere app, you’ve no doubt encountered the Black Screen Of Death: 180 or 240 seconds worth of black screen with the words “Ad Break” in a poorly designed supertitle. No music or other sound effects. Not even a network logo.

At which point I’d have to assume that somewhere upwards of 80% of viewers decide that the app must be broken and walk away from it, many never to return.

I was discussing this last night with my friend Hardie Tankersley, Vice President, Digital Platforms and Innovation at Fox, and we came to the conclusion that there are multiple factors at play, none of which are easily solvable at the current time.

Let’s take a look:

  1. The Networks want Advertisers to pay extra for TV Everywhere (TVE) views: the networks view in-home iPad views as an additional digital impression the advertiser has not paid for and they want extra money for those extra impressions.
  2. Advertisers don’t want to pay for those TVE views: Advertisers feel that TVE is still not easily or accurately measured (at least not by Nielsen) and so they don’t believe the networks or MVPDs can come up with a fair price.
  3. Even if the networks decided to run the ads for free on TVE, there are still myriad additional rights issues: At present, commercials viewed on an iPad, even via a TVE app that’s streaming the same live TV as the set top box, are considered to be “online” or digital views, at least in terms of rights issues. And if the advertiser did not originally buy online rights (and pay the actors, directors and production companies accordingly) they will have to renegotiate those contracts and pay up, a process that’s sure to cost them way more than the value of the ad buy.
  4. Even if the networks decided to sell the unclaimed TVE inventory as a digital-only buy, there just aren’t a whole lot of takers. Not many national advertisers are interested in buying spots on an MVPD TVE app and the networks don’t want to start selling to third-tier advertisers during their prime time programming as this would tarnish the value of their traditional TV advertising spots.  So what happens is the TV Everywhere apps wind up with a small handful of ads that run over and over and over again, as painfully demonstrated by BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield in this video.
  5. Even if the network decided to run a promo instead of a black screen, they just don’t have that many promos. Promos aren’t timeless— they’re usually made for upcoming episodes of specific shows. So the network doesn’t typically have the inventory to run a varied array of promos— the six spots they have available to them may fill up the first commercial block but then what? And then, of course, there are those pesky rights issues again: if they’re on the TVE app, those promos are now being run online and that may necessitate additional talent payments.

So what’s the solution?

Act like an 8 year old. Don’t distinguish between screens, at least not inside the home. So that a live TV view on an iPad or Xbox is treated the same as a live TV view on the family room TV both in terms of audience measurement and rights. This will, of course, require Nielsen, or someone similar to implement a measurement system that works seamlessly across all the various devices and for the legal teams of all the interested parties to agree that in-home TVE views are not online views, at least for rights purposes. Once that’s in place, it should be smooth sailing for TV Everywhere, only there’s no guarantee either of those developments will take place anytime soon.