May 22, 2015

It’s The Newfronts vs The Upfronts And No One Wins

Originally published at TV(R)ev

It’s almost comical. Watching executives from both networks and MCNs up on stage gloating about how no one really watches the other ones commercials. “Viewability” vs “Skippability” and statistics about how much branding you can sneak into a 3 second glance.

I say almost comical because somewhere north of $100 billion is riding on this and if they really want someone to point a finger at, his name is Reed Hastings.  Netflix is the real reason we’re even having this conversation, having spent the last three or four years teaching over 40 million people to enjoy watching television without commercials and I can’t emphasize just how radical that is and how much of a threat to the current business model. Skipping through commercials is very different than not seeing them at all.

Skipping means the commercials are still there and you still have to fast forward past them, even if your remote now lets you do that in 30 second intervals. You’re aware you’re skipping, aware the narrative has been broken, aware that some brand interrupted your favorite show. That’s as true on television as it is on the web, where publishers often act as if asking us to sit through a 30 second commercial in order to watch a two minute video clip is somehow okay. (It’s not.)

 It’s not just Reed Hastings. As lines between work and home get blurred, as we move to being connected 24/7, we just don’t have time for commercials anymore. Certainly not the 8 minutes out of 22 the networks expect us to watch. Commercials may have made sense in 1971. We didn’t have email or text messages or Facebook or Twitter. But in 2015, they seem out of date, like a leftover from another era. (Looking at you, Don Draper.)


And that’s a problem because the industry (both sides of it) relies on ad revenue to stay in business. Fortunately there’s a solution.

That solution is twofold. One is better data which leads to better targeting so the interruptive advertising that does run is both less frequent and less annoying. The other is #CreatedWith content which leads to branded content/native advertising that, if done correctly, is anything but annoying. 

#CreatedWith means using celebrities (of both the Hollywood and YouTube ilk) and allowing them to create something around a brand that’s more entertainment than sales pitch. The brand is in there, but the video isn’t about the brand: it’s about something the brand’s target audience wants to see.

While #CreatedWith content has been around for a while, the concept had its Broadway debut (so to speak) during the Grammys when Target bought eight adjacent 30 second spots and ran a four-minute Imagine Dragons concert instead of a 8 commercials. That was a watershed moment, one that signaled a huge shift in the way we look at advertising and television,  but the Hatfields and the McCoys of the upfronts and newfronts never mentioned it, choosing to point out each others flaws instead.


Which is too bad because there’s so much potential in #CreatedWith, so much opportunity to break down the walls between television and digital video. Those walls are already coming down: is Hulu TV or digital video? What about AOL? Yahoo? There’s a lot more gray than black and white.

We’re thinking that this is the year TPTB on both sides start to realize where their interests lie. The year they start giving #CreatedWith a lot more than a polite nod and smile. So that the upfronts and newfronts in 2016 focus on what they’re each doing right. Not what the other guy is doing wrong.

Apple’s Flunking TV 101

Originally published at on May 22, 2015

Not a great week for Apple as far as their involvement with the television industry goes. First there was this article in the Wall Street Journal, wherein billionaire investor Carl Icahn claimed that Apple was still working on the mythical Apple TV set, something the Journal assured readers Apple had actually given up on sometime last year.

While tech journos get all hot and bothered about the Apple TV, those of us in the TV industry are often left scratching our heads, and so I’m sure I was not the only one surprised to learn that Apple had seriously been heading down that road to nowhere as recently as 2014.

You see, consumers really don’t have any problem with their actual TV sets, which are reasonably priced, fairly reliable and provide excellent picture quality in HD. The problem has always been with the interface and that’s dictated by the set top box — the set itself is just a dumb terminal.

That’s why the real action has been with streaming boxes (which, as Roku, Google and Amazon have shown, can be reduced to a stick the size of a thumb drive.) They are the brains of the operation, work with any existing TV set and at under $100 a pop, can be replaced every two or three years when they become obsolete. That’s important because the average replacement cycle for a TV set in the US is 7 years, which just about ensures that any Apple TV set would become obsolete long before the buyer was ready to part with it.

Which is why Apple should be focusing on the hockey puck sized Apple TV, a piece of hardware that hasn’t been updated in years. That fact is largely responsible for the second piece of bad news Apple got this week: according the latest Freewheel report, Roku is kicking their ass.

A whopping 43% of all OTT ad views (up 37% year to year) happened via Roku while only 20% happened on Apple TV (down 36% year-to-year.) That’s a huge gap and it’s only going to keep growing as Roku’s wide range of channels, native search capability, easy to use interface and multiple model options continue to make it the streaming device of choice.

While Apple is rumored to be working on an update to the Apple TV device, adding in things like voice control (another place for Siri to not understand what I’m saying) and home monitoring, the further behind they get, the harder it is going to be to catch up.

I’m a big Apple fan and I’d love to see them succeed, but right now they’re not having an easy time conquering the television industry. Given their history however, it’s way too soon to write them off.

Staying Ahead In A Time Of Flux

As the media struggles to interpret the significance of the Verizon/AOL deal (Is it about tech? Ad revenue? Content?), one thing is clear: the way the viewer thinks about video content has changed forever. Today we can enjoy both short-form and long-form content, and we watch them the same way we eat our meals. Sometimes we feel like snacking (short form), other times we feel like having a 5-course experience (long form). And then there are times we feel like sitting down with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and polishing off the whole thing (binge viewing).

Whether you’re a creator or consumer, is one form of video inherently better than another?


Newfronts and Upfronts Have One Thing In Common-Data

If there was one common theme from this month’s Upfront and Newfront presentations, it is that the other guys have no idea what they’re doing. That was particularly true when it came to advertising, the raison d’etre of both events.

The MCNs and other online video providers who make up the Newfronts kept hammering home how avidly people watch commercials on their sites, given that they can’t fast forward through them or run to the kitchen for a snack. The networks, on the other hand, spent much of the Upfronts talking about fraud and “viewability,” the implication being that people may not like their 4- minute commercial pods, but at least they’re actually seeing them.

What both sides need to realize is that, by focusing on the other’s negatives, they are only hurting themselves. They’d do much better to point out the things they have in common, as those are far more valuable to advertisers.

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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. 

 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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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 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.