Irony alert: in the first month of the new television season, I feel compelled to rerun an episode of this blog.
24 days ago, I ranted about the trainwreck that is cable & satellite TV customer service, going into personal detail, and laying out a brief case for why those particular means of content distribution were helping consign themselves to a grim future. The reality, however, is that even the best customer service might not be enough to save cable & satellite. After all, if you’re a major content distributor, if you can cut out the middleman – not just cable & satellite, but also the broadcast outlets that you don’t own and operate – and if, in doing so, you can keep the money that the middlemen earn from distributing your content to end-users (known colloquially as viewers), why wouldn’t you do that?
In the last two days, we’ve seen the first lines cast into that ocean. HBO went first yesterday, announcing their 2015 launch of a standalone SVOD service. Today, CBS announced it’s going a similar route with a fascinating twist: its model will combine SVOD and live streaming. Not only will subscribers get access to 50 years worth of classic television series – and aren’t you curious to see what content they’ve licensed besides their own? – but they’ll also be able to stream any of the CBS television O&O’s.
Don’t overlook the value of the streaming element. I’ve known multiple New York expats who have used a friend’s NYC address as their service address for their satellite TV account so that they could feel like they were still “back home” in New York. (And yes, it’s really odd watching Warner Wolf do “local” sports when you’re sitting in someone’s living room in South Bend, Indiana.)
Kudos to CBS for seeing the value in combining all of its offerings in one package. Local radio and television shouldn’t miss this part of the message: the faster you can tie yourself to a product that will be delivered via broadband, rather than just broadcast, the better your chance at maintaining the value of your content (and great local content still has tremendous value).
There are, of course, some flies in the ointment. The New York Times story on CBS nails a big one, though only halfway through the story, noting that NFL games will not be available on The Eye’s streams. I’ll spare you the “why live sports are so important today” rap – you already know the drill, and I’m working on limited time here, since I need to drive up to the Bay Area to catch a football game this weekend. However, the lack of America’s current pastime, obviously reduces the value of what CBS can offer. (Whether it reduces that value enough to drive away subscribers I seriously doubt.)
However, the NFL’s move raises the far broader question: what happens when content owners decide they no longer need television in order to distribute their wares? The NFL clearly intends to retain the full power to monetize the value of its content via digital distribution. At what point will the other major sports offerings follow? Beyond that, at what point will other major content producers follow? To use the simplest example, if you’re Warner Brothers Television, and you own the single most profitable scripted TV series in production today (along with plenty of other profitable products), at what point do you decide that you’d rather retain all the revenue from your series for yourself, rather than sharing it with a broadcast network, a cable network, and a pallette of local outlets? That day will come.
Side note: And given that the pilot and network distribution systems were designed to share the pain of losses that result from failed series, how will such a change effect that system? Kevin Spacey has some thoughts on that point.
If you’re not a major content creator, all is hardly lost. Today, you can send your brilliant creative work all over the world through multiple channels at once, using both smaller (such as your personal Facebook page) and mass (e.g. YouTube) digital distribution channels. The challenge of a future in which consumers have essentially infinite content choices is that, at a certain point, more choice leads to less consumption. To reduce the inevitable drag on consumption that arises from too much choice, a few smart operators will succeed wildly by aggregating the most mass appeal content so that consumers can sample and consume it in digestible, understandable pieces.
Will those operators will be the YouTubes and Vimeos of the world? Will the HBO’s of the world find ways to work with you to distribute your content online? Will there be operators who focus on niche audiences (e.g. Extreme Sports, Americana)? Will you, if you build a loyal fan base, be able to successfully distribute your own content on your own website? Will Facebook find a hand to play in this game?
Yes. Across the board.
Experiments will be tried. Many will fail. Failure is a natural and important part of ongoing success.
For content creators big and small, the time is now to:
- Keep making great content, and the more unique that content, the better. Oh, and make damn sure that you own your content.
- Take advantage of every single opportunity you can find for building a loyal, passionate audience for your content. (And remember, the more unique your content, the more likely you are to inspire passion among its fans.)
- Keep looking at new ways to distribute that content. Protect your ability (via solid contracts) to distribute via as many means possible.
- Have I mentioned that you should be certain that you retain the ownership of, and rights to, your content?
We’re a long way away from a settled media and entertainment future, but things are already changing rapidly. I’m sick of the word, but there’s no better way to say it: plenty more disruption is coming.
When you can’t see the shoreline, make sure you get on top of the breaking wave and ride it for all its worth.