Disney/ABC joins Hulu: What it Means

April 30, 2009

Today Disney and Hulu confirmed the long-running rumor that Disney would join News Corp. and NBC Universal as equity partners in the most successful professional video content site. According to the Wall Street Journal, Disney will take an equal share by ponying up a similar amount of cash that the prior equity investors put in. 

I applaud this move. It’s going to bring short-term and long-term benefits to the industry. This move:

  • Creates needed short-term online advertising efficiency. I’ve recently written a report for Forrester about the struggles of online TV shows, including Hulu, when advertisers are cutting back every expense. By joining forces and standardizing the ad buying process, ad formatting, pricing, and so many other friction-laden processes, these major networks are going to keep some portion of ad revenue that might otherwise have been lost.
  • Keeps YouTube on the professional video sidelines. YouTube had made a good effort to bolster its online TV show offerings with some CBS content and some links to ABC. But it hasn’t been enough to change what users expect from YouTube. (Tidbit: While YouTube accounts for nearly half of all video views, it only accounts for less than a fourth of video minutes because people go there for short clips.) With ABC clearly aligned with Hulu, it makes it less likely that any of these players will care to sustain YouTube’s online TV ambitions in the future.
  • Makes it nearly impossible for CBS not to join. CBS has invested millions in its own effort and it may not want to give that up. But so did ABC — in fact, ABC was really the boldest of the networks in terms of technology investment and strategic energy. With the other 3 networks heading down the yellow brick road arm in arm, it makes sense for CBS to benefit from the same market power Hulu will now command.
  • Sets up the cable industry for Hulu 2.0. If you’re paying attention, you have noticed that neither Hulu nor ABC have shown up on the Xbox, the Roku player, Blu-ray, Connected TV or any other over-the-top solution. This is because they are saving themselves for the cable industry. They don’t want to upset the cable industry, sure, but more importantly they want to position themselves to partner with cable to deliver Hulu 2.0 to the cable subscriber. Where Hulu 1.0 will remain free for online viewers, Hulu 2.0 will provide not just 4 episodes of a TV show, but all the seasons of the show to date, plus back seasons, and even new release movies. And all of this will be available online as well as on the TV. That experience will be available to premium cable subscribers and the revenue will be shared back to Hulu. 

What do you think it means? For content players, device makers, consumers?


There’s an online TV storm a brewin’

March 27, 2009

I wrote earlier this week about how Hulu is now streaming as many views as Comcast does via VOD. But what I didn’t take time to include is the dark side of online TV shows. The fact that many networks are pulling down some of their top shows (e.g., The Mentalist and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.), and how the ads on these wildly popular shows are not all selling.

So I took the time to compile all the evidence that an online TV show storm is brewing and did an analysis for Forrester clients that was published earlier in the month. The great news is that Forrester recently recognized its 10,000th Twitter follower and to celebrate, they let him choose a Forrester report to make available to all of Forrester’s Twitter followers. This individual (@jpthomp on Twitter) chose my report about the coming online TV show backlash. That means good things for all of you, go to the following link to register to get a copy of the report (thanks, jpthomp!). http://snipurl.com/emg3g 

When you get a hold of the report, you’ll see that I envision a lot of experimentation with online show availability throughout the rest of this TV season and possibly even throughout the rest of the year. And with online TV shows failing to sell out their ad inventory, some naysayers inside the major networks are going to be arguing for much more aggressive anti-online measures. We think it will take some time, but online TV can be brought back around again as the recession matures and as executives realize that online TV is not a separate kind of TV, it’s simply the extension of existing TV experiences across multiple platforms. In the report, we sum up the call to action this way:

OUR PLEA: INTEGRATE ONLINE TV INTO THE TOTAL VIEWER EXPERIENCE

If you expect us to end with a summary of all the reasons that online TV shows are the future of TV and a plea to preserve this threatened species, prepare to be disappointed. We said online TV was the most important thing to happen to the video industry not because it was the future of TV in and of itself but because it would help move us quickly into the future of TV, something Forrester calls OmniVideo; this is a state in which consumers can watch TV shows and movies on any platform they want, controlling what, when, and where they watch. In this future, not only will consumers be satisfied, but producers and distributors will make more money than they do today. That’s why we now plead with the industry to quickly learn from the mistakes they’re going to make in the next few months and get back to fully supporting online TV shows — not as a separate business but as an integrated consumer experience that complements and enriches traditional TV.

Check out the report yourself, see what you think. Let’s buckle our seat belts and see what happens over the next few months.


Hulu breaks 300 million view barrier

March 26, 2009

This week, Hulu released comScore’s latest VideoMetrix chart that shows the site broke through the 300 million views in a single month barrier. This barrier is significant for a few reasons: 1) it’s higher than I thought it would be, so I’m humbled; and 2) it’s roughly the same number of streams that Comcast does each month in its onDemand system. To illustrate both points, let me quote myself from last October when Hulu reached a meager 150 million views:

This is phenomenal, it’s precisely the year-end target I had for Hulu in December. Now I have to ratchet that up to 200 million. To go from 0 to 200 in under a year is remarkable. Consider that in its best months, Comcast VOD streams 300 million video views. That’s a big number. Hulu will be at the level some time next year. Without having to invest in VOD servers the way Comcast did. (See my original blog post for more.)

Let me reproduce the VideoMetrix chart (source: comScore, February 2009) so we can do some analysis.

comScore Video Metrix February 2009

Quick note for those new to this kind of stuff, “aHulu (Hybrid)” refers to the fact that some portion of Hulu’s views come from its syndication partners like AOL and MSN. That means any Hulu views that occurred there are not counted there, instead they count back at Hulu. We don’t have any solid estimates of what portion of views are coming from Hulu.com itself vs. its syndication partners, but I have a hunch it’s shifting more toward Hulu over time as Hulu has attempted to brand itself more aggressively.

Looking at this chart, we can do some fun math (I know, not two words you’re used to seeing together). We can see, for example that the average viewer is watching Hulu about 16 minutes a week, far ahead of everyone but YouTube (which accounts for the lion’s share of the Google Sites line). That means the average viewer might watch a show every other week, which indicates the beginning of a habit. Hulu beats everyone else in minutes per stream, at 6.7 minutes, comapred to 3.5 for both Google and CBS. That’s obviously because Hulu people are watching full-length content. Most interesting, though, is the fact that Hulu now accounts for 5% of all online video viewing minutes. The only other site that has more than a single percent of viewing minutes is YouTube, which accounts for 29% of viewing minutes.

Yes, YouTube still rocks the house. But Hulua is clearly the second most important US online video provider. 

And it has only been in business for a year. I’m starting to regret boasting about the fact that I never saw Hulu as a YouTube killer the way some people did when it was first announced. While it’s not technically a YouTube killer (these numbers attest to that), it’s certainly a YouTube distractor since it actually has a model for making money from these views, which  YouTube does not. 

 


Why Hulu is clashing with potential partners

February 23, 2009

Two news items from last week are worth commenting on in the same post:

  1. Hulu insisted that Boxee pull its Hulu player from Boxee. For the un-nerdy, Boxee is the open-source media player software that I put on my Apple TV a few weeks back. Until last week, it allowed you to access Hulu online videos direct to the TV without the help of a PC. 

    The Boxee/Hulu experience is tremendously satisfying. Plus, it preserves all the advertising that Hulu needs to sustain itself. However, by making it super easy (some might say, convenient) to get online TV shows to the TV, Boxee is a threat to Hulu’s content partners, many of whom are still petrified about cannibalizing linear TV shows. So while those partners may be willing to support PC-based viewing, the moment Hulu is easily accessed on the TV, they get creeped out. Never mind that 5 million PCs in the US are currently connected to TVs for exactly this kind of experience — far more than AppleTV or Roku will ever have.
     

  2. Hulu pulled its content from syndication partner TV.com. TV.com is a CBS-owned TV fan site that previously focused on chat rooms and clips, but as of a month ago announced an online TV player strategy designed to monetize its 5 million viewers more effectively. The secret sauce was access to Hulu content (Fox + NBC) as well as CBS content, delivered through a player experience that was remarkably Huluesque.

    Design infringement aside, it’s hard not to see this one as an effort by Hulu to persuade CBS to allow CBS content to join the Hulu experience. If it’s not such an effort, it should be. Hulu is eager to allow syndication partners like Fancast and IMDB to succeed, but it doesn’t really want to enable CBS to have all the benefits of Hulu content without having signed up to be an official part of the system. Seems fair. Honestly, the only reason CBS wouldn’t want to do this is it would mean acknowledging that its costly and time-consuming solo syndication efforts were not enough. 

What’s going on here: Hulu is getting more and more powerful every day. And not just because it managed to get Alec Baldwin to promote it during the Super Bowl. It’s because Hulu gives people the thing they want most: easy access to top TV shows. But with great power comes great responsibility, at least in the mind of TV execs who suspect that Hulu will eventually erode their TV business (which has been steadily eroding anyway, not on an overall basis, but on a per-show basis).

With ad dollars tightening in a recession — across the board, mind you, not just in online video — TV execs who never liked the idea of online video in the first place are going to claw their way back into prominence inside their companies and start arguing for more restraint. We’ll see more removals of TV shows like The Mentalist, more announcements like that from SciFi about postponing Hulu streaming of  Battlestar Galactica until 8 days after broadcast.

All of this is part of something I call the coming online video backlash. It’s going to take this whole year, and it’s going to inspire a lot of hasty moves on the part of TV executives to pull previously available content. And consumers are going to hate it.

I don’t envy Hulu’s position in this. It has to keep the lines of access open to the providers of top TV content, but it has to make good on its promise of serving viewers. So far, it has done a great job, but at some point, it’s going to be forced to do something that will begin to tarnish its brand. I don’t personally think the Boxee removal qualifies — only a few tens of thousands of us are nerdy enough to have hacked our Apple TVs — but sometime soon, somebody at Viacom or Fox or Sony Pictures will recall content that was previously available. Expect it to happen around sweeps weeks or the season finale weeks. It’s gonna get ugly.


Online TV show ads in peril?

February 13, 2009

A few weeks back I asked you for evidence of whether online advertising was showing signs of growing or shrinking. I got some feedback, but none of a smoking gun. Then I spent a few sick days watching a lot of Hulu on my TV screen. I mean, a lot. (I even took a brief look at that Heroes movie with Henry Winkler and Sally Fields that keeps showing up in my recommendations queue for obvious reasons. Talk about a very obvious database-matching exercise gone awry.)

If you haven’t watched Hulu lately, check it out. Are you seeing as many PSAs as I am? I didn’t know the Air Force had so many ads to show. And I didn’t know there were that many eco-friendly organizations as I’ve met lately on Hulu.

I’m even talking about top shows like The Office or House. Is it possible they aren’t selling out their inventory on these great shows? Gratefully, I was spared the flood of PSAs once I started catching up on Battlestar Galactica (BSG). Sponsored by DirecTV, BSG affords a perfect example of online video advertising done right. Yes, DirecTV sponsors the whole show, but each ad is different. Featuring John Michael Higgins in the fictional board room of a generic cable company in panic, these ads deliver. They’re so funny they actually make me wish that satellite TV wasn’t headed for the sidelines.

But brilliant touches like these are few and far between. Again, I’m asking you: is online TV advertising in danger of failing to support this fledging new medium upon which so many millions of us have become dependent?


Sick day with my Boxee-enabled AppleTV

February 12, 2009

Sorry for the radio silence on my blog. I’ve been down for a few days with the same thing everyone else seems to have. But since I’m a workaholic I had to get some value out of my sick time so I spent as many hours as I could watching TV, movies, and miscellaneous video. All in the name of research, of course.

A few things I learned:

  1. The Roku Player’s HD quality is surprisingly good. The upgrade happened earlier this year. Yes, I have hit a few buffering issues as many predicted would be the case — even though I’m on fiber and wired ethernet. But the quality is still sharp and the selection, thanks to Netflix, is expanding dramatically. My wife is getting her Jane Austen fix, my kids are watching all the kids shows they want, and I’m catching everything from PBS documentaries to Clash of the Titans (what kid rasied in that era doesn’t want to see Clash of the Titans again). Not all of that content is available in HD, but we don’t seem to care.
  2. HD DVRs are a pain. I don’t even record The Office and 30 Rock in HD anymore because it takes up way too much space and those aren’t shows that need HD quality to be funny. Lost, Heroes, and Fringe are all still on my HD list, of course. Even nerds have their standards. 
  3. My Boxee-hacked AppleTV seriously rocks. I mean seriously. With Hulu in there, I did a ton of catching up, including things that were already recorded on my DVR, but with faster access to them on the AppleTV I found it more convenient (if you know me, you know convenience is my watchword) to watch via Boxee. I also started really playing with the personal media sharing that Boxee enables from the home network. It’s as clumsy as most other home-media sharing solutions, but I can see it getting better. Now if Boxee only had a business model. But it is now available in Alpha for Windows, so we’ll see how far it can go before it needs some revenue.

Most of all, I have learned that if I needed to buy a second of any these devices, I would buy the Roku. It’s a bit of an act of faith, on the assumption that more content is coming (a separate post on that coming later). But the price is right and we spend hours watching it. Having a second one for the other TV room makes sense. It’s cheaper than the premium you’d pay to build Netflix into an LG or Vizio TV, and it’s more flexible. But I get ahead of myself, I’ll post on that as a separate topic later today.


Looking for evidence that the online video ad market is tightening

February 4, 2009

Daisy Whitney’s New Media Minute is out this week and in addition to discussing the basics of fair use (a supposed “safe harbor” in the world of YouTube video production that won’t, in fact, turn out to help as many people as hope it might), she opens with a brief discussion of how online video producers are starting to back away from producing online videos on spec. Instead, they want advertisers signed up from the get go — the way that Electric Farm Entertainment (EFE) NBC produced the NBC-distributed non-hit Gemini Division, for example. (Amended to reflect Brent’s comments below,5 Feb).

See Daisy’s video below for more details. This could mean the market is maturing. It could also mean the market is getting tougher and people don’t want to spend in hopes of later payoff. For my part, this is causing me to finally step out and address the big question that has been hanging over online video since the market crashed in October: Is the market for online video advertising tightening? Are advertisers — once eager to spend a 50% premium on a CPM basis to reach ABC.com or Hulu.com audiences — going to pull back from this medium simply because cuts are coming across the board? I say this in an environment where broadcasters expect a bloodbath on the upfronts later this year — the same upfronts where a lot of online video sponsorships are presold (think Sprint + Heroes). 

It’s time to collect the evidence. What are you seeing? What conversations are you party to where people are cutting back on online video? Or are you hearing people get smart about it and realize that an online buy is still less-cluttered and more-targeted than other TV buys? I’d love to hear specifics, anonymous or not. Have at it.

Vodpod videos no longer available.