Member Brief: Eddie and Cactus Jack

Netflix is growing up and Disney is playing it safe. The impending battle between Netflix and Disney Plus is shaping up to become a pivotal moment in streaming’s 22 year history. Two titans are swinging for a monopoly in a field that had none before it. Or is that the case, after all? The pioneer in streaming entertainment has been challenged by the historical favorite in entertainment and intellectual property. But consumers have seen a contrast like this before.

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No. 325: Consolidation and Cable 2.0

The center of the home is still the room with the television. In that room, there is an arms race happening before our eyes. Streaming properties are adopting an end-to-end format that reflects the very nature of digitally native brands: own the product, own the channel, and you’ll own the consumer. But it wasn’t always that way and it may not always be.

This past weekend, my wife wanted to watch our favorite show. But in my parents’ market of Northwest Florida, that Sunday evening was disrupted. Their home was in a sort of in between, half traditional cable and half streaming services. But without HBO Now, we couldn’t watch the one show that we agreed upon. This situation was not without its irony.

Now-retired, Cleon Smith spent 30+ years as an executive in the cable industry. First for Time Warner, then Comcast, and finally – Cox Communications. It was within the walls of Time Warner that I interned with his upstart broadband internet department: code named “Road Runner.” As GM of the service, his market (the dense triangle of Houston, Dallas, and Austin) launched shortly after the test in Elmira, New York. At 14 years old, I watched his group tweak, market, and launch a product that would shape Texas’ future and then the nation’s. That broadband service, the first of its kind for the general public, would disrupt his company’s core business forever. Or so I thought.

I understood why the streaming industry took off but in the end, those consumers will yearn for simplicity of the good ole’ cable days. We sold a good product.

With the advent and widespread adoption of broadband internet, services like Youtube launched in 2005. And then, like a hurricane hitting an unsuspecting island of plywood homes, Netflix pivoted to streaming service in 2007. That did change everything.

Companies like Comcast, Time Warner, and Cox Communications began to innovate by introducing on-demand options and, eventually, the ability to login to Netflix or Hulu accounts to their OTT devices. But it didn’t end there. Each of the aforementioned properties were disrupted. First, by the Netflix approach to marketplace growth – an innovation that provided millions of cable, Dish, and DirecTV subscribers the incentive to “cut the cord.”

This is an example of a consumer household in 1995:

  • broadcast television: cable or satellite provider
  • basic: cable or satellite provider
  • premium services: cable or satellite provider

This is an example of a consumer household in 2012: 

  • broadcast television: cable or satellite provider
  • basic: cable or satellite provider
  • premium services: Netflix, iTunes

This is an example of a consumer household in 2020:

  • broadcast television: antenna, Hulu+, Sling, DirecTV Now, CBS All Access
  • basic: Philo, Sling, YouTubeTV, Playstation VUE, Netflix, Roku, iTunes
  • premium services: Netflix, Showtime (streaming), HBO Now, Prime Video, Vudu, Disney+

Between 2007 and 2018, Netflix worked to build a proverbial “mall” of properties by purchasing, licensing, or manufacturing intellectual property. It resembled elements of traditional cable but it emphasized the program, not the channel. Netflix Originals were purchased from independent filmmakers and marketed as Netflix’s own. Broadcast television properties like “Friends” and “The Office” were licensed for tens of millions of dollars per year. Hollywood A-listers and top directors were granted $300 million budgets for films meant to rival big studio releases. Yet, Netflix is currently trading at six month lows after news of: historic subscription losses, a small revolt after a $2 price increase, and the loss of two major properties. Industry analyst Andy Meek [1] on the matter:

Netflix lost 126,000 subscribers during the quarter, the first time that’s happened since the streamer actually started producing original content. Yikes. And then when you couple that fact, plus the quarter’s lack of new hit content and the imminent loss of shows like “Friends” and “The Office” with the forthcoming launch of rival streamers from Apple, Disney, and HBO’s parent company, among others — it’s a recipe for disaster and whatever the Streaming War’s version of hand-to-hand combat is, with everyone taking a piece out of Netflix, right?

As Netflix’s value erupted, an inverse relationship manifested: Netflix’s success and the commodification of the studios. The streaming industry increased their leverage by providing more consumer optionality and negotiation-by-wallet power to end users. In the process, cord cutting began to hurt studios as well. Not only are their cable contracts diminishing in value, their streaming payouts aren’t making up for the lost revenue.

Coupled with changes in consumer behavior, contract fallouts between studios and streaming channels, and the continued proliferation of speedier data services – you have the basis for the continued fracturing of the industry.

2PM Data: The Macroeconomics of Streaming

Subscriber losses for selected cable companies in the U.S. 2018 | Source: Leichtman Research Group
Pay TV penetration rate in the United States from 2010 to 2018 | Source: Leichtman Research Group
TV services used as substitute by cord-cutters in the U.S. 2017, by viewer type | Source: Nielsen
Monthly time spent watching OTT services in the U.S. | Source: comScore

The final graph is, perhaps, the most interesting. Disney-owned Hulu has begun to close the gap between their offering and Netflix. With Disney’s properties growing in popularity, analysts anticipate Hulu will continue narrowing Netflix’s lead.

Netflix planned to be the modern consumer’s iteration of cable television – a model that depended on a critical mass of content and viewership. That critical mass had to remain greater than the sum of all potential streaming competitors. For a time, the Reed Hastings-run media company had enough of what America needed: great classics, go-to films, syndicated sitcoms, game-changing originals. And then the ecosystem began to fracture. Properties like “Friends” left for WarnerMedia’s streaming service while “The Office” prepared to depart Netflix’s content menus for NBC’s streaming equivalent. Becca Blaznek on why “The Office” has left Netflix [2]:

Among them is NBCUniversal, which owns the rights to The Office. On June 25, 2019, the company released a statement that they will not be renewing their deal with Netflix, instead bringing the “rare gem” to their platform beginning in 2021. According to the Hollywood Reporter, this will not affect international viewers for the time being.

Like the consumer categories that went vertical to compete in a new economy, so have the studio brands competing for the mindshare of cord-cutting consumers. This had an unintended effect however. While modern consumers prefered streaming over traditional broadcast or service providers, the traditional consumer still prefers their traditional television over other devices for streaming media.

The DTC Evolution

Sales of OTT devices | Source: Strategy Analytics

As media fracturing continues, contract negotiations between studios and existing streaming services will only intensify. This will result in added subscription costs for consumers. The promise of the cord-cutting age was two-fold: (1) improved household economics and (2) accountability. Consumers wanted to avoid the pages of unused television programming that went neglected. Today, it’s typical for a cord-cutter to maintain subscriptions to 5-10 monthly media services to accomplish the same consumer tendency: availability irregardless of usage rate.

Today’s consumer is submitting to this dizzying dance of “subscription / login / password recall / and idle subscription” but without the convenience that consumers found with traditional cable providers.

As such, the disruptor is due for disruption. And in this way, an earlier inference may have been mistaken and my dad could end up right. With cable and data providers like Comcast, Cox, and AT&T controlling the pipeline and studios increasingly at odds with new-age streaming services, the momentum is tipping in the favor of tradition. While OTT boxes like Roku and Apple TV have made subscriptions and programming search infinitely easier, the 1:1 connections between consumers and streaming agents continues to subvert the innovation’s original intent: ease, consistency, and value.

It’s likely that the traditional media consumer has reached their limit. Cord cutting was an economically-driven phenomenon. Foregoing the streaming economy in exchange for returning to traditional cable is a question of programming availability and ease of access (try logging into Netflix on a relative’s cable box).

Streaming services will be bundled. It’s likely that we’re near the point of OTT carriers marketing the opportunity for consumers to purchase pre-negotiated, economically-friendly bundles of streaming services packaged. With no-login, one collective price, and less of a fear of missing out – the past has become the present. Disney’s streaming offering may be the sole victor here; their value and reach may outlast a shift back consolidation. For all others, the fracturing market of streaming video on demand (SVOD) has begun to cannibalize the direct to consumer opportunity that was the initial appeal.

In this manner, there is similarity between retail’s DTC cost-elasticity and SVOD’s elasticity. For online retailers, CAC has risen as digitally native brands flooded the market (performance advertising inventory remained constant). For streaming media companies like Netflix, CAC has risen as studios flooded the streaming market and costs to feature their properties became prohibitive. While Facebook and Google’s ad inventory’s limitations have resulted in price elasticity, the SVOD parallel is slightly different. The streaming consumer’s spend is nearing its point of elasticity. And the end game may be consolidation, a result of the yearning for good old cable days.

Read the No. 325 curation here.

Research and Report by Web Smith | About 2PM

Additional reading: (1) Member Brief: The Netflix Report (2) Monday Letter: The Hundred Year Titan (3) This wonderful thread by Nate Poulin that further contextualizes this report.

No. 315: The Digitally Natives


Aggregation defined an era. The aggregation throughout media, retail, and service platforms determined the economic viability of many in the vendor-class throughout the modern digital economy. Uber began as a luxury black car service. Spotify streamed music. Youtube published silly videos. Amazon began by selling books. And Netflix rented films by DVD. Imagine a world without these companies as aggregators. Companies grew market share by adding products and services, rendering their analog competitors incapable.  Like the inevitability of westward expansion, the aggregation theory continues to move certain platforms towards critical mass.

The theory is akin to the digital version of Manifest Destiny. For a time – platforms maintained an advantage, much like physical retailers possessed an early advantage over e-tailers. In the traditional retail model, individual product brands were less important than the shelves that they were marketed on. Consumers came for product selection, ease, and the universal checkout process. The one stop shop was the draw; product loyalty was a secondary feature.  In this way – content publishers, product brands, and services were merely value-additives for existing platforms. Few learned this hard lesson like popular musicians at the beginning of the streaming era. Podcasts seemed to have learned from those difficult lessons.

Gaining leverage is the mission.

The market-making opportunities that began with early digitally vertical native brands (DNVBs) began to influence adjacent industries as that sales model had its success. For decades, it was nearly impossible to achieve critical mass in retail without partnering with a brick and mortar retailer or a department store. To defend against what seemed (for a time) to be physical retail’s Manifest Destiny, digitally natives circumvented the infrastructure and went direct to consumer (DTC). This meant that they had access to increased margins, efficient customer acquisition, access to data, and stronger relationships with the consumer.

With little access to mainstream consumer channels, physical brands launched native channels with the help of platforms like Shopify and BigCommerce. It’s unclear whether or not the intent of the DTC industry was their indefinite independence from big box retail. I’d argue that it wasn’t the goal. But, regardless, the result of the last ten years has been palpable: product brands have never possessed more leverage than they do right now. Even if that leverage is temporary.

As newer platforms go to market, vertical brands are beginning to notice a shift in leverage from platform to the vertical. This is an untimely shift in momentum for platform companies, businesses that once had the leverage to act indiscriminately.

DNVB-speak in digital media

In early April, comedian Russell Brand was interviewed by the host of the Joe Rogan Experience (JRE), a wildly popular podcast that covers everything from combat sports and geopolitics to archaeology and sociology. It’s important to note that JRE is consistently ranked in the top five of the most downloaded podcasts. Toward the end of the discussion between the two men, Rogan prompted Brand to promote his business interests. And though it was a subtle promotion, this is where things became interesting.

Luminary is the premium audio publisher and content aggregator that has set out to become the Netflix of podcasting. Founded in 2018 by Lauren Sacks, the company raised $100 million from New Enterprise Associates. The funding equipped Sacks and team to recruit several sizable podcast networks and high visibility media personalities to include: The Ringer, Guy Raz, Trevor Noah, and Wondery Media. Wondery is the last remaining podcast network known for its original programming and Ringer, a successful podcast network in its own right, is still in search of Barstool Sports-level network effects. In hindsight, Spotify’s acquisition of Gimlet and Parcast were as defensive as they were offensive developments.

In the episode – Russell Brand promoted his latest venture, a podcast with Luminary. The elevator pitch had somewhat of a dual purpose: (1) use one of the most influential platforms in audio to promote a business interests and (2) recruit Rogan into the fold of the Luminary-faithful. The second part did not work, the jury is still out on the first proposition. But the effects of that conversation were immediate. Within 72 hours, JRE was pulled from Luminary’s catalogue. From Hotpod News

The [JRE] team explicitly cites licensing issues as the reason behind the intent to withdraw. “There was not a license agreement or permission for Luminary to have The Joe Rogan Experience on their platform,” a representative from the team told me last night. “His reps were surprised to see the show there today and requested it be removed.”

The Joe Rogan Experience wasn’t the only big name in podcasting that removed content from the platform. Spotify denied Luminary access to their shows and the New York Times pulled The Daily. PodcastOne, Barstool Sports, Endeavor Audio, and many others followed suit. From No. 304: In-app audiences:

The pending acquisition of Gimlet Media is about more than building a direct-to-consumer podcasting powerhouse, it’s about monetizing DTC audio in new ways. Spotify doesn’t own the music that millions of us listen to, they license the rights from three music labels: Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment Group and Warner Music Group. With Gimlet’s pending acquisition, Spotify is positioning themselves squarely as the Netflix of audio. And Gimlet’s portfolio of audio properties could be another tool that Spotify uses to convert casual subscribers to premium, paid users.

And here’s Luminary CoFounder and CEO Matt Sacks:

We want to become synonymous with podcasting in the same way Netflix has become synonymous with streaming. I know how ambitious that sounds. We think it can be done, and some of the top creators in the space agree.

Spotify and Netflix were exclusively aggregators before they began to pursue their modern subscription growth strategy. By acquiring popular properties (like Gimlet and Parcast Network) or by investing in the development of  the native properties that Netflix is now known for, both companies moved further away from aggregation and closer to becoming digital natives. For Netflix, this was timely. Media companies like Disney have begun to pull their properties to develop their own digitally native businesses. Another sign of aggregation theory’s diminished role for newer companies.

Perhaps, the age of aggregation is nearing its maturity. According 2017’s Defining Aggregators by Ben Thompson:

Aggregation Theory describes how platforms (i.e. aggregators) come to dominate the industries in which they compete in a systematic and predictable way. Aggregation Theory should serve as a guidebook for aspiring platform companies, a warning for industries predicated on controlling distribution, and a primer for regulators addressing the inevitable antitrust concerns that are the endgame of Aggregation Theory.

Two years later, we’re witnessing a war over proverbial land rights. As platforms have begun to lose leverage over specific verticals, they’ve heavily invested into the development of their own properties (private labels / native brands / native media projects). In some cases, like Spotify’s acquisitions – they chose to acquire the properties to move consumers along the content-to-subscription funnel. For Luminary Media and their Head of Partnerships / Business Development Meaghan Quindlen, the stakes are much higher than they would have been 3-5 years ago.

She has an unenviable job; she must convince alienated podcasts to work with them by communicating her vision, by employing a new licensing compensation structure, or a combination of both. Even Spotify and Apple Music had their own similar episodes. But with $100 million in funding and grandiose aspirations – Luminary will have to out-Spotify Spotify on its way to becoming the Netflix of podcasts – a title that the first audio platform to achieve 100 million paid subscribers wants all to itself.

Who is to say whether digital media properties returns to the types of  platforms that were once required for growth; there is now a dueling loyalty between independence and potential reach. This contradiction didn’t exist a few years prior.

Digitally native retailers are open to working with big box retailers (the original aggregators) as long as they can maintain a unique in-store appearance with access to some form of consumer data.  In this way, DTC retail is a decent enough analog for what’s happening in podcasting today. Product and media brands now hold the levers – they’re the draw. Consumers walk through the door, proverbial or otherwise, for their beloved brands. Aggregators must learn to operate in a world where the leverage exists with digitally natives. At the very least, aggregators need to learn to develop real symbiosis.

Luminary may need to raise more money.

Report by Web Smith | Join the Executive Membership