The cord-cutter’s dream of paying less for entertainment content is already on the rocks. Early analyst warnings about the reality of subscription saturation have filtered through to the mainstream, with a Mashable article titled ‘There are officially too many damn video streaming services’ reaching the front page of reddit. In it, Mashable’s Senior Tech Correspondent Raymond Wong argues that while Disney’s annual $69.99 fee is probably worth it for access to Disney’s vast stock of content from Marvel, Pixar, Fox etc., the arrival of yet another challenger to Netflix’s streaming dominance may ultimately be bad for the consumer.
“$14.99 for HBO, $10.99 for Showtime, $9.99 for Cinemax and $8.99 for Starz all feel expensive relative to Disney’s $6.99 price” 🤔🤔🤔https://t.co/6hBhzlGQfR
Between Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, Amazon Video, CBS All Access, the upcoming Apple TV+ and any number of other services, it’s easy to see why. Each has exclusive content across a wide variety of genres, so in theory each at least have one or two shows of interest to most audiences. It’s the ice cream stall dilemma on a larger scale: A huge amount of choice, but actually picking one feels more like denying yourself access to every other service.
How much is too much?
So, to get access to all those films and shows would require a number of subscriptions, the total cost of which will run into the hundreds of dollars per month. Small wonder that redditors pushed the Mashable article to the front page; the promise of cheaper, unbundled OTT entertainment is now in doubt. Subscription saturation is already here, and there will be casualties. Even Netflix has already borne the brunt of Disney’s entrance into the space, having lost as much as $8 billion off its market cap in the aftermath of the announcement.
To compound the problem, it’s highly unlikely that the number of streaming services has capped out. For media companies with huge back catalogues of film and television shows, it is far better to own the distribution system, audience data, and direct revenue. So, expect more efforts like The Criterion Channel to launch. Meanwhile, to differentiate themselves from the giants like Netflix and Amazon, smaller streaming platforms like Shudder are making a play for niche audiences clustered around a particular genre.
Hulu is embracing that fact that, with so much competition, people are probably going to jump around between video services. It’s just trying to keep them coming back to Hulu. https://t.co/cjAgrDuFtH
However, while people are more habituated to pay for entertainment content than digital news, there is still a finite amount of subscription revenue out there. More than any consideration, the exclusive content available on a streaming service will be a deciding factor for audiences. That does not mean, however, that the broadest range of films and shows will necessarily win out.
The lure of a new show is what typically attracts subscribers to a streaming service in the first place. CBS All Access made the exclusivity of shows like Star Trek: Discovery the tentpole of its marketing. It even went so far as to commission some short episodes between the first and second seasons to convince subscribers who might have been tempted elsewhere to remain with them.
Similarly the announcement of Apple TV+ notably contained no information about pricing. However, it did showcase the triple-A nature of its commissioned shows and movies, with names like Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Aniston, and Kumail Nanjiani already on board.
Netflix, wary of the media companies whose content is has licensed until now pulling their content, is also heavily investing in originals. It is reportedly spending $15 billion in 2019 on content, with a commensurate increase in its marketing budget so that everybody knows about it. Analysts expect a close to $3 billion marketing budget this year. It is obvious, then, that the range of content each platform has is currently seen as the differentiating factor for the bigger players in the space.
(This issue is muddied slightly by content considerations, with some US ‘exclusives’ being carried by competitors internationally as with Star Trek: Discovery appearing on Netflix elsewhere, and the requirement for streaming services to create a proportion of their content domestically when they enter a market like France.)
As mentioned earlier, however, there are some services that are making their niche nature the selling point to consumers, trading less mass-market appeal for a more targeted approach to exclusives. Horror-based service Shudder (owned and operated by AMC) has both negotiated the exclusive rights to certain horror movies and commissioned original content, while DC Comics’ VOD service (currently only available within the US) offers access to shows based around popular characters from the comics.
These services, with lower price points, are wisely trying to avoid the crush at the top by offering services that are additive to the larger services rather than in direct competition.
However, as the field becomes more crowded, it is unlikely that content alone will be the sole deciding factor for audiences looking to optimise their subscription spending.
Here, then are three criteria that might help determine which of the current services will be among those counted as ‘winners’:
Much has already been written about the discovery and recommendation options offered by Netflix, Amazon Video, and their ilk. Between the wealth of user data to which they have access and some smart people at the helm, those services have made user experience as smooth and effective as is possible. In April 2017, UX expert Justin Ramedia wrote:
“Netflix, through an easy-to-use interface, showed us how simple watching entertainment through the internet could be. They used strategic partnerships with Nintendo, Xbox, Roku, Amazon and more to ensure that people didn’t have to watch from their computers. Anyone could sit with their friends and family and stream thousands of hours of media whenever they liked. That genie won’t go back into the bottle.”
One of the criticisms that was most frequently levelled against The Criterion Channel’s defunct predecessor FilmStruck was that its UX was lacking. While in the UK, VOD services like the ITV Player and the BBC’s iPlayer are serviceable lack some of the recommendation tools that have been instrumental in making sure that users stay glued to Netflix even after the whole series has been binged.
The reality is that as newer entrants into the market begin offering exclusive content, they will inevitably be measured against the best in the environment. In order to succeed they’ll need to be as good or better to compete, as we’ll discuss later.
As Ramedia pointed out, Netflix made it a point to have a presence on each and every possible platform, from desktops to connected televisions to games consoles, including the shockingly poorly selling Wii U. Now, Disney appears to be following suit: Its announcement included a slide that showed each piece of tech hardware it intends the service to run on.
The point about existing across all these platforms isn’t that those streaming services believe they’ll necessarily get tons of sign-ups through those platforms or even because they exist on them. After all, the install base of the Nintendo Switch, while impressive for a relatively young console, is far smaller than the number of people who will sign up on desktop or connected TV. Instead, it is primarily in service of providing a holistic service to their subscribers, ensuring that they always have access to one particular streaming service on each and every device they own.
As with UX, the idea is to reduce any possible friction for a subscriber base, to ensure that no competitor gets a look-in or advantage from existing on a device that Disney+ does not. And as another plus for us Switch owners, it all but guarantees that Netflix will join Hulu on the console sooner rather than later.
For many, Netflix’s early entrance into the market all but guarantees it success. It is the go-to comparison when we talk about rival streaming services, and its ubiquity has led to ‘Netflix-like’ comparisons for other digital services. Its entrenchment in the market is primarily due to the early mover advantage it has enjoyed, of which the service is keenly aware. As its competitors gear themselves up to compete in terms of content, Netflix appears to be digging itself in deeper by prioritising maintaining market share above profit. As Variety’s Todd Spangler reports:
“One reason Netflix is continuing to make big investments now is that it’s going to face serious new streaming competition from media giants Disney, WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal starting later this year. So it’s focusing on building out a wider moat instead of delivering profits, a strategy Wall Street continues to praise.”
That makes it an uphill struggle for any new entrant into the market. This is the case even for those without the deep pockets of Amazon, Apple or Disney who can gradually chip away at Netflix’s 139 million global subscribers through offering lower price points or a greater back catalogue.
Despite the ongoing success of the larger streaming services, growing consumer dissatisfaction with the total cost of subscriptions and a soft cap on the amount people can afford to pay means competition is only going to get fiercer over the next few years. And as the dismal performance of YouTube Red (now Premium) demonstrates, investment in original content alone is unlikely to be the sole differentiating factor. Instead, a combination of the other three criteria and harder to measure qualities including audience affinity with a brand are likely to be the determining factor for success in the streaming world.
I’m calling it. 2019 is the year publishers get their mojo back. While there’s still work to be done – and the rewards for many are further down the road – the signs are pointing in the right direction.
More than ever, digital media companies understand that their most precious assets are their audiences and advertisers. They understand that they must foster this relationship over time through their programming, advertising opportunities and the overall experience they create wherever they touch their customers. And, they understand that their brands are proxies for this trust. Without a doubt, the companies that publishers choose as business partners — whether distributing their content or advertising — can, and do, have a lasting impact on this trust.
Those of you who have been in the digital media business for a while are probably thinking: “Haven’t we been here before?” and perhaps you’re wondering what’s really changed in the past two years. Here’s the way I see it:
pivots around publisher content
Initially, publishers believed the promise of a fire hose of traffic to their sites but eventually grew tired of the hoops they were jumping through to address Facebook’s changing priorities. From organic content to paid promotion, external traffic evolving into Instant Articles, embedded video becoming Facebook Watch, and everything-must-be-free to efforts to support paid subscriptions – it’s mind boggling. But all of this has resulted in publishers wanting to control their own destinies more than ever before.
Apple: push for consumer privacy
While Apple’s push for consumer privacy in its Safari browser is a laudable approach, it has hamstrung publishers’ ability to monetize their web inventory. At the same time, it pushes publishers towards Apple’s closed app platform where they cough up 30% of their revenues from selling subscriptions to their own apps. In an odd way, this 30% take-rate by Apple has made its reported 50% take on its new Apple News+ product seem more acceptable. In any case, growing consumer trust through a higher privacy bar while building in real support for publisher ad and subscription revenues are steps in the right direction.
control of advertising supply chain
Google has demanded that publishers allow it to track their customers and collect their behavioral data across the web. At least if they want to get the full benefit of what has evolved into a Google-influenced, if not controlled, advertising supply chain. Google has also essentially made it a requirement for publishers to participate in AMP if they want to avoid being lumped into a news black hole on mobile. The relationship with Google can easily be one of the more sensitive issues inside any media shop and rocking the boat will almost certainly have consequences. However, consumers aren’t happy with unrestricted tracking, and that bodes well for trustworthy publishers who are transparent and handle consumer data with care.
Emerging platforms: a chance to get it right
There are new platforms growing quickly, which will succeed or fail based on their ability to fully appreciate the value of high-quality programming. Each one surfaces new negotiations and concerns. Roku is one to keep an eye on as they have the chance to reinvest in high-quality, brand-differentiated programming by truly partnering with their publishing partners. Or, they may be the next Blackberry — steamrolled as their market advantage is lost to other larger platforms that can beat them on technology alone. However, the path to success for emerging platforms will be true partnerships with trusted content brands.
While we may never know exactly what has caused this shift, it is a positive sign that digital media companies here and in Europe are also asking for the same things, which I’ve seen first-hand. Publishers now speak of Facebook, Google, and even Apple not simply in terms of opportunity but with skepticism. They see the positives of each in driving new audiences, innovations, and experiences – and to be a part of what is “next.” However, they’ve turned a critical eye to each platform’s motivations and are pressing for better terms, including:
Protecting and preserving
the relationship with their audience. They know that trust and
value reside in the relationship: The data, the brand and two-way
dialogue with the customer.
Ability to drive
subscription or membership revenue. For too long, this was antithetical to the
interests of platforms, which wanted to touch as many users as possible
for the purpose of mining their data for targeted advertising. The global
discussion around this issue has shifted, starting in Europe.
Now, the rest of the industry is trying to catch up.
True partnerships. They’re
not looking for another quick fling, featuring a spotlight appearance
at Facebook’s or Apple’s soiree. Hopefully that no longer carries the
glamour it once did as the hangovers are real. Instead, publishers are
looking for fair value and a long-term commitment by the platforms to work
together, solve issues, and build success for all parties.
Publishers everywhere are
looking at these opportunities with a shrewd business eye. They recognize
that these opportunities are being designed and offered by an intermediary
to their customers. And, as the stock market clearly demonstrates,
these intermediaries are focused on maximizing their own
Whatever the reason, or confluence of events that caused it: The non-negotiable, take-it or leave-it discussions from platforms are in the rear-view mirror. Change is here and publishers have rediscovered their mojo.
Media businesses today juggle a lot of
C-suite acronyms. When it comes to tech-related execs, there are established
staples like the chief information officer (CIO) and chief technology officer
(CTO). However, in recent years we’ve seen the emergence of the chief digital
officer and chief data officer—two titles that share an acronym but can have
distinctly divergent duties. Yet all share a common purpose: using technology
to aid operations, increase revenue, and outpace the competition.
In the world of digital media, those are some big responsibilities, especially today, when artificial intelligence, machine learning, neural networking, and analytics increasingly perform more of the heavy lifting involved in marketing and sales. Folks in these positions are at the forefront of the new technologies and innovations implemented by a media business. Yet they often aren’t the ones you read about, as presidents and CEOs commonly get the lion’s share of quotes and media attention when such matters are reported on.
However, spend just a little time with a CTO or CDO and you quickly get a sense of how stimulating and forward-thinking their jobs are as well as how in tune they have to be with the latest tech trends that will shape and impact companies pushing content for a living. Case in point: Jess Szmajda, Axios’ recently hired CTO, who’s been brought aboard to help the enterprise build its paid product offerings. Szmajda’s got boundless energy and enthusiasm, but she’s also got a lot on her plate.
“I lead Axios’ tech team in building tools and advancing capabilities for Smart Brevity—our innovative storytelling format that gets to the point and tells you what you need to know and why it matters,” says Szmajda, a transgender woman and the first female CTO of a major media company. “From the forward-facing items that our audience interacts with.” These range from “Axios’ infinitely scrolling stream, newsletters, advertisements, or podcast—to our behind-the-scenes efforts, like ensuring user privacy and supporting highly performant responses during traffic surges, our tech team touches almost every part of the company.”
Not every media property is alike,
however, which means that the tech chief’s role can vary, depending on the company.
Take, for instance, Joe Simon,
Vice Media’s recently enlisted
“My job involves being across and responsible for all technology activities, including business applications, basic and post-production infrastructure, the cloud, all things digital—like websites and apps—and our broadcast and media operations,” says Simon. “The business functions of CTOs can be extremely different. For example, we support post-production and broadcast, while another CTO may work closer with clients and be in charge of developing new technologies.”
Szmajda notes a common misconception about
CTOs—that their main objective is to advance technology for technology’s sake.
“What CTOs actually focus on is finding
ways to make technology work better for people. One of my personal goals
throughout my career has been to try and build technology that enables and
enhances human abilities,” she says. “That’s what the tech team and I are
focused on as we develop and innovate Axios’ efficient and valuable way of
Data that Delivers
A media player’s CDO, on the other hand, often has a wholly different set of duties. Consider Mike Smith, chief data officer for Hearst Magazines. He’s charged with managing strategy and ongoing development of the firm’s digital advertising operations, data capabilities, and ad product offerings; Smith also supervises CDS Global, a Hearst division that delivers outsourced business solutions across various industries.
“We help our advertisers predict their
prospective customers so they can better target ads. They give us data and our
data scientists study and merge it with our own collective audience data using
machine learning models,” Smith explains. “My role is data-centric but in the
service of sales and editorial.”
Smith’s challenges include educating the data scientists who work for him about how advertising works and trying to satisfy advertisers who expect the data richness inherent in a Facebook ad.
“Premium publishers need to hire people
who can qualify the data better and serve advertisers better when it comes to
their media buys,” adds Smith. “The advertiser wants to purchase your display
ads but with data informing that buy. The question is, how do you charge for
Simon, meanwhile, faces down other types
“The media industry is going through some
pretty big and disruptive changes, and Vice is right in the middle of it.
Audience tastes and consumption patterns are all changing, and we need to
evolve with those changes—all while focusing on current and expected revenue,”
While the obstacles vary by position,
there’s one thing all three of these pros can agree on: The job comes with
rewarding perks beyond the paycheck.
“I’m very excited about new distribution
options, and I’m fascinated by the diverse and evolving consumption options for
our audience. These new opportunities give us a chance to change our business
model and offer new products,” Simon says.
As for Szmajda, she’s excited about the
prospects of pushing her company forward—in more ways than merely
“One of my favorite things about serving
as CTO for Axios is the incredible runway I have to build and scale our tech
team,” notes Szmajda. “I have always had a people-first mentality and an
intense focus on diversity and inclusion in tech. The field is dominated by
white, heterosexual men, and many people don’t see people who look like them or
identify with them or think like them, making it hard to break into. Through
top-notch hiring efforts and community engagement, I’m really excited to build
out this team and its culture.”
This week, Apple announced a new suite of services including Apple News+ and Apple TV+, subscription services for news and video content respectively. It’s an interesting move for Apple, which excels at creating premium experiences, enjoys strong customer loyalty, and has the ability to potentially deliver audience scale. There are, however, serious questions about the revenue split, consumer relationship, app-market dominance, access to content, and Apple’s long-term commitment to publishers.
While few details are available at this point (particularly about Apple TV+), it appears Apple News+ will cost $9.99 per month with Apple taking a hefty 50% cut and distributing the remainder to all of the participating publishers. Tim Cook did not announce a price point for Apple TV+ but it seems likely to have similar characteristics as Apple News+, including a similar revenue split and distribution structure.
With these news services, Apple will control not only the relationship with the consumer, but will also control the data about the consumer. It’s hard enough to build a subscription business without having another company serve as the middleman between the content creator and their audience. Moreover, as New York Times’ CEO Mark Thompson put it, “Bundles always dilute the brand.”
More troubling is the fact that Apple runs the app marketplace itself via the App Store while simultaneously offering a media consumption app that competes with publishers’ branded apps as well as those of other aggregators such as Flipboard. An example of the inherent conflict of interest is that Apple places its own apps front and center, pre-installed on more than a billion phones worldwide. Beyond a glaring competitive advantage, controlling the marketplace and delivery mechanism of its competitors’ apps gives Apple unprecedented insights into the transactions of those companies (think Amazon selling its own brands while seeing everyone of its competitors’ transactions).
Apple forcing the reported levels of revenue splits and data terms underscores larger concerns about the dominance of platforms. As Senator Blumenthal, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee has stated, “[t]here is much stronger agreement among me and my colleagues that there needs to be more aggressive enforcement action on tech companies.” Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) recently called for the break-up of Apple and the other platforms. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) has long voiced concerns about potential bias of big tech firms. Members of Congress are concerned that big tech platforms have too much influence and are harmful to society. Although Apple has avoided a lot of the privacy gaffes of other tech giants, the fact that Apple can boldly propose such lopsided terms shows how the landscape is perilously tilted in favor of the big platform companies.
Bringing further voice to the concerns raised by policymakers, Spotify filed suit against Apple claiming that Apple “purposely limited choice and stifled innovation.” Spotify claims that Apple uses its platform to disadvantage competitors in the music streaming business, including by taking a 30% cut of subscription revenue. While Apple is not proposing to get into the news business, the Apple TV+ product sounds like Apple will be both distributor and competitor.
And, considering the fact that Apple has expressed concerns in how
digital advertising works, it seems an ironic choice for the company to favor advertising-based
business models over subscriptions for publishers.
Quick Fix or
Publishers are also rightly concerned about whether Apple
will maintain a long-term commitment to this initiative. Facebook famously
changes their terms, goals and algorithms about every six months, which makes
it extremely difficult for publishers to build a sustainable business. Other
social platforms have rolled out paid incentives to content producers only to
withdraw them as soon as the programs are off the ground. Publishers have rightly grown wary of
purported platform support.
At the end of the day, Apple needs to make a serious commitment to making distribution work for high-quality news and entertainment. As we have seen in Google and Facebook’s own (hardly altruistic) need to invest in the production of content that their business models undermined, building a model that sustains quality content creation is the bedrock of long-term success.
The drip, drip, drip of ideas to regulate tech companies continues. And when it comes to privacy, even the tech giants realize that regulation is coming and want to help craft those regulations. But 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren went even further, calling for the breakup of large technology companies with her Medium manifesto and a #BreakUpBigTech hashtag.
Her idea in a nutshell is to make any company with a
marketplace of goods or ideas and $25 billion in revenues into a “platform
utility” that cannot participate in the marketplace with its own goods or
Marketplace, Google’s ad exchange, and Google Search would be platform
utilities under this law,” Warren writes. “Therefore, Amazon
Marketplace and Basics, and Google’s ad exchange and businesses on the exchange
would be split apart. Google Search would have to be spun off as well.”
That means Facebook would lose Instagram and WhatsApp and
Google would lose Waze, Nest, and DoubleClick.
Whoa. Does that mean that suddenly publishers get their
online ad mojo back? Not exactly. Those independent companies would still wield
outsize power, and this campaign manifesto has a loooong way to go before it becomes real-life public policy and
Breaking Up is Easy
But before we come down to Earth and reality, let’s look at
just how attractive this #BreakUpBigTech idea is to so many people in media and
public policy – and how it even crosses ideological boundaries. After Warren
released her plan, she gave a keynote at the South by Southwest Conference in Austin
on March 9. To say it was a phenomenon would be an understatement. The SXSW
conference had already been trending against big tech, and Warren’s proposal
and keynote lit the match for even more heated discussion and argument.
She won converts such as high-profile investor Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor who slammed the company in his new book, “Zucked.” At SXSW, he said that, “I think Warren’s proposal is brilliant. There’s a behavior that’s rampant in the industry of people owning a marketplace and then participating in it. They do so in the detriment of competitors.”
And it wasn’t just the Democrats and those on the left cheering on Warren’s proposal; she also gained some strange bedfellows on the right who have been suspicious of the growing power of tech giants. Their arguments have not typically been about economics but about how social platforms are biased against speech from conservatives.
Even Ted Cruz supported Warren’s idea on Twitter: “First time I’ve ever retweeted @ewarren But she’s right — Big Tech has way too much power to silence Free Speech. They shouldn’t be censoring Warren, or anybody else. A serious threat to our democracy.” He was referring to Facebook actually taking down some ads Warren ran on the platform to promote her #BreakUpBigTech ideas – though they blamed the takedown on her use of Facebook’s logo.
Criticism from Tech
and Media Pundits
But of course: the devil is in the details. Warren’s broad plan was an easy target for tech pundits like Ben Thompson to point out its shortcomings. Thompson notes that “the reason why all of these companies have escaped antitrust scrutiny to date in the U.S. [is that] here antitrust law rests on the consumer welfare standard, and the entire reason why these companies succeed is because they deliver consumer benefit.” In other words, they remain free services that people largely like, and it’s not realistic that Apple would sell you an iPhone without apps or an App Store.
From the right, the National Review’s Rich Lowry says Warren has hit on the perfect catnip for liberals and conservatives by calling for the breakup of tech giants, but her prescriptions wouldn’t work and are too draconian. As Lowry wrote for Politico, “Their business practices aren’t above scrutiny. But any real offenses should be addressed with fixes addressing specific conduct, rather than with a massive politically imposed reorganization across the industry.”
And in the media and journalism world, an anti-trust breakup wouldn’t really move the needle for smaller local publishers who are dealing with much more intractable issues. As Free Press director Tim Karr told Sludge, “Even under a scenario where the largest online platforms are broken into their component parts, digital advertising will remain under the control of non-news media; newsrooms will continue to be shuttered and reporters laid off.”
While Warren’s proposal is a great thought experiment that
builds more momentum to regulate tech giants, it is mostly a half-baked
proposal that needs more details and a better way to support independent media
outlets. Yes, it’s nice to dream about a more level playing field when it comes
to online ads, privacy and trusted information, but we also have to realize
that tech giants have armies of lobbyists and change will happen incrementally.
If someone asked you five years ago which type of digital media would be seeing its renewed heyday, the podcast might not have been on the top of your list. But indeed, the format – still firmly connected to its broadcast radio roots – is in the midst of a renaissance.
Achieving new heights of popularity means that publishers of the audio-only medium have started to experiment with new business strategies to find a path to monetization.
We’ve seen some innovative approaches in the podcast sector like digital ad insertion, or having ad slots be dynamically filled by more up -o-date or geolocated content. But analyzing the recent business moves gives us an idea of what’s coming next in podcasting revenue.
Will Revenue Follow Audience?
In early February, Spotify purchased podcast publisher Gimlet Media for a cool $230 million. In a conversation with Recode’s Peter Kafka, Gimlet co-founder and president Matt Lieber explained that Spotify wasn’t just its second largest partner but also its fastest growing partner. He went on to say the reasons why the acquisition made sense was a “disconnect between the number of people who are listening and the amount of shows they’re listening to, and the amount of money coming into podcasting.”
With the size and scope of Spotify, Gimlet saw opportunity to overcome one of the fundamental challenges of podcasting: discovery. The competitive landscape means that to have your podcast’s needle found in the metaphorical hay stack, you either need to be lucky or know how to appeal to the right audience.
Lieber told Recode that the data found at the Swedish streaming platform (and its 96 million subscribers) would help with that process. The lack of relevant listener and audience data has held back the podcast industry in the past. Platform controllers like Apple weren’t releasing detailed enough listening data. This made it it difficult to fine tune advertising budgets and understanding your audience.
That’s not to say this new found access to audiences will change the fundamentally open nature of podcasting at the publisher. While there will be most certainly exclusive productions on the streaming platform, Gimlet’s most popular offerings won’t disappear from other podcast platforms. At the time of the announcement, Spotify said they had no plans on putting the content behind paywalls.
Similar to this approach, there are efforts like the premium Stitcher service which removes ads from their free shows and offers bonuses to subscribers.
So what about the companies who do want to publish content behind a subscription fee? Podcast publisher Luminary has set its sights on being the Netflix of podcasts. With a planned launch date of June, the service will charge $8 a month to get access to podcasts from the likes of Trevor Noah, Conan O’Brien, and Malcolm Gladwell. The media start up hopes the draw of big names will have people opening up their wallets.
Although, there are those who are a skeptical of the reach of direct to consumer efforts.
“Well everybody wants scale and they want people talking about [their show] and to engage with it,” said NPR’s senior vice-president of programming and audience development Anya Grundmann. “So you haven’t seen a lot of subscription [offerings] from the very beginning when trying to build audience.”
Grundmann pointed out that podcasts often end up being the “carrot” that drives consumer purchasing of subscriptions to news publications. Recently, the Guardian began running podcast ads in the shows they produce for their membership program, which seems to be having positive results.
Reaching the Masses
However, there’s also a drive to reach as many people as possible, much like its predecessor, broadcast radio. “I don’t see us putting our stuff behind a paywall,” said Grundmann of the public broadcaster. “Our goal is to reach as many people as we can and not just people who have money.”
That doesn’t mean NPR has not benefited from new ways to monetize the format. Grundmann said it has extended its podcast-related events business because there’s “so much energy of people wanting to meet people and be part of a community.”
Whether through the draw of exclusive content for power users or listening experiences without ads, direct to consumer offerings from podcast producers are beginning to emerge. But it’s also obvious that the traditional subscription model might not be the best fit for the resurgent industry, as many producers are hesitant to go all the way and lock content behind paywalls. Creators will need to continue to experiment and test strategies to determine the best ways to monetize the connections with their audiences.
It’s safe to say that brand safety has been one of the most pressing issues in marketing over the last two years. Advertisers have been made all too aware of the perils of digital media and what can happen if an ad runs alongside harmful content. Often, marketers may not even aware of where an ad will run, thanks to programmatic. So, they can be caught off guard when the issue spreads on social media.
The most recent brand safety concern happened in February when a YouTube user posted a video that highlights patterns of comments by pedophiles on otherwise innocuous videos. These people made comments that sexualized the kids in the videos. In other instances, these commenters shared links to child pornography.
Soon after, several advertisers including Nestle, Disney, AT&T, and Epic Games all pulled their advertising from YouTube. YouTube responded by disabling comments on most videos that include children under 13, as well as on some videos featuring older minors. It had also been reaching out to agencies and brands, reassuring them that YouTube is still a safe platform for their ads.
Brands and Boycotts
Many people feel that when brands boycott a platform, it’s just grandstanding PR. And really, boycotts haven’t materially affected YouTube’s financial performance. But these days, advertisers are generally concerned by the responses from platforms like YouTube and Facebook, with one digital ad executive recently telling Ad Age that YouTube’s promises “ring hollow, however, given this latest flare up is just one of many brand safety failures in the past two years.” They just keep happening, and so the cycle of brand boycott, only to inevitably return to the platform, continues.
Ad Age noted that YouTube offered flimsy solutions for advertisers. “YouTube has offered half-measures for brands, the executive says. For instance, YouTube is telling some brands to categorize ads as ‘alcohol’ (even if the company is not an alcohol brand), that way it tricks the automated ad system into avoiding videos with themes that appeal to children and families.”
Do Advertisers Really Care?
However, some observers think these brand safety issues have been overblown. It has been suggested that some advertisers are much more worried about consumer backlash over brand-safety incidents than they are about the incidents themselves. In the grand scheme, there are relatively few flare ups when considered in the context of how many ads are served, says media analyst and consultant Thomas Baekdal.
“What brands are worried about is to be called out about something – often outside of their control – and to face some type of backlash. Because of it… they are worried about what people might say or do on social channels,” he says. “They are also worried about activists, who in recent years have grown far more aggressive. And again, with the help of both the press and social media, they have managed to have a far bigger impact using very few resources.”
That may be true. But any time a major advertiser like AT&T, which spends a total of billions in advertising annually, pulls its advertising from one of the world’s largest platforms, reporters do need to cover it – regardless of whether or not it’s a cynical PR move on the brand’s part. (You could argue that the business press should stop covering PR stunts like this altogether, but that’s an entirely different conversation.)
All or Nothing
Baekdal also questions the move to ban comments, arguing that in some cases, comments are integral to a platform’s existence, or a content creator’s success. “One of the things we have to remember is that YouTube is fundamentally a two-way channel. It’s a platform where you are communicating rather than simply publishing. So, taking away comments entirely is a pretty drastic step that, for some channels, could destroy them,” he says. “If you have a YouTube channel where the discussion and the community are what defines the focus, removing comments would kill that channel. More to the point, it punishes the wrong people.” In fact, if some of the comments are inappropriate, disabling all comments penalizes the video’s poster.
Shelly Palmer recently wrote a column for Ad Age that’s worth reading in full. He argues that we should stop looking at YouTube to ever be totally brand safe. Palmer posits that there is no possible way to make YouTube, or any environment that relies so heavily on user-generated content (UGC), 100 percent brand safe. “Asking ‘Is YouTube safe for my brand?’ is a better question, and it is the proper lens for any serious marketing discussion.”
The Quality Question
For publishers, there’s a potential upside to all this uproar. Just after the most recent YouTube incident, Digiday noted that agencies began looking to directly buy from premium publishers on YouTube, potentially providing a revenue boost.
And let’s not forget brand safety is not a one-dimensional issue. And, for many advertisers, it isn’t limited to these noisy consumer outcries and PR flare ups. At the Digiday Media Buying Summit in November, GroupM’s Joe Barone defined it in a number of ways, including viewability and concern over bot traffic. Less flashy, but still important.
“We’ve also begun to talk about is the idea of quality. If we can get a quality environment, quality inventory from quality publishers, that are seen by real people in appropriate contextual environments, those ads sell better. Brand safety is linked directly to inventory quality and client results. Clients have become very educated on this process. They ask the same questions. They start with questions like ‘you mean to tell me my ads aren’t being seen?’ or ‘bots are clicking on my ads?’”
About the Author
Maureen Morrison is a marketing consultant working with agencies, startups, publishers and brands. She previously was a reporter and editor, having spent nearly 12 years at Ad Age covering agencies, digital media and marketers.
It does not come as a surprise that most digital publishers look to the New York Times for subscription strategy advice: On February 6th, The “failing” New York Times posted digital revenue of $709 million for 2018, based largely on its 3.4 million digital subscriptions. It also bucked expectations when it came to its ability to attract new subscribers. The NYT added 265,000 new digital subscriptions in the last quarter of 2018, which it calls “the biggest gain since the months immediately following the 2016 election.” As a result, the paper has set itself the new goal of having 10 million subscriptions by 2025.
This all suggests that while the “Trump bump” was a reality, there is more to the NYT’s success than simply being the target of The President’s ire. In an interview with Ken Doctor, the NYT’s Chief Executive Mark Thompson attributes much of its success to steady investment in the newsroom – which he calls a “very simple, old-fashioned model” – through having the highest number of journalists on staff in the paper’s history.
The vast majority of news publishers, however, do not have the coffers of a national title. Later in the interview, Thompson acknowledges that the NYT has unreplicable advantages when it comes to adding staff. However, the New York Times is employing a strategy that more publishers can and should emulate: It’s giving its news away for free – to 3 million students.
On its face, the idea sounds crazy. Back in July of last year, the NYT’s ‘The Truth Is Worth It’ advertising campaign made paying for high-quality news the responsibility of the public. Its press release stated that its research had “found that seventy-three percent of U.S. news consumers who pay and subscribe to a news source say that it has never been more important to support quality journalism.”
That rhetoric has also been employed by publications including The Times of London, the Guardian, New Statesman, and others as they market their own paid-for news products. Even local and hyperlocal publishers are increasingly pushing the idea that, while “news” is readily available for free online, quality news needs to be paid for.
In fact, the NYT is making a bet on free as a long term investment in demonstrating the value of quality journalism. As with the growth in its newsroom headcount, this is an investment the NYT is making in its future. And, while there might not be straightline attribution between these free subscriptions and total revenue for the foreseeable future, it is a smart bet that it can convert some readers who might never have paid into lifetime subscribers.
It’s a clever strategy for a number of reasons. However, it all builds upon the idea that free subscriptions for a particular demographic can convert a proportion of people –0 who otherwise might never pay for digital news – into regular subscribers.
While young people are more likely to pay for news than previous generations, there is a hard cap on how many news subscriptions they can afford. The latest Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that just 14% of people globally currently pay for online news. And it’s vanishingly unlikely that the majority will pay for more than one subscription. Additionally, the price of an annual news subscription can take a back seat to entertainment services, though this is not a phenomenon unique to young people. Competition for those 14% of people, then, is going to be fierce.
(The NYT’s scheme is currently limited to students in the United States. However, the increasingly international NYT plans to open it up to international students as well, where the propensity to pay for news is typically lower than in the US).
So by offering the subscription for free, the NYT is effectively betting that it can create a relationship with enough students to make the scheme worthwhile. Having that preexisting relationship with a potentially lucrative audience is vital: With more players entering the subscription space, it’s unlikely that more than a handful of truly international publishers will be able to sustain themselves solely with the revenue from the 16% of people who are willing to pay for news in the US.
Those subscribers are a rare commodity, and getting young people on board early could mitigate some of that conflict with the NYT’s peers.
The Axios piece that trumpets the NYT’s 3 million student subscriptions contains a telling quote from Hannah Yang, head of subscription growth at the paper: “We already have high retention, but I think this could make it almost bulletproof.”
It’s a vote of confidence in the NYT’s ability to retain subscribers, but it’s also tacit acknowledgment that the cost of acquiring new subscribers far outstrips re-upping the contracts of existing ones. By some accounts, it costs up to five times as much to acquire a new subscriber than to retain an existing one.
Having an extra 3 million subscribers – particularly younger ones – on the books also has a beneficial impact on the NYT’s relationship with advertising. Brands are keen to reach as many people as possible, and younger demographics are highly desirable to some. So, while marketing subscriptions relies on having the depth of content that the NYT’s expanded newsroom offers, marketing products and commodities requires reach.
Additionally, having data on those self-selected subscribers is invaluable. Thompson makes this observation, both in the Nieman Lab article and in the press release, noting that “we are more attractive to the world’s leading brands than we would be if we didn’t have a digital subscription business. That’s why we’re growing our digital advertising business.”
Having those logged-in users also allows the NYT access to user data that allows it to refine its publishing strategy and the types of content it highlights to interested readers. Over the course of the last few years, The Times of London has been using exactly that sort of data to reduce consumer churn by appealing to their favourite aspects of the subscription. The greater the sample size, the better the refinements. Therefore, 3 million extra subscribers equals a huge amount of data points.
From a purely altruistic point of view, too, offering subscriptions to those who might not otherwise be able to afford one fulfils the journalistic remit to inform the public. That was explicitly the reason the FT announced it was extending its free access to FT.com to 16–19 year olds globally.
In a recent episode of the Media Voices podcast, we discussed the practical difficulties of other publishers trying to emulate The New York Times. It has, after all, a number of inherent strengths that most newspapers simply won’t be able to replicate.
In particular, it has a profitable business that allows it the luxury of both investing in its newsroom and the time to let those free subscriptions percolate and, eventually, have a chance to develop into full subscriptions. As a national title, it also has strong brand recognition, and can reach students from coast to coast.
Some other publishers, particularly local papers, simply don’t have the time to let those experiments play out. They also may not have enough students or other potential future subscribers in their patch to make it worth their while, and consequently we are already seeing many local publishers iterating on a hard paywall model rather than letting a particular demographic in for free.
Ultimately, it all comes down to whether free student subscriptions allow a newspaper to bypass that hard cap on propensity to pay for news. If reducing the friction of onboarding, deepening the relationship with the user during their free trial, and using their data to support other parts of the business adds even a few percentage points to the number of people who will re-up that subscription, the endeavour will have been worthwhile.
On January 29th, at the 2019 DCN Next: Summit, Rappler CEO Maria Ressa outlined the role social media and concerted, well-orchestrated disinformation campaigns played in perpetuating false information and media distrust in the Philippines, as well as attacks aimed at Rappler.
She then went on to have a wide-ranging discussion examining the various pressures on media credibility (and safety) worldwide with interviewer extraordinaire Kara Swisher, Co-founder of Recode.
Less than two weeks later, on Wednesday, February 13 at 5 p.m. local time in Manila, plainclothes officers from the National Bureau of Investigation, an agency within the Department of Justice, arrested Ressa on charges of cyber libel. As Ressa wrote in a statement: “We are not intimidated. No amount of legal cases, black propaganda, and lies can silence Filipino journalists who continue to hold the line. These legal acrobatics show how far the government will go to silence journalists, including the pettiness of forcing me to spend the night in jail.”
The Board of Directors of Digital Content Next (DCN), a trade association representing nearly 80 high-quality media companies, said, “The arrest of Maria Ressa is deeply troubling. Maria traveled to the U.S. to share her developing story with our members only two weeks ago. It is vital we value and protect the independence of media organizations and journalists around the world. Any effort to silence journalists or use intimidation to reduce their reporting is an affront to freedom. We encourage global leaders and the press community to make it clear this cannot be tolerated.”
In light of Ressa’s arrest, and to reinforce our support of a free press everywhere, DCN is pleased to share the video of Ressa and Swisher’s interview (full transcript below):
And, for those who would like to show support for Rappler and Ressa’s work, she has provided a link to their crowdfunding page.
Below, we’ve shared a full transcript of Ressa’s conversation with Swisher.
Alexandra Roman: [00:00:00]
I am truly honored to introduce this next conversation interviewer
extraordinaire Recode’s Kara Swisher. She’ll be speaking with a very special
person in our world these days. Named Time magazine’s Person of the year as one
of the guardians of journalism, please welcome the CEO of Rappler, Maria Ressa.
Kara Swisher: [00:00:33] So we’re going to start…first Maria is going to make a presentation then we’re gonna have a full fantastic discussion. Maria was on my podcast recently. It was, it was an amazing experience for me and I’m so glad she’s here and safe in the United States right now. We’ll be talking about that more. But first Maria go ahead.
Maria Ressa: [00:00:52] So
I like that Jason [Kint, CEO of DCN] talked about trust. And this is stuff I’ll
show to you from our perspective in the Philippines because it’s got the data
to prove the thesis and then I think you guys are not quite… I think you’re
not seeing the termites eating at the the credibility that you have as news
organizations and those termites are coming from geopolitical power plays. We
go back to information is power and with that that let me show you what’s
happened in the Philippines.
January last year, there were two surveys that came up exactly the same time but they’re almost complete opposite results. The top is real world Pew Global Attitudes Survey: How do Filipinos look at traditional media? And they came back they said 86 percent think traditional media is and the right quote is “fair and accurate.” But the Philippine trust index, which is part of the Edelman Trust survey, they came out with a survey that same month a year ago. And they asked people on social media and they came out with 83 percent “distrust traditional media.” Right. So how did that happen? We tried to figure out why is the world upside down? That’s really the question right. Why is the world upside down?
We have a database that we started gathering in July of 2016 when the when the drug war began in the Philippines because the attacks all came on social media. In our case it’s Facebook. But this is a timeline of attacks on traditional media. And in Rappler because we were the main focal point for a period of time, [which] started January 2015 and then moving to April 2017. January 2016 was when the campaigns began and the social media machine of then Mayor Duterte. He Was elected to office May 2016. You see that one? And you can see the fracture line Byaran means corrupt. Bias. So Bayaran is the one in the middle. The first long line and bias is the last one. If you look at that it’s a fracture line of society right.
There were mentions before but it was constantly pounded until it became a straight line after president Duterte was elected the weaponization of social media happened after he was elected because it was repeatedly pounded until it became fact. A lie told a million times its truth.
Right. So, then what happened? Here: This This is the database I was telling you about right? We call it The Shark Tank. The one on your left is the URLs that are spreading fake news in the Philippines. The middle column are the court the Facebook pages that are spreading that page. And I always look at the average reposting time which is the one all the way to your… my right, sorry it’s flipped.
I want to show you when the real attacks began against Rappler and it was after we came out with a three-part series on the weaponization of social media. It was October 2016. I went to Facebook with the data August 2016. So, October 2016 this is what it looked like. In October 2016, if it’s more than 10 times reposting, it turns red, You can see how it turned red. This Facebook page Sally Might Die accomplished its goals by April 2017. It’s been deleted from Facebook but you can see … This was something we created for our social media team so that you can see it’s a cut and paste account. And they post; look at how many times they post in one day! Each one of those squares is just one day. And this is where they post the groups. They posted to go viral in the campaign pages of Duterte it and Marcos, the son of former President Ferdinand Marcos.
oneI’m going to just show you the last thing which is how can we figure out who’s attacking us. Well you can gather the data and it looks like this but if you put it in a network map, It looks like this. This is the network that was attacking Vice President Leonie Robredo about a year ago and it is the same network that constantly attacks me, Rappler, and every traditional media. It is so systematic that the content creators of the network are broken down by demographic. For the Motherland, it is pseudo-intellectual and tries to target the one percent but pseudo-intellectual. The middle class is targeted by thinking Pinoy and the mass base is this Moka Olsen blog who is former singer dancer. They used to use to build her Facebook page by having it like she has a singing group called the Mocha Girls and they do pillow fights every Sunday. That was how they first built her Facebook page. Then she became the head of social media for the presidential palace and it became a whole other thing.
Anyway, you can see this is what attacks what attacks
journalists systematically. And it happens so many times. I just want to show
you one last thing which is something we did for Rappler. Natural Language
Processing to pull out. So, we looked at the entire Lexis Nexis right to try to
figure out … What do we need to learn? What Is the data telling us about the
articles that were written about us at the time when I was about to come home
for bail to file bail? Yeah, I had an arrest warrant then.
Right. So, the Philippines wrote 34 percent of the stories.
The United States wrote 27 percent. You guys are a potent a potent force for
us. But what was most interesting is that the Filipino stories are part of the
reason it’s in a line like this is because they essentially just regurgitated
the press release of the Department of Justice. It was the American news
organizations that talked about it as a Duterte rights crackdown. That wrote
about it in context. That was an amazing thing. I want to leave you with sorry
I don’t know what wrong thing, I think. I want to move forward. I want to leave
you with this information warfare. Yeah, I guess this is the right one.
So, with information warfare I’m going to bring it to to Russia. Dezinformatsiya. This was really interesting because. For Duterte to end the drug war. Sorry about that my slides were. OK so… I don’t know if you remember Yuri Andropov. He was the former KGB Chairman. This quote stuck with me because it fit the Philippines. Dezinformatsiya works like cocaine. If you sniff once or twice it may not change your life. If you use it everyday though it will make you into an addict. A different man. I think this is the impact on our democracies and we’ve seen it.
The first reports came out in November of 2017 saying that cheap armies on social media are rolling back democracies all around the world. And at that point it was something like 28 countries. By last year, it was 48 countries. It’s doubling. We started looking at Ukraine to try to understand how we can use the data the way Ukraine started fighting back. It is information warfare. It is political. It is about power and the money part of it … or the people who are actually or who are actually catering to the politicians. Russia backed Facebook post, this was November of 2017, this is the first time that I saw Americans really starting to look at it. But even when I saw this ok they reached 126 million Americans. I think what people missed is it happens all the time. It wasn’t just ads, it was it’s all the time …
I talk about termites. This bot is interesting to me because
it tweeted about U.S. elections. First, remember the Philippine election of
Duterte was one month before Brexit. After Brexit, there were U.S. elections
and then the Catalan elections. This little bot Ivan tweeted about all of
those. So, we found him from the Catalan elections. And when I’ve looked at his
account, it was specifically only tweeting about the Philippines. When we
posted this story, within 24 hours Twitter took his network down.
On Facebook, this is the last part I want to show you, the most recent thing that I found fascinating. In December, two groups came out with reports based on data that was given to the US Senate Intelligence Committee. This is the chart that is from new knowledge. And this thing at the bottom, I want to show you the connection between the Philippines and that chart. It’s this: So we tend to map the networks around us. Let me just. Try to get this so that you can see it. There. This is the attack network. Not connecting.
OK. So, this attack network was from November. Sorry it’s frozen. There. Yay. OK. November 8, December 7th. This network. And you know what I used to map the network is this free tool called Flourish. It’s a startup. This is little Rappler. And what’s so interesting and this is where I will make the pitch that I don’t think we have any other choice but to actually collaborate together. Rappler is here. This, all of this, is a disinformation network that’s attacking us and you can kind of literally see it right.
But what’s so interesting is in the Philippines this
overshadows the information landscape. The traditional media groups are so set
aside they’re desperate. I’ve been trying for the last two years to get our top
television networks our newspapers to work together like retweet re share each
other so that we can rise up together in the algorithms. We refuse to do it
because people think it’s competitive. But you know what? You’re competing
against disinformation not against each other now.
I want to show you this because and I’ll end with this one… so this disinformation network is so interesting right. But this is the most fascinating one. When we saw this, I was surprised because this was created a year ago. It’s only one year old the daily sentry dot net. And yet the larger the circle, the larger the eigenvector centrality, the more powerful the account is. This is exponential pushes behind it. What’s interesting about it is that this is the first time we saw a direct connection to the Russian disinformation landscape because daily century dot net uses experts in quotes from this network. Sorry I can’t I can’t do the thing but on that chart there is an American man who who’s often interviewed by our de Sputnik by Iranian television … His name is Adam Gary. He is now an expert who’s popping into the Philippine ecosystem. He came in through the Daily Century and he’s from the Daily Century and he jumped into traditional newspapers from there. There’s a direct link to him because he writes for Global Research dot ca a group in Canada and connected to two other groups: one is Eurasian affairs dot net here. Another site both of whom come from a Russian IP address.
All that data in the chart came from the data that was given
to the Senate Intelligence Committee and published last December. This is
what’s happening in my country. I think you’re finding out what’s happening in
yours. But I think we’re only a small case study of what is happening globally
and that scares me.
Kara Swisher: [00:14:13] OK. All right. So, how was prison? [laughter] No really. How was prison?
Maria Ressa: [00:14:20] I, oh, I hope I won’t get there but you know…
Kara Swisher: [00:14:25] You were arrested. Explain what happened to you? We we did a podcast and I said you should not go back to the Philippines because you will be arrested. And what happened.
Maria Ressa: [00:14:32] Of
course I went back. Right. But I wasn’t arrested. OK. I thought I would be so
our lawyers told me … My flight arrived on Sunday night at 9:30 p.m. The
court, which is supposed to be an all night court, well it closes at 9:00 p.m.
So, if they had picked me up that night I couldn’t have filed bail until Monday
morning when courts opened. In the Philippines, if you have an arrest warrant
you’re not told you have an arrest warrant. They just come get you. I came I
went home and I was I wasn’t going to change anything and it went OK. I filed
bail. I I filed bail once I filed. I posted bail five times actually in that
Kara Swisher: [00:15:16] But
to be. And you weren’t actually arrested.
Maria Ressa: [00:15:18] No
I wasn’t arrested. I wasn’t arrested.
Kara Swisher: [00:15:20] Please
explain to everyone here who doesn’t know why they [are going to] arrest you.
What are the charges?
Maria Ressa: [00:15:26] Well
charges are ludicrous. Tax evasion. It’s really one event, the same event, that
I have four other cases of. They’re alleging, the government is alleging, that
I am working for, well, that Rappler is owned by Americans one and that I am
essentially working for them to take down the government. Very Putin-esque.
None of that is true. And then on top of that, the arrest warrant came from
taking that same charge: the investment instrument that we used, which was
constitutional. They then decided that… we didn’t pay the right taxes. And
the reason why they said we didn’t pay the right taxes was because they
reclassified Rappler into a stock brokerage agency.
Kara Swisher: [00:16:16] Rather
than a journalist.
Maria Ressa: [00:16:17] Rather
than a newsgroup.
Kara Swisher: [00:16:18] Right.
Maria Ressa: [00:16:19] And
that’s what I have to post bail for.
Kara Swisher: [00:16:21] The
reason I’m asking what this is I want people to understand how people can use
social media to create trumped up charges and then arrest you for them arrest
you for it.
Maria Ressa: [00:16:32] Well it is interesting that you said that because all of these charges. I laughed off because they first appeared on social media. And they were thrown at me. CIA you’re a foreigner. I am a dual citizen. But, all of that. Like termites you know they just came at it and then a year and a half later it comes out of President Duterte’s mouth during the State of the Nation address. He said that you are a journalist; I’m covering the State of the Nation address. And then President Dutertet says look at Rappler: They are American. So, then I just tweeted back. President, no we’re not owned by Americans.
Kara Swisher: [00:17:12] Right, right. So, let’s talk about the state. Well, last we talked you, you made a very passionate plea to Facebook to do something about what’s happening. What you’re showing here is essentially organized disinformation campaigns to pull you down because you’re doing critical coverage of the president in the Philippines. And so they’re employing a very slow moving but powerful network to do so and using in the Philippines as you said most people get their news at not just the Philippines but across the world from Facebook. This is the purveyor of news. And these malevolent forces have created pages and news organizations and fake organizations to try to battle that. Talk a little bit about that. About what where you are right now because at the time. You were sort of subject to the biggest news organization attacking you being used to attack you.
Maria Ressa: [00:18:06] OK.
So I think that there’s a whole information ecosystem that has been
manufactured and it is manufactured reality. And we went down to a point where
we were looking at you know how how powerful is it really. We manually counted
the impact of 26 fake accounts. 26 fake accounts can actually reach up to three
million other accounts in the Philippines and it wasn’t we were the first
targets because we expose them. I was so naive.
You know, I thought wow we can just do a hashtag no place
for hate campaign and people will come back because you think these are real
people. They Are not. And after we did that, we became the target. And as you
saw in the first slide it’s not just us it is traditional media because the
main goal is to kill any trust in any institution that can that can push back.
All we have done is challenge impunity. Impunity here in information warfare and impunity in the drug war. You don’t know how many people have been killed in the Philippines during this drug war because they keep changing the numbers. At most recent count the Philippine police will admit to killing 5,000 people. Even that number alone is huge compared to the fact that 3,200 were killed in nine years of Marcos rule. Right. But. There’s this other number they never rule out. It’s the homicide cases under investigation and there are 30,000 people who’ve been killed there. So, If you think about it since July 2016 you can have more than it is tens of thousands. Thirty five thousand. I know the way they parse the number and I’m even cautious in the way I tell you how many people have been killed.
Kara Swisher: [00:19:58] So
what they’re doing is trying to use social media to stop you from writing about
Maria Ressa: [00:20:03] Not just trying to use it they’ve used it effectively. iI think this is the first the first weapon it’s a new tool against journalists and against truth. And part of the reason we’re having a crisis of trust is because this is global.
Kara Swisher: [00:20:17] Right.
So, talk a little bit about your efforts with Facebook to do this initially. You
ran into Mark Zuckerberg and told him about this.
Maria Ressa: [00:20:28] F8 April 2017. There was a small group of us who had lunch together. It was founders groups of companies that were working with Facebook and I invited him to come to the Philippines because I said you know you have no idea how powerful Facebook is. Ninety-seven percent of Filipinos who are on the Internet are on Facebook. We’re 100 million people. And he was frowning and I was going so why are you frowning. And he just said, “Maria what are the other three percent doing?”[laughter]. We laughed: huh.
Kara Swisher: [00:21:05] Ah.
Ha. Ha. That’s how the board talks. But go ahead.
Maria Ressa: [00:21:09] But
that’s when you realize that that they didn’t understand their impact. What
they understood was their goal. And so I think now that’s changed.
Kara Swisher: [00:21:21] Right.
So they did that and then you brought this information to them. What happened
Maria Ressa: [00:21:27] Nothing.
You know by the time Mark Zuckerberg was in Congress for me everything that you
guys were finding out here is you know “been there done that.” We’ve
talked about this. I feel like Cassandra, you know. I’ve talked to maybe more
than 50 different officers and friends inside Facebook.
But we’re the Philippines and maybe people think you know
you’re out there. But, when He appeared in Congress and he said it would take
five years to fix this with AI. I was like you can’t do five years. Because In
the global South in my countries in Myanmar Sri Lanka and the Philippines every
day that it isn’t fixed means people die… I think they’re getting it. I think
partly your coverage you know the 2018 has spotlighted this but I don’t think
enough because it’s still being used.
The good thing is there have been take downs take downs of
Russian networks, Iranian networks, they’ve been to take downs in the
Philippines. The most recent take down was about three weeks ago of a network
we identified and did a story on 13 months earlier. You know so it’s a little
too little too late but you know what. I will take everything because at least
it cleans it up. But the fundamental problem is that. our gatekeeping power …
So, we used to create [and] distribute the news and when we distributed the news we’re the gatekeepers. Now that power has gone to the social media platforms. Facebook is now the world’s largest distributor of news and yet it has refused to be the gatekeeper. And when it does that when you allow lies to actually get on the same playing field as facts, it taints the entire public sphere. And it’s like introducing toxic sludge in the mix. And this I think that’s the fundamental problem. They have to actually at some point say take down the lies instead of allowing it to spread.
Kara Swisher: [00:23:33] So
what do you face when you go there and say you need to take down these lies?
Tell me what happens or how are they now working with you.
Maria Ressa: [00:23:41] It’s
it’s significantly different now. And that’s part of the reason.
Kara Swisher: [00:23:46] Well
they’re very sorry now. But they’re very very sorry and also very very very
Maria Ressa: [00:23:53] I think they’re starting to understand what they’ve done. And I think they’ve started to hire the right people. In January of 2017, Nathaniel Glaser who was in charge of counterterrorism in the Obama White House. You know he was hired and shortly after that, well took a while, because this is a manual effort right? Tracking these networks down like counterterrorism requires somebody like a law enforcement official to go look for them. And so that’s part of the reason you see the takedown start starting to happen. I think it goes. The main thing that they have to do is to go to the content moderation system that they’ve put in place.
Kara Swisher: [00:24:39] Right.
Maria Ressa: [00:24:40] As journalists we have values and principles. We call it the standards and ethics manual. As tech people they tried to atomized it into a checklist and then this checklist goes to content moderators in — you know the two largest for a long period of time we’re in Warsaw and Manila.
Kara Swisher: [00:25:01] Right.
Maria Ressa: [00:25:02] And in Manila … I don’t know if you saw the movie, it was done by..
Kara Swisher: [00:25:06] The
Maria Ressa: [00:25:08] The
Cleaners, right. And in that one you can see that that these content moderators
who barely make you know minimum wage here in the States but they they have
seconds to decide whether to delete or whether to let content stay. And if they
just go by a prescriptive checklist they’ll just go up delete delete and let it
stay. And the guy who took down Napalm Girl was a Filipino and he took down
Napalm Girl because check list naked.
Kara Swisher: [00:25:35] So there’s no famous photograph of the girl running from napalm in Vietnam. Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph. It was news.
Maria Ressa: [00:25:44] So
these Filipinos who were in a call center in the Philippines are taking down
terrorist content potential are taking down supposed hate speech without any
cultural context without understanding the content.
Kara Swisher: [00:25:59] So
what do you what is your solution to them. I’m using Facebook as a broad thing
but they really are the game. Twitter is sort you have the same problems with
Twitter and other social networks?
Maria Ressa: [00:26:10] Twitter
is only 7 percent of penetration in the Philippines.
Kara Swisher: [00:26:13] So
it’s an unpopular service. So yeah.
Maria Ressa: [00:26:18] No, but it’s same right the same content moderation policy as YouTube. YouTube is huge. Also in the Philippines. And you know what this disinformation cuts across all of them. So I mean you saw it in our shark tank. We had the you or else I would love to give that to Google and have them down ran some of that. Right. Because.
Kara Swisher: [00:26:39] This
is just you doing their work for them. Correct?
Maria Ressa: [00:26:43] You
know I… I guess for me when you’re dealing with this stuff. and you’re
breathing it, it’s like toxic fumes every day. You just want a solution. And it
takes… Imagine if somebody from America comes to the Philippines and tries to
figure this out. It would take them a year. I already know it. Here take it. Do
something with it. I don’t look at it as their work. I think OK. This is where
I’ll be really generous. I know that they didn’t mean to do it. It is an
extremely powerful tool and the reason why I continue to work with Facebook is
because I think if they had the political will and the economic will to do
This is a game changer for the Philippines. Rappler couldn’t
exist without Facebook. We zoomed we grew 100 to 300 percent year on year
because of Facebook at the beginning in the good times. And I think they made a
crucial error in 2015 and that was instant articles when they brought all the
news groups in and then all of a sudden were at the same algorithms as the joke
that you heard or what you had for dinner. And when we became mob rule when
facts became determined by mob rule then it changed the ecosystem of democracy
in the world.
Kara Swisher: [00:28:03] And
what do you propose now that these… So, YouTube is a problem.
Maria Ressa: [00:28:09] YouTube
Kara Swisher: [00:28:09] A
huge problem. Are you getting the same responses from them: So sorry. They’re
really, really sorry. [laughter] No they really are. But they’re not in any way
Maria Ressa: [00:28:22] So
yeah. Tell me do you think they will act on it?
Kara Swisher: [00:28:27] You know I have an expression that was from one of my grandparents: You’re so poor all you have is money. I think they like their billions. I think they think they’re doing good for the world. And I think they’re careless. It’s sort of like from The Great Gatsby. They were careless people and they moved, they did damage and moved on.
Maria Ressa: [00:28:47] But they now know they’re not. And they’re killing people. They know that now.
Kara Swisher: [00:28:52] I
think they, what I’m getting now from a lot of people, is you’re so mean to us.
Maria Ressa: [00:28:59] Because
I do see them see this.
Kara Swisher: [00:29:01] When they say that I’m like fuck you. [laughter, applause.] You know what I mean. So it’s very hard for me to. But they are there’s a lot of victimy.
Maria Ressa: [00:29:11] I
mean until now. But you don’t know.
Kara Swisher: [00:29:14] No
I think they’re they literally get angry when people say hey hey now you know
hack democracy you really need to fix it. And they… I think one of the things
that I find interesting is when there is money to be made or whatever, they are
it’s their company. Yes.
And when there’s problems to be solved, it’s we all togethe have to solve it as a group. You know I mean and I’m like we didn’t get 64 billion dollars that I looked at. You know I have real old shoes. I don’t know. I mean we didn’t share in the upswing. And so I think again I joke. I’m so sorry but they feel badly but then I think are actually incapable in any way of taking care of it. I think they have they don’t have the mentality. They don’t have the talent. I think they’re incompetent to the task. That’s what I think.
Maria Ressa: [00:30:02] But
if that’s the case they will die. I mean it’s going to be a slow painful death.
But you know what I mean I guess for me I’m taking almost an opposite that it’s
there’s this phrase on enlightened self-interest that is…
Kara Swisher: [00:30:17] One
would think. One would think. No because this this will eventually… the
product will become terrible to use.
Maria Ressa: [00:30:24] Right.
Kara Swisher: [00:30:25] Or
it will become very addictive to use. And then what’s the difference? Like you
said with cocaine, I think. So, how do you … what are you wanting. What would
you like from them? You’d like them to become gatekeepers in other words.
Maria Ressa: [00:30:37] I don’t think they have a choice. I think they have to be. Otherwise we will leave. Right? Or again they’ll break be broken up by regulation or people will leave. In the Philippines so look at the immediate reaction. Alexa ranking of all the websites where do Filipinos go? From 2012 to 2016: number one Facebook. Undisputed. But then when the toxic sludge began mid-2016, by January 2017 on Alexa ranking Facebook dropped from number one to number eight. And then by January 2018, it went back to number five. In January 2019, right now, if you look at Alexa ranking in the Philippines, it’s number four.
So slowly they’re rising up but there’s no way. So, I mean
my thing is if they don’t fix it we will leave. We will leave. So that’s why I
think it is in their best interest they have no choice. But They are going to
have to suck it up and they’re going to have to have they are going to have to
hire real people. Machines can’t do this. But those real people will train the A.I.
and it will get better over time and they will have to lose money because they
will have to hire real people.
Kara Swisher: [00:31:52] So
talk to me a little bit about that business because you’re trying to create a
Maria Ressa: [00:31:57] Yeah.
2019 I’m trying to be a good CEO.
Kara Swisher: [00:32:00] Being
arrested attacked and essentially they’re trying to put you out of business.
Maria Ressa: [00:32:07] The
Kara Swisher: [00:32:07] Talk
about the actual business. Because it’s hard enough to do a digital effort. You
know that. I know that.
Maria Ressa: [00:32:14] Yeah.
So, in the Philippines and in many other parts of the world good journalism is
really bad business and I wear both an executive editor hat and I’m the CEO so
it’s my job to make sure our business survives. In 2017, when the attacks started
happening we realized that and we had a big board battle. You know “you
journalists, you know you gotta tone it down” from the business men. And then,
from the journalists, because we had we were the largest group of shareholders
in Rappler. We had 3 percent more votes. So we pushed forward and 2018 was
mission and a lot of anger management issues. But 2019, I have to be a good CEO
and we need to build the business. So what we’ve decided. So when you’re under
attack by the government your advertisers get scared almost immediately they
don’t want to be associated with the brand. They always say you know Maria
we’re behind you but they’re very very far behind. [laughter].
Kara Swisher: [00:33:18] And
nice Time cover!
Maria Ressa: [00:33:23] So
I found out about it on Twitter. And I had to check whether it was real! But
the time cover is the first time I saw the ecosystem come up like real people
who were afraid. Fear is very real in the Philippines and I’m sorry. Before I
before I talk about the fear and I just want to finish on the part about the
business. So businessmen the businesses… they’re not the protectors of
democracy. And even if their values say that they want to do that they just
don’t because the money isn’t there. So, you can’t attack Facebook in the same
way or if you’re run by businesses your values — sorry — they follow
afterwards after the money. So, well, what we did is: We came up. We were
forced to be agile. And A lot of the things that you saw–the mapping, trying
to understand unstructured big data ,all of these things– we came up and
pivoted and became a consultant. Like I essentially carved out another team
that can do the same things we do for Rappler for other companies.
Kara Swisher: [00:34:37] So
your business… so, in that environment what do you do? Because good
journalism like you said is bad business.
Maria Ressa: [00:34:44] Rappler
continues doing good journalism. And I’ve we’ve taken the business and pushed
it away and we actually found a new business. The two things that we did. We’re
the first in the Philippines… The crowdfunding part, actually I didn’t think
it would work in the Philippines. But when our legal fees became like a quarter
of the entire monthly spend, we asked our community and they helped. And that
that helped pay for some of the legal fees. And then we, just December, we
began a membership program we called it Rappler Plus. I don’t think it would
have worked in the Philippines because unlike the United States or Europe
unlike the more developed countries, we don’t have a history of that but not
even subscriptions. People don’t want to pay for news especially in a country
where you struggle to put food on your table three times a day. So the Rappler
Plus took off much faster than I had expected and I think it is because of the
fear. People are afraid and by standing up … By being the kid telling the
emperor he has no clothes. By telling him he cannot do this with impunity.
This Is the most powerful man that we have had in since… I
think he’s more powerful than Marcos was. He controls the executive. He owns
the legislative and by the time he leaves office he will have appointed 11 of
13 Supreme Court justices. You guys in the states worry about one Supreme Court
justice he’ll have appointed 11 of 13. This is our next generation. And It’s
extremely worrisome, especially with this information warfare, with the young
men in our country who are sucking up these fumes. You know the levels of
misogyny according to our data women are attacked at least 10 times more than
Kara Swisher: [00:36:40] Alright,
we have questions from the audience and then we are going to end. Are there
questions from the audience? Yes, you over here. Right here. Put your hand up.
Question: [00:36:51] Hi. Krishan Bhatia from NBCUniversal.
Thank you for sharing this story and the insights and everything that you’re
doing to uncover this. My question for you is in the US market, as we sit here
today as premium publishers most of whom have some sort of news business and we
serve large cap marketers in the US: What should we be doing differently with
respect to Facebook in particular but platforms in general that we’re not
Maria Ressa: [00:37:20] I think we have [to address the issue]: Who is the gatekeeper right now? But I think that ideas are very simple to me. If information is power. And the gatekeeping determines what information is taken by everyone. And we all focus … the debate in the US focus is on all of these different demographics and the polarization. The polarization happens because we don’t have the same facts. So it goes down to that. Please push. I think Kara asked the solution for me is when you have something like Facebook or YouTube moving beyond prescriptive to where we used to be which is what are the values? What are the principles like standards and ethics for journalism right? It can’t be prescriptive because. Ironically what they keep saying they defend free speech but free speech in this case is being used to stifle free speech. So, you’ve got to take the toxic sludge out of the body politic because that is killing us and everything else is organ failure you know because you’re not getting the oxygen that you need.
So please push you have far more power than little Rappler
does in terms of pushing for action in my part of the world I guess you know
maybe I’m happy with little because it’s been so long. We have elections in May
and these take downs will do a lot. I’ve seen the reactions of the people
running those those Facebook pages. But please look also do the investigations
here in the United States. The data is coming out now. I think that our
credibility are and I mean are for traditional media and the new ones coming
up. I think we’re getting eaten up by termites without realizing that that the
floorboards are about to crack. That’s why I think there’s a crisis of trust.
Kara Swisher: [00:39:19] Yes,
I would agree with that. Finish on this question of fear because I think it’s a
really important thing of fear of not speaking up of rocking the boat of all
kinds of stuff or just people just are exhausted by it because you’re not doing
journalism you’re spending time dealing with lawyers you’re spending time
moving businesses around you’re not doing the actual job which of which you
were.. used to do.
Maria Ressa: [00:39:43] Yeah
that’s also true. I know it just means I’m not sleeping that much. But you know
I find that the journalism… So look, Rappler has been mission-driven and all
of the friction of a normal organization is gone because everyone who stayed
with us and everyone did stay with us on the journalism side we lost sales and
tax strangely. But the mission is so clear and the purpose is so clear and I
think the challenge for all of our news groups is to be able to maintain that.
In a society, what fear does, what this stuff does is normal
people will not… When you get attacked like this I didn’t show you any of the
attacks, but when you’re attacked so viscerally when you’re threatened with
rape with murder, you just shut up. And that’s exactly it’s meant to pound you
into silence. But our community realizes this. So in a strange way. I. We’re
not just journalists anymore also that’s weird.
Like when I’m at the airport sometimes a family a family
came in and hugged me and I hug them back. I didn’t know who they were but it
was because they are also they are afraid to speak. So when you speak for them
you fulfill a role that I think that’s the mission of journalism. I think I
have a natural tendency to be more positive I should hang out with you a little
bit more. [laughter]
But you know when you’re in my place, I put one foot in
front of the other. The mission is clear. We’re going to have to deal with
this. And I think this is what Facebook has to realize. They have to get
through this because it’s not just us. We’re just the canary in the coal mine.
It’s here it’s happening here. Your problems are because of stuff like this. I
think. I think it’s global.
Kara Swisher: [00:41:37] Are
Maria Ressa: [00:41:39] No
because there’s too much to do. Not right now. You know there are times when I
think it was far worse when no one was paying attention because when the
attacks were so personal the first two weeks…I got 90 hate messages per hour.
Not one nine. Nine zero hate messages per hour. And when I got that, it took me
two weeks to just figure out how do how am I going to deal with this and what’s
real and what’s not and then do I need security? You know all of that stuff. So
no I’m not afraid because now I know what it is. And the data helps me
understand it. So that’s the certainty. That’s why I know it’s important to
have the facts. You cannot fight back if you don’t have the facts.
Kara Swisher: [00:42:24] All
right. On that note Maria Ressa. [applause]
best things in life aren’t free, they’re loved.
In the table-setting remarks opening the 2019 DCN: Next
Summit, I shared a publisher challenge that I strongly believe our industry is
well on its way to overcoming: “Fighting the pervasive mentality that content must
Truth be told: We don’t know if direct revenues from the audience will suffice to sustain the industry in the broadest sense. However,
there are positive trends on all dimensions. We’re certainly seeing more
evidence across the DCN membership that people are willing to pay for premium
publisher services. It’s no longer simply the financial or national news
outlets that can garner subscription and membership revenues. Local news outlets, entertainment channels, and new bundles
are attracting consumer revenue. We’ve started to capture these learnings in DCN
research, as well as through our events on direct audience revenues.
We see three positive subscription trends happening:
If you want to differentiate a news or
entertainment service, you need to compare it to the rest of your category on
YouTube or the Facebook news feed. Your offering, your brand, needs to clearly stand out as compared to the next best user-generated
offering in the ways more and more users are discovering
Every new subscription to a publisher’s product drives
more intelligence and more investment back into the product so that the next
subscription is easier to convert. In a world of more stable and dependable
payments from your audience, it’s also easier to drive a percent of the revenue
back into constantly improving the product (see trend 1) whether it be hiring
more journalists or adapting the experience to the needs of the audience.
The population that has grown up with digital devices
shops for news and entertainment with the tap of their fingerprint on a mobile
device. Subscribing to Spotify, Netflix, Hulu, Apple Music, and more is a way
of life for them. They will not hesitate to invest in news and entertainment
that they trust and value. Each successful experience drives their behavior
going forward and is more likely to bring their friends into the market of
Importance of free to Google and Facebook
Whenever the sentiment is shared that people simply won’t
pay for content in the digital age of abundance, it’s likely that Facebook or
Google is lurking around a corner. They’re a crafty pair. Often, they prop up
this notion with a truly worrying concern: that a shift to paid content will only
serve to further divide the public based on ability to pay. However, their
intention is to protect their free fortresses. An industry-wide effort and
belief that audiences will pay for content is bad business for them. Hence the
veiled efforts over the years to spin the narrative and control the outcome.
DCN has long established that the free digital content
market has mainly benefited these two companies. The math is simple, and it’s
been cited far and wide. However, it’s important to recognize how critical the
free content ecosystem is to their unbalanced equation. And you don’t have to
take our word for it. On Monday night, the UK government released the
Review, which contains over 150 pages of analysis of the
digital news marketplace.
The Cairncross Review highlights two clear problems with the
disturbing dominance of the Google and Facebook business models:
1. The first problem (that forms the foundation of the duopoly’s dominance) is Google’s control over the buying, selling, transacting, and measuring of the digital ad marketplace. As Cairncross so eloquently puts it:
“Google has ad inventory in the form of Google Search and YouTube videos, and it owns ‘demand side technologies’ (used by advertisers to bid and buy inventory online), such as Display & Video 360 and Google Ads, and supply side intermediaries (that publishers will use to sell their ad space to advertisers), such as Ad Manager and AdSense. It also owns supplementary technologies such as Chrome browsers, Google Analytics (a ‘freemium’ web analytics service that tracks and reports website traffic as a basic free service, with more advanced features that can be paid for), and the Android mobile operating system.”
It’s clear what’s wrong with this: Antitrust much?
2. The second problem that bolsters the foundation of these platforms’ superiority is Google and Facebook’s unmatched ability to collect voluminous amounts
of personal data on peoples’ everyday interests and behaviors in both the digital and physical
worlds. Again, Cairncross astutely captures:
“Publishers gather user data from their own sites, including login data for their subscribers, but this pales in comparison to the power of online platforms, which have a rich set of user data giving them significant advantage over others in the market. Whether it is search data (Google), the social networks of users (Facebook) or generally the devices, locations, interests and behaviours of users online (both), these players have an unimaginable wealth of information – valuable to advertisers and publishers – about who is coming to which news sites, and who is seeing which adverts.”
Google and Facebook are fueled by the amount of personal
data available to their heavily-controlled advertising systems. Subscriptions
inevitably create more user friction and restrict the flow of data. This means
that movement towards subscriptions also forces these companies to step outside their carefully
constructed profit guardrails. For risk-taking Silicon Valley start-ups,
they’re terrible at stepping outside their shareholder comforts. Cairncross hits the nail on the head in calling for regulatory
mincing words) of these businesses — in how they deal with
publishers, their position in the advertising market, and how their algorithms
make decisions in promoting journalism.
So, who is the knight in shining armor?
To be clear, there are also positive moves by industry and government to encourage
these developments. Interestingly, the Cairncross Review takes a similar position to the Canadian
government by recommending a tax incentive for subscribers to
news, local news, or investigative content. Again, we agree with this
recommendation and expect it would help support publishers.
To their credit, Google and Facebook have made donations to innovation, journalism
institutes and, in the case of Facebook, run seminars to share best practices
on subscriptions. Again, their profit guardrails make it impossible for real moonshots. So, while these are good efforts, they are not enough.
And then there is Apple. A company with the leadership,
the payment systems, the brand architecture, and lack of dependence on
everything in between Facebook and Google’s profit guardrails (data collection,
advertising). And, as news starts to trickle out on Apple’s plans for a
subscription news service, there is a lot to like in it. However, as I
shared with Ad Age, the reported 50% revenue share is offensive especially
if it also comes with the risk of another intermediary controlling the customer
relationship. I’m frankly surprised they would roll out with anything close to
these terms and hopeful it’s merely a head fake.
I don’t have any proprietary information, but my
back-of-the-envelope numbers on Apple’s offering means that the 100 million
monthly users of Apple News translate to approximate 10-20 million daily users.
Even if 10 million of these users moved into a subscription tier, this
is a mere $120 million in revenue. And according to what’s being reported, a
paltry $60 million would get divided between all of the participating news companies. That math doesn’t add up. If Apple has higher
confidence in their model and ability to expand the market, then they’re going
to need to put some revenue share behind it.
It’s just business. Oh, and the future of
to keep up with the latest plays in the streaming game? You practically need a
scorecard and the guidance of a fast-talking play-by-play announcer to keep up.
For proof, consider just some of the latest streaming service bombshells to hit
the news in the past few weeks:
All of these moves speak, of course, to a larger and evolving trend: Anybody and everybody in the media business seems to be getting in on the OTT act. The idea is to take their product direct to the consumer via an AVOD or SVOD (subscription-supported video on demand) model. And that’s creating an increasingly crowded field of competitors.
It will be fascinating to see who else
enters the fray and who will survive and thrive in a crowded OTT world where consumers
only have so much viewing time. To help make better sense of all the market
chaos—and understand what streaming services will need to do to stand out from
the crowd—I spoke with several industry experts.
Why more media players
want in on streaming
It’s no big surprise why news and
entertainment companies are jumping in and jostling for position in an already
congested OTT pool: Consumers crave streaming content.
“They don’t want the same bundle of
channels they receive today. And they don’t want the same, scheduled experience
they’ve had for decades,” according to Peter Naylor, senior
vice president/head of advertising sales for Santa Monica-based Hulu, which now
has 25 million subscribers. “Consumers want choice and control in their TV
experience. In order to continue to reach consumers, TV must move from a
business ruled by cable and satellite gatekeepers and by a traditional schedule
to a model where the consumer truly gets to choose.”
Billy Nayden, research analyst
for Parks Associates in Dallas, agrees. “Younger consumers are watching
traditional television at decreasing rates. In order to reach them with video
content, internet video is a necessity. A dedicated streaming service helps
facilitate delivery of that video and gives consumers a centralized place to
access content,” Nayden says.
Offering a direct-to-consumer streaming
service also provides some unique benefits.
“Broadcasters and content companies are
able to collect data on consumption and their audience, which is often not
available through over-the-air broadcasts or pay-TV providers. Direct offerings
also provide a hedge in pay-TV licensing negotiations, allowing networks to
reach consumers even when blackouts occur on pay TV,” adds Nayden.
However, experts caution that fragmentation
of content sources, changing viewer habits, multiple direct competitors, and
rising content costs make competition in streaming extremely difficult.
“The number of streaming services
available globally has exploded in the past few years, and they are now
competing not just with other streaming services but also pay TV,
user-generated content like YouTube, and digital entertainment options like
video games for consumer time and eyeballs. Standing out and innovating in a
crowded ecosystem is a major challenge,” says Nayden.
Laura Martin, senior media analyst for New York City-headquartered Needham and Company, says discovery and clutter are huge problems. “Roku has nearly 4,000 video apps of free TV and about 1,000 apps of SVOD that the 28 million connected TVs in their network can choose from,” she says. “That’s many more choices than the 200 channels you typically have in a linear pay TV bundle.”
Additionally, to succeed long-term in the streaming space you need deep pockets, says Dan Rayburn, principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan in New York City. “Think about who’s behind the big services today—Sling TV is owned by Dish, Direct Now is owned by AT&T, and Hulu is co-owned by Disney and Comcast” (as well as Fox and AT&T), Rayburn points out. “A lot of these services can’t stand on their own as a profitable platform because the costs to license and create all their content is too high.”
You also need a deep library of content to
compete effectively, per Alan
Breznick, cable/video practice leader for Light Reading in Toronto. “Although,
if you’re a niche player going after a specialized market, like wrestling fans
or hobbyists, and no one else has such a channel yet, then you don’t
necessarily need a huge library of old content,” says Breznick.
Another huge hurdle? Retention. “You’ve got to worry about churn rates and how
to keep your customers as well as keeping the cost of acquiring customers
down,” Breznick adds.
Plus, “it’s going to get harder for the
smaller companies because so many of the big competitors entering this space—like
Sinclair, NBC and Disney—have free marketing opportunities. They have other
media outlets with unsold ad inventory they can use to promote their streaming
services,” says Martin.
A myriad of models
In the OTT space, there is no such thing as one size fits all. A variety of service models and pricing tiers exist that often make it difficult for analysts and consumers alike to compare apples to apples (see Sidebar for an overview of the major services). Some brands strictly follow a direct-to-consumer formula while others also partner with a pay-TV service (by, for example, offering authenticated streaming apps). And some services run ads while others don’t.
“Ads have always been in the mix for many of these subscription channels because the cost to make and license the content is still too high—you can’t make enough money on subscription alone,” says Rayburn. He notes that ad-free Netflix—despite its 139 million paying subscribers—still expects a negative cash flow of $3 billion in 2019. This is likely a big reason why it recently raised (and will continue to raise) its subscription fee.
“It’s tricky. We’ve had this mentality as
consumers that content should be free for a long time, thanks to YouTube and
others. Now, we’ve got several channels charging up to $15 or more per month
and live services like YouTube TV charging $40 and up monthly,” Rayburn says.
“The question is, how much higher can streaming services push their prices
before consumers say no?”
Ian Wishingrad, creative director/founder of BigEyedWish in New York City, says the formula for sustainability and profitability in the streaming market is simple. “Have award-winning content. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ legitimized Hulu and ‘House of Cards’ legitimized Netflix. You also need the right price. If you’re good and your price is right, you’ll get hits,” says Wishingrad.
Nayden seconds that sentiment. “To
maintain subscribers, services must offer a variety of compelling content
exclusive to their particular service,” says Nayden.
That’s why, according to Naylor, “over the
last year, we’ve focused a lot on adding more content to the service, including
full series runs of shows like ‘ER’ and ‘Lost,’ and new originals like ‘Castle
Content may be king, but so are customers,
insists Breznick.“You really have to know your customers and the market you’re
Offering your patrons more choices—in
programming as well as pricing—can go a long way, too. “Convenience to the
consumer is the new service. Giving options makes you flexible and cool, versus
‘this is the rule, take it or leave it,’ Wishingrad adds.
Ask Martin and she’ll tell you that the
best way forward for OTT services is to “have at least two revenue streams,
such as subscription-supported, ad-supported, eCommerce, micro-payments,
And, as mentioned, partnering with pay-TV
providers could bring increased visibility and exposure to your service, “especially
among consumers who otherwise would not have known about the service,” suggests
Nayden. “Until recently, the operator set-top box has remained one of the few
in-home connected devices that OTT video services were unable to penetrate. The
pay-TV set-top box is often used daily. Being available on that box is a big
boost to user convenience.”
A booming market
Virtually all of the media giants have launched or announced an impending standalone streaming service by now. But there are others poised to make a splash, and legacy video brands are far from the only players looking at the streaming opportunity.
Nayden foresees major print media brands entering the fray eventually, too. “While print media has found it financially difficult to transition to the new digital marketplace, I think the space for news-based OTT services represents a significant opportunity for content creators,” Nayden explains. “Cheddar and Newsy give us an example of what is possible. If a traditional newspaper like The New York Times or Wall Street Journal could partner with a video content creator and build a service that combined access to premium print and video content, I think it would attract a significant amount of paying news junkies.”
Breznick also envisions a day coming soon when college sporting programs—like Notre Dame football—roll out their own streaming service. “And at some point, every single broadcast channel out there is going to have to think about it,” adds Rayburn.
Armed with consent decrees, new laws and new hooks into old laws, regulators around the world appear to be fed up with Google and Facebook. With good reason. The Google Facebook duopoly continues to maintain an unhealthy dominance of the digital marketplace. Nearly all of the growth in digital advertising continues to go to these two companies.
The impact is significant. Revenue that might otherwise flow
into a healthy marketplace of known and emerging competitors instead is flowing
directly to only two uber-dominant companies. As a result, a well-known
strategy for startups was to simply position themselves for acquisition by the duopoly
but over time and big tech scrutiny those opportunities have even evaporated
resulting now in a “kill zone” where no venture capital will even invest. For
more mature businesses, the counteracting strategy has been to merge and,
thereby, try to achieve competing scale. So, it’s either get big or get bought—if
Meanwhile, devoid of any real competition, Facebook and
Google find themselves increasingly at odds with consumers. A new unappealing revelation
seems to hit every few weeks. This is not a healthy environment that fosters
growth and stability, much less any sort of ethical data framework that matches
Here come the
Recently, the French data protection authority fined Google
$50 million euro for violations of the General Data Protection Authority. In
its ruling, they took issue with the unlawful way in which Google asked
consumers for consent. Essentially, Google appears to offer a take-it-or-leave
consent to consumers with pre-checked boxes and little transparency. Particularly
from such a dominant company, the regulators said this approach is a no no.
Google’s tech lobbyists will say this ruling is bad for all of industry. But really…it’s just bad for Google. The French specifically noted that Google’s dominant market position played a big part in the ruling. The reality is that there are not very many companies whose business model (or at least the anti-competitive dominance of it) is so utterly dependent on tracking and targeting consumers everywhere they go. Not all of industry wants to be lumped in with the toxic duopoly. Nor should they. Many companies offer a value proposition to consumers (and advertisers) that doesn’t hinge on web-wide tracking.
Then, there is news that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is close to issuing a record-setting fine on Facebook for violating a consent decree. The FTC’s previous record fine for a consumer privacy case was in 2012 levied at (you guessed it!) Google for $22.5 million.
At this point, even the state regulators are getting involved. The DC Attorney General recently sued Facebook for failing to protect consumers’ data in their Cambridge Analytica scandal. It’s a simple approach that many other attorneys general may follow.
More than Money is at
All that said, the headlines seem to focus on the amount of
the fines. However, what I’m watching most closely are the behavioral or
structural changes that come as a result. For instance, will the FTC require
tighter oversight by Facebook of their third party partners? Will the FTC
recommend that Facebook divest itself of Instagram and WhatsApp, thereby
creating instant competition in the social media space? And, how will the EU’s
enforcement of GDPR impact Google’s ability to track consumers’ every move?
As the French ruling seems to insist, Google may have to
unbundle its requests for consent which would surely lead to fewer consumers
agreeing to be tracked by Google. It’s subtler – but if EU regulators are
successful in ensuring that companies are plainly and transparently asking for
consent for secondary uses of data, will that improve the prospects of
companies which have trusted relationships with consumers?
At the end of the day, a $50 million euro fine probably
feels like an annoying mosquito bite for a company with over $100 billion in
annual revenue. The biggest benefits for consumers and the marketplace will
only come if there are changes in how the duopoly operates.