Lessons from AT&T’s bruising entertainment experience

How AT&T entered and exited the media business

AT&T enters the satellite market at its peak

In 2014, AT&T announced it was buying DirecTV. By that time, AT&T was already bundling DirecTV with its phone and internet service and had approximately 5.9 million linear pay-TV (U-Verse) video subscribers. However, this pay-TV business was already experiencing decline, to the extent that when the DirecTV merger completed in mid-2015, U-Verse subscribers had fallen to 5.6 million by the end of that year.

With the acquisition of DirecTV, AT&T went from a small player in the media and entertainment industry to one of the largest media players in the world adding 39.1 million (US and Latin American) subscribers and paying $48.5bn ($67bn including debt) to acquire the business. The rationale for this acquisition (the satellite business) was to compete with cable operators by being able to offer broadband, increasing AT&T’s addressable market beyond its fibre-based U-Verse proposition which was only available in certain locations/states.

AT&T and DirecTV enjoyed an initial honeymoon, period recording growth up until the end of 2016 when DirecTV subscribers peaked at just over 21 million in the US.

From this point onwards however, AT&T’s satellite subscribers went into decline as customers switched to cheaper competitor offers as well as online streaming services. The popularity of streaming services was reflected by moves among traditional media players to develop their own streaming services such as Time Warner’s HBO GO and HBO NOW. In 2015, DirectTV’s satellite competitor Dish TV likewise launched its own streaming service Sling TV.

Even though it was one of the largest TV distributors on a satellite platform, AT&T also believed online streaming was its ultimate destination. Prior to the launch of its streaming service in late 2016, Bloomberg reported that AT&T envisioned DirecTV NOW as its primary video platform by 2020.

A softwarised platform delivered lowered costs as the service could be self-installed by customers and didn’t rely on expensive truck roll installation or launching satellites. The improved margins would enable AT&T to promote TV packages at attractive price points which would balance inflation demands from broadcasters for the cost of TV programming. AT&T could also more easily bundle the softwarised TV service with its broadband, fibre and wireless propositions and earn more lucrative advertising revenue based on its own network and viewer insights.

Enter your details below to request an extract of the report


 

The beginnings of a bumpy journey in TV

AT&T’s foray into satellite and streaming TV can be characterised by a series of confusing service propositions for both consumers and AT&T staff, expensive promotional activity and overall pricing/product design misjudgements as well as troubled relations with TV broadcasters resulting in channel blackouts and ultimately churn.

Promotion, pull back and decline of DirecTV NOW

DirectTV NOW launched in November 2016, as AT&T’s first over the top (OTT) low cost online streaming service. Starting at $35 per month for 60+ channels with no contract period, analysts called the skinny TV package as a loss leader given the cost of programming rights and high subscriber acquisition costs (SACs). The loss leader strategy was aimed at acquiring wireless and broadband customers and included initiatives such as:

  • Promotional discounts to its monthly $60 mid-tier 100+ channel package reduced to $35 per month for life (subject to programming costs).
  • Device promotions and monthly waivers. The service eventually became available on popular streaming devices (Roku, Xbox and PlayStation) and included promotions such as an Apple TV 4K with a four month subscription waiver, a Roku Streaming Stick with a one month waiver or a $25 discount on the first month.
  • Customers could also add HBO or Cinemax for an additional $5 per month, which again was seen as a costly subsidy for AT&T to offer.

The service didn’t include DirecTV satellite’s popular NFL Sunday Ticket programming as Verizon held the smartphone rights to live NFL games, nor did it come with other popular shows from programme channels such as CBS. Features such as cloud DVR (digital video recording) functionality were also initially missing, but would follow as AT&T’s TV propositions and functionalities iterated and improved over time.

The DirecTV NOW streaming service enjoyed continuous quarterly growth through 2017 but peaked in Q3 2018 with net additions turning immediately negative in the final quarter of 2018 as management pulled back on costly promotions and discounted pricing.

The proposition became unsustainable financially in terms of its ability to cover rising programming costs and was positioned comparatively as a much less expensive service to its larger DirecTV satellite pay-TV propositions.

The DirecTV satellite service sold some of the most expensive TV propositions on the market and reported higher pay-TV ARPU ($131) than peers such as Dish ($89) and Comcast ($86) in Q4 2019.

  • The launch of a $35 DirecTV NOW streaming service with no contract and with a similar sounding name to the full linear service confused both new and existing DirecTV satellite customers and some would have viewed their satellite package as expensive compared to the cheaper steaming option.

Rising programming costs

AT&T’s low-cost skinny TV packages brought them into direct confrontation with TV programmers in terms of negotiating fees for content. When the streaming service launched, analysts highlighted the channels within AT&T’s base package were expected to rise in price annually by around 10% each year and this would eventually require AT&T to eventually balance programming costs with rising monthly package pricing.

Confrontations with programmers included a three-week dispute with CBS and an eight week dispute with Nexstar in 2019, which resulted in a blackout of both CBS and Nexstar channels across AT&T’s TV platforms such as Direct TV, U-Verse, DirectTV NOW. Commenting on the blackouts in Q3 2019, Randall Stephenson noted there were “a couple of significant blackouts in terms of content, and those blackouts drove some sizable subscriber losses”.

AT&T’s confrontation with content owners may have been a contributory reason to consider acquiring a content creation platform of its own in the form of Time Warner.

In mid-2018, as AT&T withdrew promotions and discounts for DirecTV NOW (later rebranded it to AT&T TV NOW), customers began to drop the OTT TV service.

  • AT&T TV NOW went from a peak of 1.86 million subscribers in Q3 2018 to 656,000 at the end of 2020.

DirecTV NOW subscriptions

DirecTV-subs-AT-T-stlpartners

Source: STL Partners, AT&T Q2 Earnings 2021

Name changes and new propositions create more confusion

In 2019, DirecTV NOW was re-branded to AT&T TV NOW , and continued to be promoted as a skinny bundle operating alongside AT&T TV, a new full fat live TV streaming version of the DirecTV satellite TV proposition. AT&T TV  was first piloted in August 2019 and soft launched in November 2019. The AT&T TV service included an Android set-top box with cloud DVR functionality and supported other apps such as Netflix.
AT&T TV required a contract period and offered pricing (once promotional discount periods ended) resembling a linear pay-TV service, i.e. $90+. This was, in effect, the very type of pay-TV proposition customers were abandoning.
AT&T TV was seen as an ultimate replacement for the satellite business based on the advantages a softwarised platform provided and the ability to bundle it with AT&T broadband, fibre and wireless services.

Confusion amongst staff and customers

The new AT&T TV proposition confused not only customers but also AT&T staff, as they were found mixing up the AT&T TV proposition with the skinny AT&T TV NOW proposition. By 2019 the company diverted its attention away from AT&T TV NOW  pulling back on promotional activity in order to focus on its core AT&T TV live TV service.

According to Cord Cutters News, both services used the same app but remained separate services. AT&T’s app store marketing incorrectly communicated the DirectTV NOW service was now AT&T TV when in fact it was AT&T TV NOW. Similarly, technical support was also incorrectly labelled with online navigation sending customers to the wrong support channels.

AT&T’s own customer facing teams misunderstood the new propositions

DirecTV-Cordcutter-news

Source: Cord Cutters News

Withdrawal of AT&T TV NOW

By January 2021, AT&T TV NOW was no longer available to new customers but continued to be available to existing customers. The AT&T TV proposition, which was supposed to offer “more value and simplicity” was updated to include some features of the skinny bundle such as the option to go without an annual contract requirement. Customers were also not required to own the set-top box but could instead stream over Amazon Fire TV or Apple TV.  In terms of pricing, AT&T TV was twice the price of the originally launched DirecTV NOW proposition costing $70 to $95 per month.

The short life of AT&T Watch TV

In April 2018, while giving testimony for AT&T’s merger with Time Warner, AT&T’s then CEO Randall Stephenson positioned AT&T Watch TV as a potential new low-cost service that would benefit consumers if the merger was successful. Days following AT&T’s merger approval in the courts, the low cost $15 per month, ultra-skinny bundle launched as a suitable low-cost cord-cutter/cord-never option for cable, broadband and mobile customers from any network. The service was also free to select AT&T Unlimited mobile customers.

By the end of 2018, the operator claimed it had 500,000 AT&T Watch TV“established accounts”. By the end of 2019 the operator had updated its mobile tariffs removing Watch TV for new customers subscribing to its updated Unlimited mobile tariffs. Some believed the company didn’t fully commit to the service, referring to the lack of roll out support for streaming devices such as Roku. The operator was now committed to rolling out its new service HBO Max in 2020. AT&T has informed Watch TV subscribers the service will close 30 November 2021.

Timeline of AT&T entertainment propositions

AT-T-Timeline-Entertainment

Source: STL Partners

The decline of DirecTV

As the graphic belowshows, in June 2021 there were 74.3 million pay-TV households in the US, reflecting continued contraction of the traditional pay-TV market supplied by multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD) players such as cable, satellite, and telco operators. According to nScreenMedia, traditional pay-TV or MVPD market lost 6.3 and 6.2 million customers over 2019 and 2020, but not all were cord-cutters. Cord-shifters dropped their pay-TV but shifted across to virtual MVPD (vMVPD) propositions such as Hulu Live, Sling TV, YouTube TV, AT&T TV NOW, Fubo TV and Philo. Based on current 2021 cord-cutting levels, nScreenMedia predicts 2021 will be the highest year of cord-cutting yet.

Decline in traditional pay-TV households

pay-tv-decline-nscreenmedia

Source: nScreenMedia, STL Partners

Satellite subscribers to Dish and DirecTV 2015-2020

Satellite-pay-tvdish-nscreenmedia

Source: nScreenMedia, STL Partners

When considering AT&T’s management of DirecTV, nScreenMedia research shows the market number of MVPD subscribers declined by over 20 million between 2016 and 2020. In that time, DirecTV lost eight million subscribers. While it represented 20% of the MVPD market in 2016, DirecTV accounted for 40% of the pay-TV losses in the market (40% of 20 million equals ~8 million). AT&T’s satellite rival Dish weathered the decline in pay-TV slightly better over the period.

  • In Q4 2020 the operator wrote down $15.5bn on its premium TV business, which included DirecTV decline, to reflect the cord cutting trend as customers found cheaper streaming alternatives online. The graphic (below) shows a loss of 8.76 million Premium TV subscribers between 2017 and 2020 with large losses of 3.4 million and 2.9 million subscribers in 2019 and 2020.

AT&T’s communications business has also been enduring losses in legacy voice and data (DSL) subscriptions in recent years. AT&T has used a bundling strategy for both products. As customers switched to AT&T fibre or competitor broadband offerings this also impacted the video subscription.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • What can others learn from AT&T’s experience?
  • How AT&T entered and exited the media business
    • AT&T enters the satellite market at its peak
    • The beginnings of a bumpy journey in TV
    • Vertical integration strategy: The culture clash
    • AT&T’s telco mindset drives its video strategy
    • HBO MAX performance
  • The financial impact of AT&T’s investments
    • Reversing six years of strategic change in three months
  • Lessons from AT&T’s foray into media

Related Reports

Enter your details below to request an extract of the report


 

 

Digital Commerce: Time to redefine the Mobile Wallet

Summary: The ‘Mobile/Digital Wallet’ needs to evolve to support authentication, search and discovery, as well as payments, vouchers, tickets and loyalty programmes. Moreover, consumers will want to be able to tailor the functionality of this “commerce assistant” or “commerce agent” to fit with their own interests and preferences. Key findings and next steps from the Digital Commerce stream of our Silicon Valley 2013 brainstorm. (April 2013, Executive Briefing Service, Dealing with Disruption Stream.)

Who is best placed to win in local commerce April 2013

  Read in Full (Members only)   To Subscribe click here

Below are the high-level analysis and detailed contents from a 35 page Telco 2.0 Briefing Report that can be downloaded in full in PDF format by members of the Telco 2.0 Executive Briefing service and the Dealing with Disruption Stream  here. Digital Commerce strategies and the findings of this report will also be explored in depth at the EMEA Executive Brainstorm in London, 5-6 June, 2013. Non-members can find out more about subscribing here, or to find out more about this and/or the brainstorm by emailing contact@telco2.net or calling +44 (0) 207 247 5003.

To share this article easily, please click:

 



Introduction

Part of the New Digital Economics Executive Brainstorm 2013 series, the Digital Commerce 2.0 event took place at the InterContinental Hotel, San Francisco on the 20th March and looked at how to get the mobile commerce flywheel moving, how to digitise local commerce, how to improve digital advertising and how to effectively leverage customer data and personal data. The Brainstorm considered how to harness telco assets and capabilities, as well as those of banks and payment networks, to deliver Digital Commerce 2.0.

Analysis: Time to redefine the wallet?

The Executive Brainstorm uncovered widespread confusion and dissatisfaction with the concept of a digital or mobile wallet. Some executives feel that a wallet, with its connotations of a highly personal item that is controlled entirely by the consumer and used primarily for transactions, may be the wrong term. There is a view that the concept of a digital wallet may have to evolve into a more multi-faceted application that supports authentication, search and discovery, as well as payments, vouchers, tickets and loyalty programmes.

Moreover, consumers will likely want to be able to tailor the functionality of this “commerce assistant” or “commerce agent” to fit with their own interests and preferences, rather than having to use an inflexible off-the-shelf application. This gateway application may also act as a personal cloud/locker service, providing access to the individual’s media and content, as well as enabling them to control their privacy settings. In other words, ultimately, consumers may want an assistant or agent that amalgamates the personalised discovery services offered by apps, such as Google Now, online media services, such as iCloud, and the traditional functions of a wallet, such as payments, receipts, coupons and loyalty programmes.

Business model battles

The Brainstorm confirmed that the digital commerce market continues to be held back by the slow and familiar dance between the established interests of banks/payment networks, telcos, and retailers. Designing business models that sufficiently incentivise each partner is tough: big retailers, for example, are likely to resist digital commerce solutions that don’t address their dissatisfaction about transaction fees – there was some excitement about digital commerce solutions that workaround the major payment networks’ interchange systems.

Some of the participants in the Brainstorm held strongly entrenched views about which players can contribute to growth in digital commerce and should therefore benefit most from that growth. The arguments boiled down to:

  • The banking ecosystem believes it is well placed because of the requirement for transactions to be processed by entities with banking licenses and that comply with know your customer (KYC) regulations.
  • Telcos believe that, as digital commerce-related data travels over their networks, they will understand the market better than other players.
  • Retailers believe that they have the customer relationships and that digital commerce offers opportunities to strengthen those relationships and reduce the costs of transactions.

The length and complexity of the digital commerce value chain raises significant questions about whether one entity could and should own the customer relationship and manage customer care across the whole experience. Moreover, there may be a disconnect between elements of the value chain and the overall value proposition. For example, individual retailers may wish to offer fully-customised digital commerce experiences delivered through their own branded apps, but consumers may not want to see the complexity of the existing marketplace, in which they are asked to register and carry multiple loyalty cards, continue in an increasingly digitised world.

While the traditional players jostle for the best positions in the value chain, the door is wide open for market entrants to come with radically disruptive business models. Although telcos have the customer data to be play a pivotal role in digital commerce, other players will work around them unless telcos are prepared to move quickly and partner on equitable terms. In many cases, telcos (and other would-be digital commerce) brokers may have to compromise on margins to seed the market and ultimately gain scale – small merchants (the long tail), which have highly inefficient marketing today, have a greater incentive than large retailers to adopt such solutions. Participants in the Silicon Valley Brainstorm thought that either established Internet players or a start up would ultimately win over the banks and telcos in local commerce.

Who is best placed to win in local commerce April 2013

Consumers are most likely to adopt digital commerce services that offer convenience and breadth. Therefore, such services need to act as open and flexible brokers, which enable a wide range of merchants to use application programming interfaces (APIs) to plug in vouchers and loyalty schemes quickly and easily.

Mobile advertising – still very immature

Immature and messy, the mobile advertising market is still a long way from being as structured as, for instance, television advertising, in terms of standardising metrics for buyers and creating an efficient procurement process. The Brainstorm highlighted the profusion of different technologies and platforms that is making the mobile advertising market highly-fragmented and very resource-intensive for media buyers. In many cases, the advertising industry may be struggling to differentiate between mobile networks, mobile users and mobile devices. For example, a consumer using a tablet on a sofa may be seeing the same adverts as a smartphone user travelling to work on a train.

In essence, the creatives working in advertising agencies are not certain what messages and formats work on a mobile screen, as buyers don’t have reliable ROI data and the advertising networks continue to struggle to deliver precise targeting, stymied by multiple barriers, such as privacy fears, walled gardens and bandwidth constraints. As a result, there is widespread dissatisfaction among both media buyers and consumers with mobile advertising. The mobile advertising market needs robust tools and processes – standardised, proven formats and reliable, trusted metrics – to will enable brands to purchase advertising at scale and with confidence.

Some media buyers are looking for solutions that make the delivery of digital advertising more transparent to consumers, so they have a clearer understanding of why they are seeing a particular advert.

To address these issues, telcos, looking to broker advertising, need to create better platforms that are easy for media buyers to access, offer precise targeting and provide transparent metrics that are straightforward to monitor. Despite the formation of telco marketing and advertising joint ventures in some markets, such as the U.K., some advertising executives believe telcos don’t see a big enough revenue opportunity to build these platforms.

Instead of brand building and customer acquisition, which is the traditional use of mass advertising, it seems likely that the mobile channel will be used primarily for customer loyalty and retention. So-called active advertising (advertising that is designed to enable the individual to complete a specific task) may be well suited to mobile devices, which people typically use to get something done. As attention spans are short and screen space is limited in the mobile medium, the advertising value chain will need to change its mindset to put the needs of the consumer, rather than the brand, front and centre.

Big data – how to monetize?

The Brainstorm reinforced the sense that big data/personal data has the potential to create exceptional insights and disruptive new business models. But most people working in this space only have a high-level, theoretical view of how this might happen, rather than a collection of compelling case studies and use cases. Finding big data projects offering a respectable return on investment is going to be a hit and miss affair, requiring an open mind and the patience to experiment.

Although self-authenticated data could potentially make advertising and marketing more efficient, it may also increase transparency for consumers: The Internet has given consumers more control and is driving deflation in many sectors. The rise of personal data could have negative implications for companies’ profit margins as consumers use vendor relationship management systems to systematically secure the best price.

Many start-ups seem to still be pursuing advertising-funded business models, but big data and personal data business models may depend on a different approach. They should be asking: “How do you fund a search engine that is not ad-funded and can social networks not be ad-funded?” Computational contracts, which machines can execute and people can actually understand, could be part of the answer. Rather than trying to infer interests and movements, a social network might explicitly ask the following question. “If you give me your location and the brands you like, I’ll give you two coupons a day.” This is basically the Placecast model, which seems to be gaining traction in some markets. In any case, telcos and banks could and should use transparent and user-friendly privacy policies as a competitive weapon against Facebook and Google, which currently dominate the online advertising market.

The concept of companies interacting with individuals through the web presence of their objects, such as their car, their bike or their pet, seems sound. Both individuals and companies could benefit from a two-way flow of information around these objects. For example, a consumer with a specific make of printer or camera could benefit from personalised and timely discounts on accessories, such as cartridges and lenses.

Next steps for STL Partners

We will:

  • Continue to research and explore ‘Digital Commerce’ at our Executive Brainstorms, with particular emphasis on practical steps to create the Digital Wallet, enable ‘SoMoLo’, and the key role of personal data and trust frameworks;
  • Look further into the needs and applications of ‘Big Data’ into the field, as well as continuing our involvement in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) work on Trust Networks for personal data;
  • Publish further research on the business case for personal data, and a full Strategy Report on the Digital Commerce area.


To read the note in full, including the following sections detailing additional analysis…

  • Closing the loop between advertising and payments
  • First stimulus presentation
  • Second stimulus presentation
  • Innovation showcase
  • Brainstorm
  • Key takeaways
  • Advertising & Marketing: Radical Game Change Ahead
  • First and Second stimulus presentations
  • Final stimulus presentation
  • Brainstorm
  • Key takeaways
  • Session 3: Big Data – Exploiting the New Oil for the New Economy
  • Stimulus Speakers and Panellists
  • Stimulus presentations
  • Voting, feedback, discussions
  • Key takeaways

…and the following figures…

  • Figure 1 – Customer Data is at the centre of Digital Commerce
  • Figure 2 – What will North American consumers value most from digital commerce?
  • Figure 3- Leading players’ strengths and weaknesses upstream and downstream
  • Figure 4 – The key elements of the digital commerce flywheel
  • Figure 5 – Vast majority of commerce is still offline
  • Figure 6 – Linking location-based offers to payment cards
  • Figure 7 – Participants’ views on likely winners in ‘local’ digital commerce
  • Figure 8 – Mobile ad spend doesn’t reflect the time people spend in this medium
  • Figure 9 – What does the advertising industry need to do to stay relevant?
  • Figure 10 – Why personal data isn’t like oil
  • Figure 11 – A strawman process for personal data
  • Figure 12 – A decentralised architecture for the Internet of My Things
  • Figure 13 – Kynetx: companies can connect through ‘things’

Members of the Telco 2.0 Executive Briefing Subscription Service and the Dealing with Disruption Stream can download the full 35 page report in PDF format here. Non-Members, please subscribe here. Digital Commerce strategies and the findings of this report will also be explored in depth at the EMEA Executive Brainstorm in London, 5-6 June, 2013. For this or any other enquiries, please email contact@telco2.net / call +44 (0) 207 247 5003.

Background & Further Information

Produced and facilitated by business innovation firm STL Partners, the Silicon Valley 2013 event brought together 150 specially-invited senior executives from across the communications, media, retail, banking and technology sectors, including:

  • Apigee, Arete Research, AT&T,ATG, Bain & Co, Beecham Research, Blend Digital Group, Bloomberg, Blumberg Capital, BMW, Brandforce, Buongiorno, Cablelabs, CenturyLink, Cisco, CITI Group, Concours Ventures, Cordys, Cox Communications, Cox Mobile, CSG International, Cycle Gear, Discovery, DoSomething.Org, Electronic Transactions Association, EMC Corporation, Epic, Ericsson, Experian, Fraun Hofer USA, GE, GI Partners, Group M, GSMA, Hawaiian Telecom, Huge Inc, IBM, ILS Technology, IMI Mobile Europe, Insight Enterprises, Intel, Ketchum Digital, Kore Telematics, Kynetx, MADE Holdings, MAGNA Global, Merchant Advisory Group, Message Systems, Microsoft, Milestone Group, Mimecast, MIT Media Lab, Motorola, MTV, Nagra, Nokia, Oracle, Orange, Panasonic, Placecast, Qualcomm, Rainmaker Capital, ReinCloud, Reputation.com, SalesForce, Samsung, SAP, Sasktel, Searls Group, Sesame Communications, SK Telecom Americas, Sprint, Steadfast Financial, STL Partners/Telco 2.0, SystemicLogic Ltd., Telephone & Data Systems, Telus, The Weather Channel, TheFind Inc, T-Mobile USA, Trujillo Group LLC, UnboundID, University of California Davis, US Cellular Corp, USC Entertainment Technology Center, Verizon, Virtustream, Visa, Vodafone, Wavefront, WindRiver, Xtreme Labs.

Around 40 of these executives participated in the ‘Digital Commerce’ session.

The Brainstorm used STL’s unique ‘Mindshare’ interactive format, including cutting-edge new research, case studies, use cases and a showcase of innovators, structured small group discussion on round-tables, panel debates and instant voting using on-site collaborative technology.

We’d like to thank the sponsors of the Brainstorm:
Silicon Valley 2013 Sponsors

Digital Entertainment: What Gets Measured Gets Money

Summary: For mobile entertainment services to generate revenues commensurate to the attention they receive, the industry needs to improve ‘discovery’ tools, create more effective creative inventory, and deliver proof of its effectiveness. A summary of the Digital Entertainment 2.0 session of the 2013 Silicon Valley Brainstorm. (April 2013)

Digital Entertainment 2.0: What Gets Measured Gets Money

  Read in Full (Members only)   To Subscribe click here

Below are the high-level analysis and detailed contents from a 27 page Telco 2.0 Briefing Report that can be downloaded in full in PDF format by members of the Telco 2.0 Executive Briefing service here. The Digital Economy, Consumer Experience (including service ‘discovery’), Digital Commerce and the Internet of Things will also be explored in depth at the EMEA Executive Brainstorm in London, 5-6 June, 2013. Non-members can find out more about subscriptions here, or to find out more about this and other enquiries, please email contact@telco2.net or call +44 (0) 207 247 5003.

To share this article easily, please click:

 



Introduction

Part of the New Digital Economics Executive Brainstorm series, the Digital Entertainment 2.0 session took place at the Intercontinental Hotel, San Francisco, on the 20th March, 2013. The title and objective of the session was ‘How to Make Mobile Work’.

Analysis: What Gets Measured Gets Money

The key steps for mobile entertainment services to generate revenues commensurate to the attention it receives in North America are: to improve measurement of the success of ‘discovery’ tools, create more effective creative advertising inventory, and deliver proof of its effectiveness, not just the attention.

Mobile is a ‘break out’ entertainment media

Mobile has for some time been an entertainment media in the eyes of consumers, and particularly younger ones who soak up ‘dead time’ by playing games, using apps and even just communicating for fun, although to date not all these forms of entertainment have been connected.

In the past 3 years there has been a significant increase in ‘on demand’ and mobile consumption in North American and European markets, particularly in these younger segments, although a key challenge has been that monetisation has not followed the use of time spent on mobile.

Mobile entertainment itself can be defined as related to a context (e.g. ‘out and about’, ‘dead time’, ‘second screen’), devices (featurephone, smartphone or tablet), or type of connection (e.g. none, 3G, 4G, Wi-Fi). In general though, there are two main scenarios: mobile as a medium in its own right; and mobile as a ‘second screen’ experience. So in either scenario, we think the clearest answer to ‘what is the role of mobile?’ is that it is a ‘break out’ media, either extending the context of a form of entertainment, or extending the nature of entertainment in the existing context.

For video in North America, TV is still the dominant form of consumption, but mobile is growing rapidly as the ‘second screen’ that controls or supplements the main screen, especially with the explosive growth of tablets since the introduction of the Apple iPad.

Segmentation – there’s no single dominant business model

There has been much debate about the viability of different business models, broadly: advertising funded; consumer ownership; and subscription. While most participants believed that the ownership model would be most successful in music, where there is a higher likelihood that a consumer will want to listen to a track or album numerous times, ‘collectors’ or owners will still exist for videos, books and games.

Digital Collector Segment Size April 2013

Equally, demand exists for single ‘on demand’ services (e.g. pay per view), subscription (e.g. Spotify, cable), and advertising funded (e.g. YouTube). The balance is likely to change in video in particular with a move to increasing ‘on demand’ services in line with the current trend in consumer behaviour.

‘Discovery’: finding a model that proves it works

As the previously dominant channel-based model of curation in broadcast media gradually dissolves, and as the screen size, context and characteristics of consumption change, consumers face an increasing challenge finding out what they want to see, play or listen to.

Curation still exists through channel guides, taste-makers and review sites, and indeed through many offline sources, but is increasingly less the property of the content producer or distributor that it once was.

Content Discovery, one of the great buzz phrases of the industry, is therefore an ongoing challenge, and the application of networked computing power provide some advantages to connected and interactive devices like smartphones and tablets. Approaches used include:

  • 3rd party classification (e.g. by genre, subject), enabling more structured self-selection through menu choices etc.;
  • Recommendation engines (the Amazon/Netflix model), that can be based on a ‘Big Data’ approach (‘other people who bought this also bought that’) and/or semantic association (‘here’s another sentimental family comedy you might like’);
  • Social approaches, based on what your friends like or are watching, either through generic social media like Facebook, and specialised social media such as Zeebox.com (for video) and Goodread.com (for books);
  • Search – although this is non-trivial due to the volume of material in existence, and the ever-changing art of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) – getting the right items at the top of the list.
  • Hybrid approaches that combine ‘Big Data’ with ‘semantic association’ (e.g. see Jinni.com) and/or other forms e.g. Social (e.g. see this intriguing article on the $1m recommendations challenge from Netflix).

For all methods, the inconsistencies of the metadata recorded (e.g. is the media described accurately using your terms) is frequently a challenging limitation.

To a degree though, content discovery has always been a process of ‘trial and error’. Consumers read, hear or see a load of ideas, try a few out, stick to the ones they like, and grow to trust the means of discovery that is most successful for them.

To this end, an element that appears to be missing in many discovery processes today is the measurement of success rate for the user – “was this a good recommendation for you”? In our view, discovery applications that accurately track success well (easily, with a good UI, and with a tangibly good and improving success rate) will ultimately prove successful. All of the above techniques could and to a greater or lesser extent do adopt this approach, although it isn’t yet clear which will perform the best in the market.

Delivering the goods

The challenges of delivering content, particularly large volume (e.g. HD Video) and/or latency sensitive content (such as multi-player virtual gaming), were not addressed in the Digital Entertainment session, though Software Defined Networking (SDN), which offers the promise of more efficient routing through networks for certain traffic, was discussed in the Digital Economy session. Content Delivery Networks and other Broadband design techniques have also been addressed at length in other STL Partners research and brainstorms

However, ‘Bandwidth’ was one of the key determinants of success according to the ‘BBC’ heuristic offered from Mitch Berman’s experience as a guide to how mobile entertainment will operate in different markets: Bandwidth; Business Model; and Culture. (NB We think this can also be seen as a shorthand variant of our business model framework, with culture being a key driver of the content proposition, bandwidth of the technical capability, and business model as the value proposition.) 

Getting money commensurate with the time spent on mobile

A major challenge for advertising funded mobile entertainment is that there is a significant gap between the ratio of the amount of time spent viewing mobile and the money spent on it, and other forms of media. This is illustrated by the stats that:

  • For The Weather Channel, mobile is 1.5 X the traffic but less than 50% of the revenue;
  • 10% of media consumption occurs online Vs. 1% media spend (from the presentation by Cary Tild, CIO GroupM in subsequent Marketing and Advertising session).

While this imbalance is genuine, there are important advantages and limitations to mobile as a medium that haven’t yet been fully exploited or overcome, respectively.

One of the major limitations has been the need for more effective commercial inventory on mobile. At the Brainstorm there was, for example, much discussion on the limitations of banner type ads in a mobile environment. Many more innovative forms are now evolving, illustrated by:

  • The Weather Channel’s experimental creative commercial content within its app, in which instead of a rectangular banner at the top of the screen, appropriate commercial content is embedded on background of the weather screen (e.g. a cloud-wrapped image from a mystery film on a cloudy day’s forecast screen);
  • New trial applications that insert products virtually in existing content (e.g. a soft-drink on a table in an old TV show, as demonstrated in test form by ReinCloud);
  • And subsequently, the launch of Facebook Home, designed to increase the commercial inventory available to Facebook by taking over the screen of a user’s smartphone.

In the same way that advertising has always evolved (from print to radio, radio to TV, etc.), there is still much to be learned through innovation and experimentation – and of course the related measurements of success.

Charging differently for content rights by content owners, e.g. by the use of content rather than as an upfront fee, was also discussed, although many content owners are reluctant to move to or even test this model as they see it representing a significant risk to existing revenue streams.

The digital economy core themes of ‘big data’ and ‘localisation’ were also raised, and an example given by the Weather Company of a highly effective promotion of grass seeds based on locality and the detection of key seasonal weather changes.

Finally, a key theme in common with the subsequent advertising session was that proving the effectiveness of models to consumers, brands, and investors was the key step for most mobile entertainment concepts. We see thoughtful design, coupled with trial and experimentation, effective measurement and the ongoing application of learning processes to be central to achieving that proof.

Next Steps

Effectiveness in the ‘discovery’ phase of digital service is a key success criterion, particularly in Digital Entertainment. We will continue to research and explore this area in our Executive Brainstorms in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia-Pacific.

To read the note in full, including the following sections detailing additional analysis…

  • Brainstorm: Stimulus Presentations – summary and key points
  • Brainstorm: Table Discussions
  • Verbatim delegate questions & comments
  • Brainstorm: Panel Session in summary

…and the following figures…

  • Figure 1 – Traditional linear TV model is facing multiple disruptions
  • Figure 2 – Non-linear forms of TV becoming a massmarket requirement
  • Figure 3 – Tablets are changing the TV/video landscape
  • Figure 4 – The mobile problem
  • Figure 5 – Whither digital collectors?
  • Figure 6 – Shine on you crazy diamond?
  • Figure 7 – Sharing the locker?
  • Figure 8 – Do we all want libraries?

Members of the Telco 2.0 Executive Briefing Subscription Service can download the full 27 page report in PDF format here. Non-Members, please subscribe here. The Digital Economy, Consumer Experience (including service ‘discovery’), Digital Commerce and the Internet of Things will also be explored in depth at the EMEA Executive Brainstorm in London, 5-6 June, 2013. For this or any other enquiries, please email contact@telco2.net / call +44 (0) 207 247 5003.

Background & Further Information

The 2013 Silicon Valley Brainstorm used STL’s unique ‘Mindshare’ interactive format, including cutting-edge new research, case studies, use cases and a showcase of innovators, structured small group discussion on round-tables, panel debates and instant voting using on-site collaborative technology. Around 30 executives from entertainment, media, telecoms and technology companies participated in this session in total.

The focus was on looking at “the true role for mobile” in the digital entertainment industry. Opening the session informally, various attendees were canvassed about their intentions & hopes for the day. This yielded a desire for information to assist in business modelling, to learn about the realities of the US entertainment market – or just to experience “inspiration and surprise” from a diverse set of speakers.

Objective: How to Make Mobile Work

The session covered three presentations and a demo, spanning the width of the entertainment business from TV to books, and from user behaviour to advertising. Its principle focus was around how content and telecom companies could generate sustainable businesses by leveraging the trend towards mobility – both devices and networks.

  • Designing compelling mobile entertainment experiences
  • 4G: The impact on video distribution and consumption economics
  • Latest models for monetisation

The session included three Stimulus Speakers:

  • Andre James, Partner, Bain & Co
  • Alex Linde, Vice President, Mobile & Digital Apps,The Weather Channel
  • Keith McMahon, Senior Analyst, STL Partners/Telco 2.0

In addition, Dan Reitan, CEO, Reincloud gave an Innovation Showcase demo, after which these four were joined on the debate panel by two other industry luminaries:

  • David Gale, EVP New Media, MTV
  • Mitchell Berman, Principal, Blend Digital

We’d like to thank the sponsors of the Brainstorm:
Silicon Valley 2013 Sponsors