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AT&T’s Vision for HBO: Hook ’em With Freebies, Addict Them Wanting More, Monetize Everything

Phillip Dampier July 9, 2018 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 1 Comment

This isn’t going to be your parent’s HBO much longer.

In a recent town hall attended by 150 employees, AT&T laid out its new vision for the premium network it recently acquired. one almost similar at times to the business plan of a drug pusher.

“We need hours a day,” said John Stankey, a recent transplant from AT&T’s executive suites now tapped to run WarnerMedia — AT&T’s new name for what used to be Time Warner (Entertainment) and owner of HBO. Stankey was complaining that HBO was out of touch with the times, attracting too few viewers to its multiplex of premium channels only a handful of times a week, if that. In a world shared by Netflix, that was not nearly good enough.

HBO, which began life as Home Box Office in November, 1972 is by far America’s oldest cable television channel. Originally a venue for high profile, unedited, commercial-free movies, along with sports and specials, HBO grew into a well-respected producer of high budget (often millions of dollars per episode), cutting-edge original movies and series, showcased to loyal audiences on Sunday nights for years. Series like The Wire, The Sopranos, Sex in the City, Oz and Game of Thrones are well-known across the country, but fewer than half of Americans subscribe to HBO to watch them. HBO has also been the critics’ choice for original content, showering awards on the network in unprecedented numbers for almost 20 years.

Now that AT&T is in charge, that is all about to change, as executives prepare to shift HBO away from “quality over quantity” towards “quality and quantity.” Stankey also made it clear the changes are first and foremost about making money — a lot of it earned by keeping subscribers on HBO property so their viewing habits can be studied and sold.

Stankey

“It’s going to be a tough year,” Stankey warned. “It’s going to be a lot of work to alter and change direction a little bit.”

“It’s not hours a week, and it’s not hours a month,” Stankey said of how long he expects HBO subscribers to spend time watching the service. “It’s hours a day. You are competing with devices that sit in people’s hands that capture their attention every 15 minutes. I want more hours of engagement. Why are more hours of engagement important? Because you get more data and information about a customer that then allows you to do things like monetize through alternate models of advertising as well as subscriptions, which I think is very important to play in tomorrow’s world.”

That will be a major shift for a network overseen top to bottom since 1992 by Richard Plepler, HBO’s chief executive. Plepler expanded on HBO original movies by launching expensive scripted series in the late 1990s that stood out by escaping broadcast television network censorship. But Plepler was very selective about the number of shows on HBO’s schedule, with some series taking years to develop. Under Stankey’s leadership, HBO will now be expected to dramatically expand original content, much like Netflix has done to keep viewers coming back for more.

“As I step back and think about what’s unique about the brand and where it needs to go, there’s got to be a little more depth to it, there’s got to be more frequent engagement,” Stankey said, adding HBO’s brand has to broaden its appeal to new audiences.

That will require a big boost to HBO’s budget. The pay movie channel is already extremely profitable, making almost $6 billion in profits over the last three years. It invested $2 billion in programming development, much less than the $8 billion Netflix is investing in less costly, but more prolific programming. HBO’s business plan depends heavily on American cable subscribers paying $10-15 a month for the network. It also earns money selling its original shows to television outlets in other countries. Its high monthly cost has always limited subscriber numbers, especially these days with cord-cutting and bill shaving. Premium movie channels are often the first networks to be dropped in return for a lower bill.

Plepler

To monetize its subscriber base, HBO either has to cut the cost of the network, transform it into must-have television, or a combination of both. Stankey is unhappy HBO has wavered around 40 million subscribers (out of 142 million American potential households) for years. He told audiences the network has to find ways to move the network beyond its perpetual 35-40% penetration “to have this become a much more common product.”

There was a clear sense of tension between Plepler, who is part of the New York City entertainment scene, and Stankey, a business-focused Texan with decades of experience in the Bell System — later AT&T. Plepler’s deference to Stankey’s new vision seemed uncomfortable at times, as Stankey made it clear who was now in charge:

Stankey: “We’ve got to make money at the end of the day, right?”
Plepler: “We do that.”
Stankey: “Yes, you do, just not enough.”

Plepler’s clearly defined tenure and vision at HBO had not wavered much since taking over in the early 1990s. But that vision was nervously discarded almost immediately as Stankey looked on.

“I’ve said, ‘More is not better, only better is better,’ because that was the hand we had,” Plepler explained. “I’ve switched that, now that you’re here, to: ‘More isn’t better, only better is better — but we need a lot more to be even better.’”

As a result, HBO, which used to be the darling of critics and well-to-do viewers in big cities on the east and west coast is getting a radical makeover. Onlookers can expect a much more aggressive marketing effort and free samples of the service to attract and hold new customers. It will have to keep its pricing closer to the competition, particularly as many consumers already subscribe to 1-2 different streaming services. Then it will have to give people a reason to subscribe to just one more service.

“New Fox” Will Be Centered on Fox News & Live Sports

Phillip Dampier July 5, 2018 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 1 Comment

Rupert Murdoch’s slimmed-down television empire will refocus on targeting America’s red states and live sports fans.

After Murdoch completes the sale of most of 21st Century Fox and its studios to either Disney or Comcast, the “New Fox” that will remain will include Fox News Channel, Fox Business Channel, the Fox television network, MyNetworkTV, some sports channels, and 28 owned and operated local television stations. In short, it will be a $23 billion company focused almost entirely on legacy television.

To maximize the value of those remaining assets, “New Fox” will double down on live television to attract and hold the “core Fox viewer,” one who instinctively watches Fox News, enjoys live sports, and more than likely lives in a conservative-leaning state.

Brandon Ross, an analyst at BTIG Research, believes “New Fox’s” crown jewel will be the Fox News Channel, not the Fox television network.

“The strongest asset that’s in their portfolio going forward is Fox News,” Ross said, noting that dedicated viewers of the network will likely see promotions from other Fox-owned networks that will increasingly cater to the interests of the average Fox News viewer. Research shows Fox News attracts an older, conservative, and very loyal audience that is more likely than other demographic groups to also watch live television sports and pay for cable television.

Murdoch’s recent content deals hint he intends to increase Fox’s focus on live sporting events. Last week, CNN reported Fox acquired the rights to broadcast “WWE SmackDown” for the next five years. Earlier this year, it signed another five-year deal to air Thursday night NFL games.

Fox’s scripted television shows will likely take a hit as a result, as investments shift towards live news and expensive sports programming. Murdoch may be signaling it won’t continue trying to keep up in the battle between Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix vs. traditional linear/live television over scripted dramas, original movies, and other pre-produced content. Murdoch’s ability to rely on traditional scripted shows for revenue may also be waning as online content companies break the traditional 24-26 week ad-supported television season.

Netflix’s original content budget was around $6 billion in 2017, more than CBS spent on its own shows. This year it expects to spend up to $8 billion, more than CBS, FOX, and ABC. Fox can still fall back on the two strengths network television still commands — live news and sports. News programming, particularly the kind of political opinion shows Fox airs during the evening, are extremely cheap to produce and attract a loyal audience. Sports programming, in contrast, is extremely costly to acquire. But like news, surveys show more than 90% of viewers watch live, commercials and all.

Jay Rosenstein, a former CBS Sports executive, told CNN that is what makes sports so valuable for a legacy business like Fox.

“There’s been a certainty about sports programming that doesn’t exist with scripted or unscripted programs,” he added. “With sports, you have a known quantity.”

Live sports is one of the few types of programming left where viewers don’t instinctively reach for the remote to fast forward through advertising. Scott Rosner, the academic director of Columbia University’s Sports Management Program, said networks like Fox depend on that to make money.

“What that means is you are sticking around as the viewer,” Rosner said. “You’re far more likely to watch advertising that is being put in front of you.”

That adds up to a lot of advertising revenue because no other programming comes close to beating the ratings of live football games, according to Ross. Networks spend a lot on sports programming, but also earn a lot from lucrative and frequent ad breaks.

Networks opening their checkbooks to spend billions on sporting rights prefer long-term, stable contracts even if they have to spend more to get them. The streaming services, as well as some social media sites, are also dabbling in live sports streaming, and with their deep pockets, traditional broadcast networks could eventually be outbid. At Fox, they have about five years before they need to worry about renewing the contracts they just signed.

“New Fox” will also recoup some of their recent investments from viewers like you. Many expect Fox and their television stations will raise retransmission consent fees charged to your cable, phone, satellite, or online provider to carry Fox-owned networks and stations on the lineup.

Australia’s National Broadband Network Looking for Scapegoats Over Maddening Slowdowns

Australia’s speed-challenged NBN is looking for scapegoats and finds video game players an easy target.

In 2009, Australia’s Labor Party proposed scrapping the country’s copper wire networks and replacing virtually all of it with a state-of-the-art, public fiber to the home service in cities from Perth to the west to Brisbane in the east, with the sparsely populated north and central portions of the country served by satellite-based or wireless internet.

It was a revolutionary transformation of the country’s challenged broadband networks, which had been heavily usage capped and speed throttled for years, and for large sections of the country stuck using Telstra’s DSL service, terribly slow.

The National Broadband Network concept was immediately attacked by the political opposition as too expensive and unnecessary. Conservative demagogues in the media and in Parliament dismissed the concept as a Cadillac network delivering unnecessarily fast 100 Mbps connections to 90% of Australians that would, in reality, mostly benefit internet addicts while leaving older taxpayers to foot the estimated $43AUS billion dollar bill for the network.

The leaders of the center-right Liberal Party of Australia promised in 2010 to “demolish” the NBN if elected, claiming the network was too costly and would take too long to build. As network construction got underway, the organized attacks on the NBN intensified, and it was a significant issue in the 2013 election that defeated the Labor government and put the conservative government of Tony Abbott into power. Almost immediately, most of the governing board of the NBN was asked to resign and in a series of cost-saving maneuvers, the government canceled plans for a nationwide fiber-to-the-home network. In its place, Abbott and his colleagues promoted a cheaper fiber to the neighborhood network similar to AT&T’s U-verse. Fiber would be run to neighborhood cabinets, where it would connect with the country’s existing copper wire telephone service to each customer’s home.

Abbott

Unfortunately, the revised NBN implemented by the Abbott government appears to be delivering a network that is already increasingly obsolete. Long gone is the goal for ubiquitous 100 Mbps. For Senator Mitch Fifield, who also happens to be the minister for communications in the Liberal government, 25 Mbps is all the speed Australians will ever need.

“Given the choice, Australians have shown that 100 Mbps speeds are not as important to them as keeping monthly internet bills affordable, when the services they are using typically don’t require those speeds,” Fifield wrote in an opinion piece in response to an American journalist complaining about how slow Australian broadband was while reporting from the country.

The standard of “fast enough” for Senator Fifield also seems to be the minimum speed at which Netflix performs well, an important distinction for the growing number of Australians watching streaming television shows and movies.

Unfortunately for Fifield, network speeds are declining as Australians use the NBN as it was intended. While perhaps adequate for a network designed and built for 2010 internet users, data usage has grown considerably over the last eight years, and the government’s effort to keep the network’s costs down are coming back to haunt all involved. Several design changes have erased much of the savings the Abbott government envisioned would come from dumping a straight fiber network in favor of cheaper alternatives.

Right now, depending on one’s address, urban Australians will get one of four different fiber flavors the revised NBN depends on to deliver service:

  • Fiber to the Home (FTTH): the most capable network that delivers a fiber connection straight into your home.
  • Fiber to the Neighborhood (FTTN): a less capable network using fiber into neighborhoods which connects with your existing copper wire phone line to deliver service to your home.
  • Fiber to the Basement (FTTB): Fiber is installed in multi-dwelling units like apartments or condos, which connects to the building’s existing copper wire or ethernet network to your unit.
  • Fiber to the Distribution Point (FTTDP): Fiber is strung all the way to your front or back yard, where it connects with the existing copper wire drop line into your home.

In suburban and rural areas, the NBN is depending on tremendously over-hyped satellite internet access or fixed wireless internet. Customers were told wireless speeds from either technology would be comparable to some flavors of fiber, which turned out to be true assuming only one or two users were connected at a time. Instead, speeds dramatically drop in the evenings and on weekends when customers attempt to share the neighborhood’s wireless internet connection.

Instead of improving the wireless network, or scrapping it in favor of a wired/fiber alternative, the government has set on so-called “heavy users” and blamed them for effectively sabotaging the network.

Morrow

NBN CEO Bill Morrow recently appeared before a parliamentary committee to discuss reported problems with how the NBN was being rolled out in regional Australia. Morrow blamed increasing data usage for the wireless network’s difficulties, singling out slacker video game addicts for most of the trouble, and was considering implementing speed throttles on “extreme users” during peak usage periods.

Stephen Jones, Labor’s spokesperson for regional communications, questioned Morrow on what exactly an “extreme user” was.

“It’s gamers predominantly, on fixed wireless,” said Morrow. “While people are gaming it is a high bandwidth requirement that is a steady streaming process,” he said.

Morrow suggested a “fair-use policy” of speed throttles might be effective at stopping the gamers from allegedly hogging the network.

“I said there were super-users out there consuming terabytes of data and the question is should we actually groom those down? It’s a consideration,” he said. “This is where you can do things, to where you can traffic shape – where you say, ‘no, no, no, we can only offer you service when you’re not impacting somebody else’.”

The NBN itself has regularly dismissed claims that online gamers are data hogs. In an article written by the NBN itself, it stressed gameplay was not a significant stress on broadband networks.

“Believe it or not, some of the biggest online games use very little data while you’re playing compared to streaming HD video or even high-fidelity audio,” the article stated. “Where streaming 4K video can use as much as 7 gigabytes per hour and high-quality audio streaming gets up to around 125 megabytes per hour, (but usually sits at around half that) certain online games use as little as 10MB per hour.”

The article admits a very small percentage of games are exceptions, capable of chewing through up to 1 GB per hour, but that is still seven times less than a typical 4K streaming video.

In fact, the NBN’s own data acknowledged in March 2017 that high-definition streaming video was solely responsible for the biggest spike in demand. NBN data showed the average household connected to the NBN used 32% more data than the year before. When Netflix Australia premiered in March 2015, overall usage grew 22% in the first month.

So why did Morrow scapegoat gamers for network slowdowns? It’s politically palatable.

“They always have someone to blame for why the NBN doesn’t deliver, they have every excuse except the one that really matters, which is the flawed technology,” said the former CEO of Internet Australia Laurie Patton. “In this case for some reason shooting from the hip [Bill Morrow] had a go at gamers and gamers are not the problem.”

As long as Australia continues to embrace a network platform that is not adequate robust to cope with increasing demands from users, slow speeds and internet traffic jams will only increase over time. In retrospect, the decision to scrap the original fiber to the home network to save money appears to be penny wise, pound foolish.

AT&T Debuts WatchTV and Two New Unlimited Plans Next Week

AT&T’s ultra-slim TV package WatchTV arrives next week and is free of charge, if you are willing to switch to one of two new unlimited plans that bundle “unlimited” talk, text, and data with your choice of content.

AT&T WatchTV includes more than 30 networks and over 15,000 on-demand movies and TV shows. The lineup:

A&E, AMC, Animal Planet, Audience, BBC World News, BBC America, Boomerang, Cartoon Network, CNN, Discovery, Food Network, FYI, Hallmark Channel, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, HGTV, History Channel, HLN, IFC, Investigation Discovery, Lifetime, Lifetime Movies, OWN, Sundance TV, TBS, Turner Classic Movies, TLC, TNT, Tru TV, Velocity, Viceland, and WE. The service also promises to add a small suite of Viacom networks: BET, Comedy Central, MTV2. Nicktoons, Teennick, and VH-1 shortly after launch.

AT&T’s new “unlimited plans” appear to add to the confusion over exactly what “unlimited” means. Full details of both plans will be on AT&T’s website next week.

AT&T Unlimited &More

  • Option to add WatchTV
  • $15 monthly credit toward DIRECTV NOW
  • Up to 4G LTE unlimited data

AT&T Unlimited &More Premium

  • Option to add WatchTV
  • Option to add one of these premium services: HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, or Starz, as well as music streaming from Amazon Music Unlimited and Pandora Premium or gaming service VRV.
  • $15 monthly credit toward DIRECTV, DIRECTV NOW and U-verse TV
  • 15GB of high-speed tethering
  • High-quality video

AT&T has not disclosed pricing, but the fine print does mention: “AT&T may slow data speeds when the network is congested. Video may be limited to SD.”

AT&T’s marketing language suggests customers will have the option of getting these services, which means you may have to opt-in to get them. If you are not interested in changing your wireless plan or if you are not an AT&T customer, AT&T WatchTV will be available shortly on a standalone basis for $15 a month. Details on that option “are coming soon.”

21st Century Fox Accepts Disney’s Sweetened $71.3 Billion Offer, Outbidding Comcast

21st Century Fox has accepted an improved $71.3 billion bid from Walt Disney Co. to acquire its entertainment division, outbidding Comcast’s all-cash $65 billion bid for Fox’s content companies.

Rupert Murdoch and shareholders will walk away from the majority of Fox’s media empire well compensated from a short-term bidding war between Disney and Comcast, which has raised the acquisition price substantially above Disney’s original offer in December.

Disney CEO Bob Iger’s current offer is being seen as “very aggressive” by Wall Street and designed to deter Comcast from responding with a better bid of its own. Comcast was already planning to load up on debt to finance the deal, and was unwilling to include shares of its stock as part of the transaction. Disney itself is putting a huge amount of money on the line to acquire Fox. After including Fox’s current debt load, Disney’s latest offer means the total transaction is expected to exceed $85 billion.

Disney’s decision to postpone an important meeting to discuss Comcast’s bid could be a signal Comcast is preparing a counteroffer.

Whatever company ultimately wins control of Fox will own and control the majority, but not all of Fox’s media assets.

21st Century Fox Assets to be Acquired by Disney (or Comcast if it returns with an even higher bid):

Fox Entertainment Group:

20th Century Fox
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Blue Sky Studios
Fox Star Studios
Fox Networks Group
Fox Sports Networks

FX Cable Networks
National Geographic Partners (Nat Geo suite of cable networks and National Geographic Films) (73%)
Star TV (Asian satellite TV service)
Hulu (United States) (Fox’s 30% stake, giving either buyer 60% ownership and control of the service)
Sky (39.14%) (United Kingdom satellite TV service and content producer)
Endemol Shine Group (50%) (Producer of reality TV shows including Big BrotherMasterChefThe Biggest Loser and Hunted.)

21st Century Fox Assets to Be Spun Off to “New Fox” — an independent company owned by current 21st Century Fox shareholders

Fox Broadcasting Company – The Fox Television Network
Fox Television Stations Group (28 local TV stations)
Fox Television Station Productions
Movies! (a digital subchannel network run as a joint venture with Weigel Broadcasting and seen on around 75 local stations around the country)
MyNetworkTV
Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network
Fox Sports:

Big Ten Network (51% owned in joint venture with Big Ten Conference)
Fox Deportes
Fox Sports 1
Fox Sports 2
Fox Soccer Plus
Fox College Sports
Fox Sports International

The 20th Century Fox studio lot (to be leased by Disney)

A battle is still raging for control of Sky, the United Kingdom’s biggest satellite TV provider. Fox originally sought to acquire the portion of Sky it did not already own, but was derailed by a sweeping 2011 phone hacking scandal after news emerged Murdoch-employed reporters illegally hacked into the private voicemail boxes of celebrities to help fuel new story ideas and substantiate personal scandals. When it was revealed reporters listened to the messages of a murdered schoolgirl, allowing her parents to mistakenly believe she was still alive, the scandal went viral and prompted both criminal and regulatory probes of Murdoch’s operations in the United Kingdom. It also led to the closure of the country’s largest tabloid newspaper, the Murdoch-owned News of the World. The scandal has been widely blamed for Murdoch’s inability to convince regulators to approve his bid for full ownership of Sky Television. Murdoch is now cutting his losses and selling the entire operation to either Disney or Comcast.

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