Content Finally is King

One of the more common memes in our industry is the phrase “content is king.” This was first said by Sumner Redstone of Viacom in 1994 but made more famous by Bill Gates in 1996. The phrase has been used since then to describe how the creators of content have the power in our industry – be that programming or web content.

John Stankey, the CEO of AT&T Entertainment, recently emphasized this same concept in talking about the company’s planned merger with Time Warner. At the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona he said, “We just cannot envision a future where AT&T is relevant if we don’t directly participate in some of the water flowing through our pipes.”

All of the big ISPs have decided that content is key to their survival. Comcast already owns a mountain of programming, and after the merger with Time Warner, AT&T will be a content powerhouse as well. Verizon has climbed into the game with the acquisitions of AOL and Yahoo. There are web companies with the same philosophy. Netflix has built a new industry by creating new content. Google is pushing content heavily through YouTube. Amazon has started to create unique content and recently said they are going to make that a priority. Facebook is becoming a content force through Facebook Now.

I remember having this conversation with Derrel Duplechin of CCG back in 2000. We were asked by several clients to speculate about the future of the carrier industry and we foresaw that most carriers were likely on the path to eventually become what we called “dumb pipe” providers. I remember that this was a story that many of our clients did not want to hear.

We lived in a different carrier world in 2000. Most homes still had telephones and voice was the most profitable product for most carriers. The cable TV product that many of our clients sold then also had decent margins. But we predicted that both products would eventually sink in importance and in margins and that eventually most of our clients would earn most of their profits from broadband. We thought this would happen to all carriers, small and large, and we figured that the most profitable future companies would be those that found some other line of business other than just selling data pipes to end users.

We had some clients take this to heart and some of them have made a really good living by providing extra value to customers. For example, we have several clients who thrive by bringing a suite of products to businesses other than just plain connectivity. But for the most part, the majority of the ISP industry sells dumb pipes today. They compete with the speed of those pipes and with price and with good customer service – but the primary products (and the driver of most of the profits) are now data pipes.

The big companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast looked at that future and it scared them. It’s pretty obvious that if your only product is dumb pipes that your earnings are not going to continue to grow fast enough to satisfy Wall Street. This is probably what convinced Verizon to stop expanding their FiOS network. Both AT&T and Verizon got huge earnings boosts from expanding their cellular businesses, but that industry also seems to be heading towards the same plateau as landline ISPs – cell service is becoming a commodity.

So these big companies are now pursuing content because it looks to be the last area in our industry with the potential for significant bottom line growth. It’s going to be an interesting race to watch. Content providers have succeeded or failed over the years according to their ability to find smash hits. A huge hit movie or TV series can mean huge returns to the bottom line. But content providers that don’t create what the public wants to watch suffer badly in terms of stock prices and earnings. Being a content provider is not predictable in the same way as telecom.

Interestingly. AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast are now direct competitors of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Netflix. Content certainly is king, but content also brings the risk from competition. The companies that fall behind in this race are likely to be gobbled up by their more successful competitors. I find it extremely unlikely that all of these big companies will still be in existence in 10 years.

There is no real barrier to entry into the world of content creation other than having a pile of money. It’s likely that other big companies will join the content fray. But all of these companies are entering a world that is in big flux. For example, traditional video and web content might well be replaced by virtual and enhanced reality. The companies that succeed in content will have to spend a lot of money staying one step ahead of the competition, and my money is on the more nimble technology companies. Twenty years ago I would have been shocked to know that someday AT&T would have a CEO of Entertainment – and that may turn out to be the most important job in the corporation.

AT&T and Time Warner

ATTI have been thinking about the AT&T and Time Warner merger since it was first announced. Generally the reasons for megamergers are apparent – there is generally some big efficiency or cross benefit to both companies that makes sense. But I had a very hard time seeing very much benefit to either company with this merger.

The obvious intersection between the two companies is programming. Time Warner produces a lot of content – networks including HBO, TNT, TBS, CNN and a host of smaller networks.  And AT&T has a lot of cable customers through DirecTV and U-verse.

But as I think through the programming advantage it’s not as big as you might think. AT&T is not likely to buy any more cable content from Time Warner after a merger than it does today. It’s likely that all of Time Warner’s content is already delivered to AT&T’s video customers. In fact, once the two companies combine, any transactions between the two of them disappear upon consolidation when creating the financial statements for the combined companies.

The non-accountant will say, “Wait, doesn’t that mean that AT&T gets the content for free”? And the answer is no, because it also means that the revenue that AT&T pays to Time Warner today in real cash also disappears. On the consolidated books both sides of the transaction disappear, as if they never happened.

And it’s hard to see any of the typical merger savings from consolidating management. The two businesses have almost nothing in common and it would make no sense for program executives to run a giant ISP or for AT&T executives to make programming decisions.

The only other obvious benefit is for AT&T to somehow leverage the Time Warner content to grow the wireless business. When the merger announcement was first announced the FCC sent a letter to AT&T and told them they would be investigating their zero-ratings practices. Zero-rating is when an ISP provides content to customers without counting the usage against any data caps. AT&T already does this today with a limited amount of content, but if they owned Time Warner they would have far more content they could send over cellphones that wouldn’t count against data caps. An AT&T customer could watch Game of Thrones, for instance, on their AT&T cellular plan without worrying about their monthly data cap. But if they watch non-AT&T video they would be penalized.

With the new administration it looks like zero-rating (and net neutrality in general) is likely dead. But how much of a benefit is zero-rating to a wireless company? Certainly this could drive more advertising revenue to the combined company, but that doesn’t seem like a big enough motivation for the mega-merger. And unless one cellular companies gets killer content that everybody wants to watch on a cellphone, it’s hard to think that zero-rating is going to be a big game changer in terms of shifting wireless customers between providers. I have a hard time seeing AT&T zero-rating as a Verizon Wireless killer.

The only real benefit I can foresee is a bit of a scary one. With each of these mergers between ISPs and programmers the industry collapses to fewer and fewer major players. This merger would put AT&T on the same footing as Comcast in terms of programming content. And maybe that is the major reason for the merger – just keeping up.

But what is to stop the biggest companies from selling content to each other in bulk? I could foresee AT&T and Comcast agreeing to sell content to each other at a reduced price based upon some volume discount. This would end up giving both companies an edge over every other ISP. These two mega-companies (and probably a few others) would then be able to leverage that advantage to crush their other competitors – leaving the nation with even fewer competitors than today.

I don’t know that this scenario could be sustained. It seems like the public is migrating away from a lot of traditional content towards programming produced independently by companies like Netflix. But if the AT&T / Time Warner merger is allowed to happen, what will stop one of these big companies from buying Netflix and every other independent content provider that pops up?

Some OTT Statistics

sling-tvAs usual the quarterly Digitalsmiths and TiVo recent Video Trends Report contains a ton of interesting statistics about the industry. The following table shows the number of households that subscribed to the various OTT services during the third quarter of each of the last four years.

 

‘                                              Q3 2013          Q3 2014          Q3 2015          Q3 2016

Netflix                                     41.7%              46.4%              49.9%              51.8%

Amazon Prime                        12.9%              17.9%              19.9%              24.8%

Hulu                                          9.4%                9.6%              12.1%                9.9%

HBO Now                                                                                  4.3%                5.2%

YouTube Red                                                                                                      3.1%

Shomi                                                                                                                2.7%

CBS All Access                                                                           2.1%                2.1%

Sling TV                                                                                      1.0%                1.7%

Play Station Vue                                                                         1.3%                1.6%

Blockbuster                               1.8%                1.2%                 1.0%                1.0%

Other                                         1.5%                1.4%                 1.7%                1.8%

Nothing                                    51.8%              47.3%               43.7%              38.1%

Netflix has continued to dominate the industry and has grown to cover an additional 10% of all homes nationwide since 2013. Hulu increased market share in 2015 but is back down again. But expect Hulu to grow again since they are picking up a lot of new content from its owner programmers. In four years Amazon Prime has doubled, although there is a lot of debate about how many people actually watch the video service since it comes free with the Prime shipping program.

What springs out most from the chart is how the industry is diversifying. In just the last year YouTube Red and Shomi sprang to fifth and sixth place in the industry. And 2014 saw the introduction of Play Station Vue, SlingTV, CBS All Access, and HBO Now. It’s also striking to see the number of homes that don’t watch OTT content drop from 52% in 2013 to only 38% today.

You may be surprised to see Blockbuster still active on the list. While all their stores have closed, the Blockbuster brand is still being used to market OTT movies and is now integrated into SlingTV.

The ‘Other’ category is interesting. On last count there were over 100 different video pay services on the web, yet outside the major OTT players these services together are only seen in 1.8% of households.

This next chart shows what people pay for OTT content, comparing 2014 and today

Monthly Expense                  Q3 2014                      Q3 2016

$1 – $2                                     2.0%                            3.6%

$3 – $5                                     2.3%                            3.2%

$6 – $8                                    33.4%                          16.5%

$9 – $11                                  21.7%                          30.1%

$12 – $14                                  8.1%                           10.0%

$15 – $20                                 14.0%                          15.8%

$21+                                           6.8%                          10.7%

Use But Don’t Pay                    11.1%                          10.1%

In just two years the average bills have crept significantly upward. Currently over 2/3 of homes report paying more than $9 per month for OTT service, while in 2014 that was only 51%. Probably more interesting is that 26% of homes pay more than $15 per month for OTT content. My household is in this category and we have subscriptions to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime (including Starz), and SlingTV.

The percentage of households who told an interviewer that they watch but don’t pay for OTT content dropped slightly, but represents about the same number of people from 2014 to 2016.

 

The FCC and Data Caps

FCC_New_LogoI’ve railed against low data caps in this blog a number of times over the last few years. Low data caps stop some households from partaking in the basic web services that most of us take for granted. The FCC is now being prodded to confront this issue since earlier this month Netflix filed at the FCC asking to eliminate data caps.

In that filing Netflix argued that web-based video is now an expected service for households. They threw out a new statistic I’ve never seen before and they say that the average household now uses 300 gigabits per month in download capacity just to satisfy their TV viewing habits. And they warn that that level of bandwidth demand is growing rapidly, particularly with the growing popularity of 4K video.

They argue quite correctly that households with low data caps can’t afford to watch video like everybody else. Our firm works a lot in rural America and I have talked to numerous households who tell me the same thing. Households with low data caps (like those found with satellite broadband) closely monitor and ration broadband usage and they say that lack of availability to the web is one of the major points of contention in their household. There are many horror stories where kids will watch a lot of video or do online gaming and the parents then get a gigantic monthly bill for the usage.

It’s hard to know where the FCC stands on data caps. Last year when they were getting flooded with complaints about Comcast’s data cap trials, the staff there made numerous statements that made you believe that data caps were under investigation. But then Comcast raised the data caps to a terabit and the issue faded away. More recently it seems that the FCC sees data caps as a pricing issue – something they told ISPs they would never get involved with.

But there are still numerous ISPs that enforce data caps and the issue is still very much alive. Certainly the most abusive form of data caps is with cellphone data, and our wireless data prices in this country are nearly the most expensive broadband in the world.

The data cap issue is going to get new legs as the big telcos build rural broadband using CAF II funds. The FCC in that docket said that networks built with CAF II funding could not have data caps any smaller than 150 GB. And so we expect most of the CAF companies to use the 150 GB cap. There are going to be millions of rural homes that get their first broadband only to find out that they can’t use it like they expected to watch video. I am sure a lot of them are going to get a shock when they see their first bill with huge data overages higher than the 150 GB cap.

The FCC is under no obligation to respond to the Netflix complaint. The FCC has always had the freedom to choose the issues it wants to investigate, and so they could file this complaint away and do nothing. They also have the ability to open a rulemaking to gather more facts on the issue, but would still have no obligation to act. There are numerous rulemakings and dockets at the agency that have been open for years and that may never be resolved.

But data caps are discriminatory to rural and poor customers. The big ISPs have placed severe data caps on Lifeline data connections, and through CAF II rules will do the same for rural customers. Since most of the country still has no choice among ISPs it can be devastating if the only ISP available imposes draconian data caps.

I certainly hope the FCC takes up the issue. They now have the authority to do so under Title II regulation. We’ve known for years that this is not a network issue for most ISPs. And that means that ISPs with data caps view them as a backdoor way to increase rates. They want to advertise cheap starter rates but then use data caps to get a lot of money out of customers at the end of the month. I think the FCC needs to talk to rural families that spend over $500 per month on cellular data just so that their kids can do homework.

OTT Latest – August 2016

tubitv_squareThe only way for cord cutting to become a true problem for the cable companies is for there to be so much content online that people feel comfortable walking away from the cable packages. If the last few months are any indication of where the OTT industry is heading, we soon ought to be seeing more people cut the cord. So far this year there has been an average of almost one new OTT roll-out every week and there are now over 130 subscription video services on the web. Here are just a few of the more interesting recent announcements in what is becoming a busy new industry:

Acorn TV. Priced at $4.99 per month (first month free) this service bundles the best shows from the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The service is starting with 60 exclusive titles that include a lot of drama, police who-dunnits and dry British comedy.

Sling TV. The service has grown from very simple to having a wide range of options. They have added a ton of new programming such as Fox Sports and other Fox Shows, They brought in the NBC suite including the live NBC feed, USA, Bravo, SyFy and BBC America. They beefed up the sports offering with some regional sports networks. The NBC live feed will be the first place that local NFL games will be broadcast on the web. They have added E! and Oxygen to their Lifestyle package. And they’ve added BBC World News, CNBC and MSNBC to their World News Package. Overall this is starting to become as large and confusing as looking at cable packages!

Hulu. The company has confirmed it will soon be launching a skinny bundle. Much of the content is going to come from the owners of Hulu including a suite of packages from ABC / Disney including ESPN, a package from NBC Universal, and a package from 21st Century Fox. Plus Hulu is making a deal with CBS. This would make Hulu the first to offer all of the major networks’ feeds live online, with ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox. The company has said that their base package will be around $35, and this makes it a true skinny bundle since it includes the networks plus other most-watched channels. As I was writing this blog Hulu announced they are ceasing all free / ad-based program and are now all-subscription.

Tubi TV. Tubi TV is taking a different approach from the other services and is free to customers and is ad-supported. The service carries a lot of content aimed at millennials, who supposedly are most interested in free content. The service includes Japanese anime 2-days after being aired in Japan as well as a lot of movies and various series of interest to millennials. The service has made deals with over 200 content provides including MGM, Lionsgate, Paramount Pictures and Starz!

Comcast brings in Netflix. In an attempt to keep viewers on their platform and under their channel guide Comcast has made a deal to bring Netflix into the fold. Netflix will appear in the lineup like any other network and customers can navigate using their remote control.

Speaking of remote controls, Comcast distributed a lot of new voice-controlled remotes in time for the Olympics in the hopes of keeping customers from cutting the cord. We’ll have to watch to see how customers like the new devices.

Networks go Directly Online. All of the major (and many not-so-major) networks are taking their content online, but with different business models. It will be interesting to see which of these approaches is the most popular.

Fox has announced that it is now online for customers using the Fox.com website or the Fox Now app. This is an authenticated service and customers have to be verified as a customer of a cable provider and already paying for the Fox programming.

ABC is re-launching its unauthenticated streaming service (free for anybody) and showing older series for free, supported with ads.

CBS has taken the premium subscription approach and is a monthly subscriptions for $5.99 it’s calling CBS All Access. The company is producing original content just for this platform including the next Star Trek Series.

NBC has chosen to produce OTT content through its Seeso platform. This is going to consist of a number of different types of programming, with the comedy platform launched late last year. The comedy channel costs $3.99 per month. It includes older NBC comedy series as well as twenty new comedy series produced only for the Seeso platform.

Even smaller networks like CW now have an unauthenticated ad-supported platform called CW Seed that is showing older shows such as MadTV, Constantine and the O.C.

Industry Shorts – July 2016

unflagHere are a few topics I’ve been following but which don’t merit a full blog.

Mediacom Announces Upgrade Plans. Mediacom has announced plans to invest over $1 billion to upgrade its networks. The main thrust of the upgrades would be to increase speeds up to a gigabit in the 1,500 communities it serves in 22 states.

It will be interesting to see how they do this. There are many markets where they don’t have to do a lot more than upgrade to DOCSIS 3.1 and introduce new cable modems for high-bandwidth customers. But a lot of their rural markets will require forklift upgrades involving headend upgrades as well as revamping the coaxial cable plant. In the worst cases they’d have to replace coaxial cables, but in others would have to replace power taps and line amplifiers.

The company also announced it would open public WiFi hotspots in many of its markets. However, their current WiFi program is pretty weak by industry standards and only gives existing broadband subscribers access to 30 free WiFi minutes per month.

Dish Cuts Back on Ad-Skipping. Dish Networks has agreed to largely disable the feature in their new VCRs that let customers skip ads automatically. This has become such a sticky point in negotiations for content that Dish finally agreed to cut back on the very popular feature. Dish reached agreements with Disney and CBS to disable the feature in order to get new programming for Dish’s Sling TV OTT offering.

Google Launches Undersea Cable. Google and Japanese telecoms have built a new undersea cable joining Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco to two POPs in Japan. The cable can carry 60 terabits of data per second and is now the fastest undersea fiber. Google is also planning to complete a fiber between Florida and Brazil by the end of the year. Facebook and Microsoft are working together on an undersea connection between Virginia Beach and Bilboa Spain. With the explosive growth of Internet traffic worldwide this is probably just the beginning of the effort to create the needed connectivity between continents.

It’s interesting to see that some of the big traffic generators on the web are willing to spend money on fiber, and one has to suppose this will save them money in the long term by avoiding transport charges on other fiber routes. It’s probably also not a bad time to own a fiber-laying ship.

UN Declares Broadband Access a Universal Human Right. The United Nations recently passed a series of resolutions that makes online access to the Internet a basic human right. Among the key extracts in the resolutions are:

  • That people have the same rights online as offline, “in particular, freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice.”
  • That human rights violations enacted against people due to making their views known online are “condemned unequivocally,” and states are held accountable for any such violations.
  • Any measures to “intentionally prevent or disrupt access” to the internet are also “condemned unequivocally,” and all states should “refrain from and cease such measures.”

While it’s easy to argue that much of what the UN does has no teeth, it has been the forum since its creation for recognizing human rights.

Netflix Users Would Hate Ads. In a survey with mixed results it’s clear that Netflix users have strong feelings about introducing advertising into the popular ad-free service. In a survey given by All Flicks, 75% of Netflix users said they would dump the service if it started carrying ads.

In a somewhat contradictory finding, the pole indicated that most Netflix users would pay a premium price to avoid ads if there were options. Nearly 60% of Netflix users said they would pay $1 per month to avoid ads with many others saying they would pay even more.

Cord Cutting is Getting Harder

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One thing that cable operators might have going for them is that the OTT market is changing in ways that make it a little less attractive to cord cutters. It turns out that it’s getting harder to be a cord cutter, and certainly more expensive.

For a while it looked like Netflix and Hulu would offer a real alternative to cable TV, and for many people they still do. But the things we used to like about those two services are changing rapidly. Hulu is a great example. Around 2011 they made a deal with over 20 sources of content like NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Fox, and many others. But those were 5-year deals that are now coming to an end and Hulu is about to lose a lot of the content that attracted people.

Hulu is being hit from all sides. NBC is pulling most of its content and has launched its own OTT product that is hinging on the popularity of the new Star Trek to draw customers. BBC has pulled the very popular Doctor Who and other programming in favor of its own OTT product. Even CW is pulling shows like the Flash, Arrow, Vampire Diaries, and Jane the Virgin and has launched its own OTT service.

The same has happened to Netflix. Long-time subscribers complain that there is half the content on Netflix as there was years ago, and it’s true. Content providers have slowly been withdrawing content and making it harder for Netflix to obtain both TV shows and movies. Netflix makes up for this with original content, but that content isn’t for everybody.

With the plethora of OTT options, it’s getting expensive to be a cord cutter. A cord cutter probably can’t pick only Netflix and/or Hulu and be happy – or at least not as happy as they were a few years ago. To get a wide variety of OTT programming, a cord cutter is going to have to subscribe to multiple OTT products, and at the end of that process might easily be spending as much for programming as they did with the cable company.

Consider Sling TV as an example. Sling launched with a very simple set of options. They launched with a basic package of 15 channels for $20 per month – these were channels that people miss when they cut the cord – ESPN, the Travel Channel, the Food Network, TBS, and the Disney Channel. They had an add-on package for $5 to add more sports channels.

But Sling TV has morphed to become a lot more complicated and a lot more expensive. They now have two basic packages each priced at $25 per month. One called Sling Blue is sports-oriented including Fox Sports and NBC (for the Olympics). The original package has been renamed Sling Orange and has also been bumped to $25. Both together are $40, and there are now several $5 add-on packages such as news and sports. Sling is looking at adding more content, but in doing so, they are now at or above the price that this same content can be received on satellite. But with satellite cable you get a lot more channels than Sling. The new Sling TV prices are starting to feel like a programming alternative, not a cord cutting savings option.

Hulu also has more expensive options now. They will soon be offering a package that includes live network programming starting at $35 per month. For $50 per month customers can store up to 20 hours of Hulu content in cloud DVRs.

Cord cutters now have much harder choices than even just six months ago. If they cobble together a half dozen OTT sources they can easily be paying more than they were with cable. If they limit themselves to one or two sources of content like Netflix or Hulu they will see their content choices shrinking and their monthly fees increasing.  This all has to be good news to the cable companies – a lot of homes are going to like the OTT options less than they did a year ago.

Speed Tests

cheetah-993774Netflix just came out with a new speed test at fast.com which is intended to measure the download speed of Internet connections to determine if they are good enough to stream Netflix. The test only measures the speeds between a user and the Netflix servers. This is different than most other speed tests on the web that also look at upload speeds and latency.

This raises the question of how good speed tests are in general. How accurate are they and what do they really tell a user? There are a number of different speed tests to be found on the web. Over the years I have used the ones at speedtest.net (Ookla), dslreports.com, speed.io, the BandWidthPlace and TestMySpeed.

Probably the first thing to understand about speed tests is that they are only testing the speed of a ping between the user and the test site routers and are not necessarily indicative of the speeds for other web activities like downloading files, making a VoIP phone call or streaming Netflix. Each of those activities involves a different type of streaming and the speed test might not accurately report what a user most wants to know.

Every speed test uses a different algorithm to measure speed. For example, the algorithm for speedtest.net operated by Ookla discards the fastest 10% and the slowest 30% of the results obtained. In doing so they might be masking exactly what drove someone to take the speed test, such as not being able to hold a connection to a VoIP call. Ookla also multithreads, meaning that they open multiple paths between a user and the test site and then average the results together. This could easily mask congestion problems a user might be having with the local network.

Another big problem with any speed test is that it measures the connection between a customer device and the speed test site. This means that the customer parts of the network like the home WiFi network are included in the results. A lot of ISPs I know now claim that poor in-home WiFi accounts for the majority of the speed issue problems reported by customers. So a slow speed test doesn’t always mean that the ISP has a slow connection.

The speed of an Internet connection for any prolonged task changes from second to second. Some of the speed tests like Netflix Ookla show these fluctuations during the test. There are numerous issues for changing speeds largely having to do with network congestion at various points in the network. If one of your neighbors makes a big download demand during your speed test you are likely to see a dip in bandwidth. And this same network contention can happen at any one of numerous different parts of the network.

The bottom line is that speed tests are not much more than an indicator of how your network is performing. If you test your speed regularly then a slow speed test result can be an indicator that something is wrong. But if you only check it once in a while, then any one speed test only tells you about the minute that you took the test and not a whole lot more. It’s not yet time to call your ISP after a single speed test.

There have been rumors around the industry that the big ISPs fudge on the common speed tests. It would be relatively easy for them to do this by giving priority routing to anybody using one of the speed test web sites. I have no idea if they do this, but it would help to explain those times when a speed test tells me I have a fast connection and low latency and yet can’t seem to get things to work.

I think the whole purpose of the Netflix speed test is to put pressure on ISPs that can’t deliver a Netflix-capable connection. I don’t know how much good that will do because such connections are likely going to be on old DSL and other technologies where the ISP already knows the speeds are slow.

OTT Update May 2016

TelevisionThere is so much activity in the OTT space that I might need one of these updates every few months. It seems as soon as I publish one a new set of changes gets announced in the industry.

Hulu Announcement. The biggest OTT news is that Hulu just announced that they are putting together an OTT skinny bundle package. It’s not expected to launch until next year, but Hulu has already struck deals with Disney and Fox, which happen to be two of its corporate parents. The Hulu package is interesting because this really represents the major programmers taking a shot at stealing customers away from their cable company customers.

Hulu’s history is pretty interesting in that their owners – Disney, Fox and NBC Universal (Comcast) – were very careful in the early days to not give Hulu great content that would upset the cable companies. But that seems to have changed. Hulu is now getting access to many more movies and other content and is making a major run at Netflix. Since it’s owned by programmers who themselves have a lot of content, Hulu certainly has a chance to eventually become the dominant OTT player. I’m seeing a lot of web articles talking about how Netflix is losing their sheen as their content choices dwindle.

YouTube Unplugged. After having this on the shelf for the last four years it looks like Google and YouTube are finally getting serious about launching a skinny bundle of their own. They are in talks with the major programmers and are talking about launching early next year.

YouTube already launched the YouTube Red subscription service last fall that bundles together the premium content found only on YouTube. It’s aimed at younger viewers who seem to prefer YouTube as a source of video content. The cable companies are going to have to start sweating with Hulu and YouTube both making a major play to attract people away from traditional cable packages.

CBS and Star Trek. CBS has announced that after it airs the first episode of its new Star Trek series on TV that all future episodes will be available only on the online CBS All Access Platform. This is a major play to sell more subscriptions to that service. Considering the strong draw of Star Trek it might work. But CBS is not going to dump the whole series on line at once for binge viewing but will feed a new episode each week.

FilmStruck. Criterion and Turner have announced the creation of a new online movie service they are calling FilmStruck. The service will have the largest catalog of older movies online and includes the whole MGM and RKO movie catalogs which Ted Turner bought in the 80s. This gives the service a significant share of the movies on most of the lists of all-time greatest movies. The catalogs also contain mountains of movies that have not been available for years. As part of this deal Criterion will be pulling about 500 old movies from Hulu.

Netflix Survey. A survey of Netflix customers showed that 76% of them believe that Netflix and other online content is going to eventually completely displace traditional cable TV. Of the 24% who didn’t think this was so, the primary reason they thought cable would survive is news programming. Interestingly, 68% of those surveyed did not think that Netflix would replace movie theaters.

The Growth of 4K Video

4K CameraIt looks like 4K video is making it into the mainstream and is going to put a big strain on broadband networks serving residential customers. 4K video resolution is 3840 x 2160 pixels, or about 8 million pixels on a screen, which is about four times more resolution than an HD display. It takes a lot of bandwidth to stream that many pixels and with current compression technologies 4K video requires 15 – 20 Mbps download speeds. Google and others are working on better compression techniques that might cut that in half, but even so that would mean videos streams at 7 – 10 Mbps. That’s a whole new level of broadband demand that will increase the household need for faster data speeds.

Just a year ago it wasn’t easy to find 4K video on the web, but this year there is a lot of content being shot in the format. This includes:

  • Netflix is currently shooting most of its original content like House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Jessica Jones, Daredevil in 4K. It also has a big array of documentaries in the format as well as a number of classic movies being reformatted to 4K.
  • Amazon Prime is also filming new content like Alpha House, Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle and Man in the High Castle in 4K. They have a small library of movies in the format.
  • Sony probably has more mainstream movies in the 4K format than anybody. Rather than streaming you download Sony movies and a typical movie can take 40 GB of storage space. It doesn’t take too many movie downloads to blow the data caps of AT&T or Comcast.
  • M-Go has developed a small but growing 4K library in conjunction with Samsung. They also will be adding title from Fox.
  • Comcast offers a few movies in 4K online for customers in partnership with NBC Universal.
  • YouTube has a huge amount of user-generated 4K video of all different types. YouTube is also now producing original content sold under YouTube Red and which contains 4K content.
  • Ultraflix has a big library of 4K nature documentaries including some originally produced for IMAX. They are also carrying lot of Hollywood movies.
  • Vudu, which is owned by Walmart has a small, but high quality 4K set of content. They are the first to marry 4K video to Dolby surround sound.

If 4K follows the same migration path of standard definition video to HD video, then within a few years 4K content is going to be everywhere. Where just a few years ago there was little video on the web, video now seems to be everywhere. There are video ads on all sorts of websites and social media services like Facebook and Twitter spit out piles of video at a user these days.

One of the biggest problems with broadband regulation in this country is that it fails to recognize the ever-growing nature of broadband demand. Once households start using 4K video then the FCC’s newly minted definition of broadband at 25 Mbps download will already be getting stressed. The fact is that the household needs for broadband are just going to keep growing year after year and any regulatory definition of demand will be obsolete almost as soon as it is established.

Broadband demand has been growing steadily and doubling about every three years and there is no reason to think that we are anywhere close to the time when that growth curve is going to slow. 4K video is not the last new technology that will stretch our needs for broadband. When I read about where virtual and augmented reality are headed over the next five years it’s not to hard to see where the next big push for more broadband will come from.