21 Charts for 2021
A collection of charts that highlight some of the trends happening across the sports, media, and entertainment industries over the past year, and the key questions executives and investors should be asking over the next 12 months.
At the start of every year, we like to take a step back and look at emerging trends and see how they will impact the sports, media, and entertainment industries over the next 12 months (See Last Year). This year is more difficult than most. The onset of the coronavirus last year disrupted businesses across the globe, and is still having a substantial impact of the day-to-day lives of billions of people. While there is hope that the rollout of a vaccine will help restore a sense of normalcy, there is some belief that there has been a permanent shift in consumer behavior. The long duration of social distancing measures has forced consumers to adapt and they’ve become more accustomed to digital technology. Across the TMT landscape, industries have been slowly changing to adapt to new business models brought on by the rise of digital distribution. Companies have been forced to accelerate these changes, whether to cut costs, make up lost revenue, or just to hold on to their customers. The common thread throughout has been flexibility, as businesses look to expand their distribution, and let the consumers decide through which medium they want to interact. In sports, there will be a rise in simulcasting, where games are broadcasted on multiple platforms (broadcast, cable networks, OTT), some of which will be targeted to specific audiences. In OTT, there will be a greater importance on ubiquitous distribution, whether its connected TVs, mobile phones, game consoles or smart devices. In audio, there will be growth in digital concerts, whether live streamed or virtual events, that can deepen the connection with fans and complement live touring. In gaming, there will be advances in cross-platform gaming, as marquee franchises become available across PC, console and mobile, whether it’s one game, or through a multitude of titles that build an ecosystem. In film, the exclusive theatrical window has dissipated, and there will be an emphasis on day/date release for many (but not all) films. In digital, there will be increased competition between established social networks and emerging platforms to provide creators with the ability to directly monetize their audience. In TV, there will be larger advertising partnerships that tie together inventory from linear, OTT, digital, and social platforms.
If 2020 was a year of transition, then 2021 will be a year where the execution of these new strategies start to take place.
The Importance Of Mobile Has Never Been Greater
It’s not surprising that linear TV continues to see declines. For years, younger audiences have been cutting the cord, or never even signing up in the first-place. Older demographics have been driving most of the total viewing hours, but there are early signs that even they are starting to reduce their TV consumption. This might be more of a reflection in the mix of users (the aging up of younger audiences accustomed to not watching TV), rather than a sudden change in behavior. Old habits die hard. But at the same time, there has been rapid growth in the use of smartphones in older demographics, including the 65+ segment. This is more likely a behavioral change, as the pandemic has necessitated the increased use of digital applications, whether for communication, work, or personal enjoyment. Businesses were forced to close retail stores, and no longer able to interact with customers in-person. Cable companies and telcos have been slowly introducing new digital tools to help their subscribers at various stages of the relationship (i.e. sign-up, upgrade). But that shift has accelerated over the last year, as it has become the only way to respond to customer queries. These tools, whether it be online chat, self-install guides, or AI-driven voice calls, can offer the same quality of service at a fraction of the cost. As customers have grown accustomed to using the features, there is more confidence that further investments can generate significant ROI. Technological shifts are always difficult to adjust to because everyone adopts at different rates, making it challenging to provide support to each customer in their preferred way. To see how trends evolve over the next decade, it’s important to focus on the younger generations (Gen Z) that are the quickest to embrace new technology, as well as find/develop new types of use cases. Instagram was originally a photo-editing app, then it became a vibrant messaging tool, and now it’s becoming the new shopping mall. These digitally native consumers will shape the way, and the pace, at which businesses embrace new means of connecting with their audiences, whether it be to distribute content, sell merchandise, or provide support.
The Streaming Wars Begin In Earnest
Netflix has been streaming content since 2007, and started releasing their own original content in 2012. It took nearly a decade, but the legacy media companies have finally embraced the world of OTT. The cable ecosystem was a tremendous business model for these networks, and transitioning away from those substantial recurring revenues, regardless of viewership, was always going to be a challenge. But the shift from linear to streaming is not just a change in the method of distribution, it requires a fulsome change in mindset to transition from a B2B wholesaler to a DTC retailer. These challenges have been exacerbated by the delay in pivoting to streaming, which allowed power to gravitate toward the emerging gatekeepers of the OTT ecosystem. This has been crystalized by the inability for Peacock and HBO Max to secure distribution on Roku and Amazon at launch and the drawn out negotiations to resolve (save for Peacock/Amazon) those issues. But it was important for these media companies to hold firm on their desire to own as much of the customer relationship as possible, as that is vital for success, even more so in ad-supported platforms. It’s worth making short-term sacrifices, even if it impacts the launch, in order to set the company up for the long-term success. While the scale of Netflix is enviable to all, it is crucial to remember this is just the early innings of the OTT era. Many of these services are only available in the U.S., or in the beginning stages of international expansion. For the first time, these media companies will provide a global product. While it will take time to scale, there will be a rush to launch in as many markets as possible in order to gain a first-mover advantage. While Disney has demonstrated the power of beloved, global IP, the battle for subscribers is a marathon and not a sprint. Each of these platforms will need to develop new skillsets, utilize customer feedback loops, and learn how to optimize for lifetime value. As these media companies ramp up their content investments, competition will start to intensify. Customers have a limited amount of disposable income and they’ll only keep the OTT services that provide value each month. Additionally, the easy ability to cancel services (as opposed to the traditional cable model), means customers can move between SVODs on a regular basis based upon content availability. This type of churn will be the death of many DTC services as it becomes costly to consistently re-acquire customers for a short-period of time. As a result, there may be a need to bundle OTT services together to improve the performance and provide a better value proposition for the consumers. It may take some time before that happens as it’s still early and each company believes they can be successful on their own as a must-have subscription.
The Challenge To Ramp Up Original Content Production
Netflix pioneered binging, and the release of all episodes of a season at once has transformed how consumers expect to watch TV. At first, they were able to accomplish this because of their heavy reliance on licensed content, which had the extra benefit of multiple seasons of a TV show. As Netflix started producing their own content, they needed to shift the way content was produced in order to maintain the binge model that had won customers’ affection (and eyeballs and wallets). This necessitated producing the entire series before releasing it on the platform. This contrasts with traditional TV production where the weekly release schedule allows for shows to continue production of later episodes while the show is on air. These differing schedules have come into spotlight as the coronavirus continues to limit the volume of productions. Netflix had a meaningful supply of completed content to release over the course of 2020, and that volume is so important for the streaming giant. The breadth of content, combined with the limited number of episodes per season (Under 10 compared with 20+ on broadcast) means there is a rapid decay in viewing after the first week of release. While there are some titles that have longer runs (such as Tiger King or The Queen’s Gambit) that allows them to adjust their release schedule, Netflix is able to keep their vast subscribers engaged because they always have another show waiting for them. The global footprint and focus on local language content has allowed them to maintain productions in certain countries in 2020, but this might not have a significant impact in 2021. For the most part, local language shows don’t travel well. Ted Sarandos has even said, the focus is on making a quality show for the specific home country, but if it travels pan-regional that’s good, and if it becomes global than that’s even better. So while Netflix may be able to add new content to the service in 2021, it probably won’t move the needle much in the U.S. This is somewhat concerning as legacy media companies are prioritizing their own content for their recently launched OTT services. They’ll face the same challenges in new content production, but have the added benefit of showcasing their vast library of content for the first time. Still, Netflix’s scale has proven to be the ultimate marketing tool, and some studios (such as Viacom) are willing to license prior seasons to Netflix ahead of a new season airing on the linear network. Netflix might need to rely on these short-term licensing deals a little bit more in 2021. But this will be more of a stop-gap solution than any radical shift in strategy. There is no disruption to their original strategy, but it is going through some changes as a new organizational structure has put Bela Bajaria as the head of Global TV. There should be a renewed focus on creating franchise shows that can travel internationally, where they can maximize their economies of scale. But due to the production model, it’s going to take some time before the results start to show on screen.
The Growing Value Of AVOD/FAST Services
Over the past year, legacy media companies have made it clear that their number one priority is OTT. But there is still $100+ billion in the Pay-TV ecosystem, and there is a desire to extract as much of that as possible for as long as possible. Networks and MVPDs have become close partners over the past few decades, and while the networks become distributors themselves through their DTC apps, there is still a need to maintain the MVPD relationships. This has come in the form of expanded distribution agreements, where networks might sacrifice some affiliate fee increases in exchange for carriage of OTT platforms on the set-top box, with a bounty that incentivizes MVPDs to drive awareness and sign-ups. This is more advantageous for the cable companies who can utilize the offerings to improve the quality of their broadband-only offerings. DISH Network and DirecTV are in more meager positions as they are relying solely on the video offering to keep subscribers. It’s not a revelation that cord cutting is occurring at rapid rates. The rapid decline of linear viewership has also started to weigh down on advertising revenue at the networks, with CPMs continually under pressure. In response, media companies have acquired AVOD services over the past 2 years as a way to increase their ad inventory. Additionally, the recent reorganizations at these companies have streamlined the operations to cut costs and increase efficiency. Ad sales are now done holistically, rather than by network or platform, as a way to help longstanding TV advertisers gain exposure to younger audiences that are streaming content on these free services. This consolidation has also impacted the distribution, as content development is no longer taking place at each individual network. Once again, decisions will be made at the parent company on how to best monetize a piece of content, whether it be on broadcast, cable, or OTT. These AVOD platforms are unable to effectively monetize premium original content (that’s best done via DTC), but they can be an effective marketing platform. Networks are already starting to incorporate their older library programming, mainly on a non-exclusive basis, as well as air older seasons of popular franchises as a way to promote the current seasons on air. Furthermore, there will be more original content that debuts on a DTC platform, and then airs on a linear network or AVOD shortly after.
The Brief Respite In Cord-Cutting Won’t Last Long
In one of the biggest surprises of 2020, the pace of cord-cutting has actually slowed down. It’s hard to pin down a specific a reason for this inflection, but the key factors would be government assistance programs (Keep America Connected), a rampant news cycle, an increase in time spent at home, and of course the presidential election coverage. While some of these aspects will carry over into this year, they will become more subdued over time. As a result, there should be a re-acceleration in cord cutting rates. Networks continue to demand higher affiliate fees, and MVPDs are willingly passing these costs onto subscribers as they become increasingly indifferent as to whether they sell a video package. For the cable companies, the majority of profit is derived from broadband anyway. Satellite companies face a tougher road ahead as they need to rely on these diminishing margins. DISH Network has taken the most aggressive response as they push back on these rate increases, and become comfortable dropping channels on a long-term basis. While traditional MVPD packages are losing customers, the virtual MVPDs (vMVPDs) are taking share as they provide a safety net to consumers that want to cut the cord. It is ironic that the vMVPDs, who initially established themselves a few years ago as a skinny bundle are starting to mimic the fat bundles they once sought to replaced. However, they do provide numerous advantages over the MVPDs. There are no annual commitments or long-term lock-ups, so subscribers can cancel and resume service as they like. Additionally, as an app-based streaming product, there is no hassle in dealing with returning equipment. They also offer a better UX for customers, whether it’s content discovery, cloud DVR, or user profiles. And while prices are cheaper than the traditional bundles, the discrepancy isn’t as wide as one would imagine. The vMPVD still requires a broadband subscription, which is becoming more expensive on a standalone basis. In the end, the cost of the service is proportionate to the number of channels carried. This is a major flaw of the business model. At low retail prices, the unit economics are backwards, as they aren’t paying any less for the network than the traditional MVPDs. Networks are also continuing to demand increased affiliate fees for distribution. As seen throughout the past few years, there is a frequent need to increase prices for the service, which usually goes along with the addition of additional entertainment networks. As vMVPDs continue to become bigger, they face the same challenges of the satellite companies who don’t have any means to properly monetize their customers outside of video. As prices increase, and closely mimic the MVPDs, there will be an exodus of consumers who get their entertainment needs from OTT services. After all, that’s where the networks are sending their best content anyway.
The Cable Companies Get Set To Battle The Wireless Providers
The cable companies have demonstrated remarkable success in adapting to new technology over the past few decades. It’s been aided by the fact that these new technologies have been for different mediums, thus reducing the potential cannibalization of revenue. As a result, cable companies have been able to leverage their network infrastructure to add more capabilities, and deepen the customer relationship. The formation of bundles has helped introduce new product lines as other ones waned. The rise of mobile phones in the 90’s put landlines into a bundle with cable TV. The growth in broadband over the past decade has formed a triple play bundle. And now the cable companies are increasingly looking to offer quad-play packages with the introduction of their own wireless service. Cable companies have built their wireless business through MVNOs with the telcos, essentially licensing the wireless network and paying for data utilized. This model is beneficial as a majority of mobile use is over Wi-Fi, even more so over the past year with many people confined to their homes. The pandemic has paused a lot of marketing and promotion as wireless devices and plans have predominantly been sold in retail stores rather than online. The cable companies are in a bit of a holding pattern until these stores start to open up and improve foot traffic in 2021. The service is available, but there is little amount of resources devoted to subscriber acquisition. For now, the wireless offering is mainly utilized as a way to reduce customer churn by adding more value to the customer relationship. Broadband remains the anchor, and its importance, and revenue, is growing exponentially. Although with 5G networks coming online, the competition from telecom companies will intensify. It will take years before 5G has a meaningful impact on the consumer, as 4G speeds have been sufficient for a lot of the common use cases (streaming, downloads, gaming). But wireless 5G will eventually become a direct competitor for fixed broadband, and the industries will gradually converge. The writing is already on the wall with DISH Network’s acquisition of Boost Mobile from Sprint, and their ongoing build out of a cloud native 5G network. As a result, it’s unlikely that these MVNO agreements continue as cable companies gain scale with their wireless base. More so, with the margins from video rapidly declining, there will be a strong desire to turn their mobile businesses into higher cash flow generators. Cable companies have been active bidders in auctions for spectrum, and there may be plans to start deploying their own 5G network. Learnings about customer data usage in the interim will be very useful. The regional nature of the business means they can strategically deploy coverage while still relying heavily on their fixed network.
The Increasing Shift Towards User Privacy
The announcement to modifications of IDFA at the annual Apple Developer Conference last June sent shockwaves throughout the mobile advertising industry. While changes were supposed to be implemented with the release iOS 14 in the Fall, it has been delayed until later this Spring (exact date TBD) in order to give more time for advertisers to adjust. IDFA, or Identifier for Advertisers, is a unique identifier for mobile devices that is used to target and measure advertising campaigns. It’s the equivalent of a web browser cookie but for mobile devices. Apple, known for its strong stance on privacy, had always given users the ability to opt-out of using IDFA and having their data collected and shared. This forthcoming change doesn’t remove IDFA, but instead forces users to actively opt-in and allow tracking. It’s unclear how many people will choose to opt-in, but the industry consensus appears to be around 20%, which should result in a steep decline in the mobile advertising market. This slight change in UX has an impact on companies that utilize advertising for customer acquisition, as well as companies that are dependent on advertising for revenue. Needless to say, there has been vocal pushback on these changes, most notably led by Facebook. The social network has over 2.5 billion monthly active users across the globe and their troves of data allows them to serve personalized ads within their products, as well as on 3rd party apps. There are millions of small businesses across the world who can’t afford to spend money on brand advertising, but want to reach their potential consumers. Without IDFA, the small restaurant in your hometown can no longer target an ad to a user who checked-in to a store down the street. As a result, the advertising experience will become much worse, as users will be served more ads that are not relevant. This will be a waste of the advertiser’s money and the customer’s attention. This may be especially harmful to mobile games where customer acquisition strategies are deeply rooted in data science to maximize efficiency. On the other side of the equation, apps and websites that provide ad inventory should expect to see a significant pullback in spending over the course of the year. That same budget generates a much lower ROI, and marketers will need time (and data) to figure out ways to work around the lack of an IDFA. These app developers will need to explore new ways to monetize their audience. While the pivot to subscriptions seems like the logical answer, there are no guarantees that it will be successful. First, many ad-based apps can’t seamlessly convert into a subscription model without jeopardizing a significant amount revenue in the short-term. Second, a successful direct-to-consumer business requires low customer acquisition costs, and high lifetime value. It will be hard for these newly minted subscription companies to develop the expertise to execute on these strategies, especially when a lot of the data used in these strategies is tied to IDFA. Third, the apps that are impacted the most are small businesses, many of which do not have the sophistication, or employees, to make the transition. Fourth, the shift to subscriptions benefits Apple, as they get to take their 30% (and subsequent 15%) cut from the recurring fees. So, not only does the business need to replace ad-revenue, they need to exceed it. That’s a tough proposition. As a result, many apps will end up sticking with the advertising model, and work with their networks and platforms to develop and execute on work-arounds that provide the necessary targeting and measurement. This will be focused on collecting their own first-party data that can be leveraged into actionable insights. Over time, the mobile advertising ecosystem will adjust and recover, but there will be growing pains along the way.
The Social Networks Reduce Their Dependence On Ads
TIkTok catapulted to mainstream prominence in 2019 and stayed at the forefront of Gen Z and millennial cultural trends in 2020. The algorithm supporting the For You Page has been revolutionary, surfacing new content based on interests rather than a follower graph. This has worked to good effect due to the smart product design behind the short-form mobile content app. At its core is the content itself, rather than creator, as it takes up the entire screen with minimal overlays for engaging (likes, comments, shares) and discovery. As a result, the algorithm can learn a user’s preference by how they engage or not engage with the video. Quickly swiping up for the next video tells the AI a user doesn’t like the content, but letting it repeat 3 times indicates a desire to see more of those videos. This isn’t possible on other social networks where it is dominated by a feed design, which takes up part of the screen, is built off a follower graph, and can have multiple creators on the page at the same time. That’s not to say this style can’t work – it clearly has – just look at Facebook. But those platforms are increasing creating social bubbles for its community, super-serving content they want to see, by similar minded people. This unintentional product feature has played a part in the growing political divide in the country and has raised regulatory scrutiny. TikTok has also faced regulatory scrutiny due to its ties to China through its parent company ByteDance. The financial support of the Chinese conglomerate has been a crucial component for gaining the scale in users that it has today. The next part will be more difficult as it looks to convert eyeballs into revenue. The strength of short-form mobile video has also provided a limitation to the app as it’s not able to create the same amount of ad inventory without alienating users. Instead of focusing on brand advertising or even direct response advertising, TikTok will take learnings from its sister app in China, Douyin, and try and create a live streaming e-commerce platform to drive the bulk of its revenue. They aren’t the only social network making the pivot, as others are trying to replicate and magnify the success of direct response advertising. The easy part will be getting the brands and creators involved, as it’s a natural extension of advertising and branded content. The hard part will be improving the product to incorporate a seamless checkout experience. Currently, if a user clicks-to-buy, they are directed to the retailer’s website to complete the order (from creating an account, to adding credit card details), even though they remain in app. In order for video commerce to gain widespread adoption, it needs to reduce the friction so click-to-buy is just as easy as click-to-install.
The Creator Economy Takes Center Stage
The network effects of scaled social media platforms provided the opportunity for users to become “influencers” by amassing large followings. But it is difficult for these influencers to directly monetize their huge audiences within the platform. Instead, they are reliant on branded content deals, affiliate marketing links, or selling merch on their personal website (i.e. link in bio). This hasn’t impeded the growth of the influencer economy, which is estimated to be near $10 billion. A big reason for the success of this industry is through the long-tail of micro- and nano-influencers. While mainstream celebrities can command significant dollars for sponsored content, there are only a handful of them. On the other hand, there are millions of Instagram users that have built smaller, but more engaged audiences around niche topics and interests. These micro-influencers are extremely valuable to local businesses who can pay for posts, whether it be giveaways, sponsored content, or discount codes. But with these small scale influencers, there are more challenges, as they are primarily one-person businesses, so they need to secure the deals, as well as create the content. The rise of the subscriptions have provided an alternative way for creators to monetize their audience. In this case, they are monetizing the content itself, rather than the scale/engagement of their followers. This direct monetization expands the types of small businesses that can be formed, and platforms are being built to better serve these creators. They allow the individual(s) to focus on the product, whether it be text, audio, knowledge, or physical goods, and provide distribution to the audiences in exchange for a cut of the fees. The internet’s zero marginal distribution costs allow digital businesses to effectively reach their entire potential audience. It’s a blessing and a curse as there are a ton of creators out there seeking to find their audience, using any medium they can find. As such, there will be challenges for an entrepreneur to coalesce all their marketing/distribution/sales together to easily monitor and analyze the performance of their business. There will be new products made available that help creators simplify the simultaneous use of various massive social platforms. That scale is so valuable, and is one of the challenges for these emerging direct monetization platforms. Their primary customer is the creator, so the focus needs to be on building tools that help them. But, content discovery is a crucial component to their success, and there is also a need to enhance the platform to attract new consumers. Otherwise there will be an ongoing reliance on the scaled social networks to drive audiences to their newly formed business. Soon enough, these social networks will launch their own direct monetization capabilities and there may no longer be a need to use any other platform.
The Broadening Of Live Streaming Personalities
Twitch has established itself as the dominant platform for video game streaming. Its position was cemented when Ninja left for an exclusive contract at Mixer in late 2019, and there was no exodus of viewers. Instead, audiences found new personalities to watch, and eventually Ninja (and others) came back to Twitch after Mixer shut down in the middle of 2020. The livestreaming platform has become one of the best marketing tools for new games, as exemplified by the enormous audience during the Valorant beta release earlier this year. It’s no surprise to see Riot Games lean into live streaming, considering League of Legends is continuously one of the most watched games on the platform. This ongoing engagement is one of the key factors that helps the longevity of games, which is becoming even more important as more publishers shift to free-to-play. But it’s not just new releases that can benefit. There have also been numerous instances where games released years ago and have suddenly become mainstream sensations. This happened with Among Us, a game initially released in 2018, but became the go-to-game last fall, with politicians such as AOC becoming involved in streams to help get out the vote. This shift from hardcore gamers, to a broader audience is important for the next stage of growth for Twitch. The interaction between live-streamer and audience is one the key features of the platform that drives engagement. No longer are games necessary to drive that conversation, as “Just Chatting” has become the most popular channel on the platform. Audiences aren’t there to just watch video games being played, they want to be a part of the experience. Facebook Gaming quickly recognized this and has already introduced a similar mode. Now, companies in a variety of different industries can take advantage of the scale and influence of personalities on the platform. The best sign that Twitch has become a valuable platform has been the flurry of DMCA notices and takedowns by the music industry. In the early stages of YouTube, they allowed songs to be uploaded without any copyright/piracy concern as the platform was deemed too small. But as it grew, the record labels saw the potential of a new revenue stream, and utilized these same DMCA takedowns to force the platform into licensing deals. YouTube is now the biggest home of music consumption. Twitch has yet to sign any licensing deals, but they’ll need to act quickly, as it starts to impact their core gaming streamers. Many on-demand clips have been taken down due to background music, or even music within a game, that has not been cleared for use on streaming platforms. The music industry is unique due to the complex of nature of the rights ownership, but other industries may have an easier path to capitalize on Twitch’s scaled platform. It would be easy to imagine politics/news, home cooking, DIY, or educational content becoming just as popular as video games.
The Studios Look To Video Games For The Next Franchise
Video game engagement had been steadily growing over the past few years, but has seen an acceleration over the course of the last 12 months. The shift in the consumption (and revenue) of video games is a result of the change in business model, from upfront sales to ongoing live services. Historically, users would purchase a physical disc for $60, spend 40+ hours playing/completing the game, and then move on to the next one. As a result, the AAA publishers were reliant on big hits that appeal to a broad audience, resulting in millions of copies sold in the first year. The development of online play helped elongate the life of a video game, but the major catalyst was the introduction of in-game transactions. Now, with digital downloads slowly replacing physical versions, publishers can easily add new content to games, whether it be expansion packs, in-game items, or new modes. Players became further entrenched in these games, and have been willing to spend more money to deepen their experience in these virtual worlds. The characters and story telling behind the game is starting resemble that of comic books, a popular source of IP for media companies. While studios have tried adapting video game IP into films since the turn of the century, it’s never resulted in meaningful box office performance. However, media companies are taking another shot as a wave of content is being developed into films and TV shows. Netflix saw astounding success with The Witcher, reaching 76 million viewers in the first 4 weeks, which set a record for the first season of a TV show. They are now leaning further into that space, with a second season of the series, and spin-offs of the CD Projekt Red franchise. Netflix has also signed a content partnership with Ubisoft for the development of multiples different series based on the Assassin’s Creed franchise, spanning live action, animation and anime. This isn’t just a one way street, and media companies can license their IP for the creation of new video games titles that expand the stories of their biggest franchises, or renew interest in library content. It will be important that close partnerships are formed between the two industries to ensure the long-term success. On each side, the IP is valuable because of the established, passionate audience that has a knowledge and expectation of quality. Transferring IP to new mediums will be challenging, as there is a need to cater to multiple fan bases that may not have shared interests. The appeal of the IP to the gamer might not be the same as the moviegoer. From a content perspective, the success of Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe is the ultimate north star for these adaptions, but the opportunity to capture more upside might come by moving media IP into video games.
The Next Generation Of Consoles Has Arrived
As is always the case, the next generation of consoles have come with a lot of anticipation for improved graphics, new features, and marquee titles. All these enhancements also come with increased prices, as the both PlayStation5 and Xbox Series X cost $500. But for the first time, both Sony and Microsoft have introduced disc-less versions of the consoles at cheaper prices ($400 and $300, respectively). While publishers enjoy the improved margins from digital downloads, they still only make up around 50% of game sales, meaning there is a need for hardware to cater to both audiences. The dual models provide options and the cheaper disc-less version can lower the barriers to entry for price-sensitive customers. This is under the assumption that there would be inventory to purchase. Both Microsoft and Sony have had issues meeting the demand, although it’s difficult to ascertain if that’s due to overwhelming demand or a lack of supply. While this has hurt the highly coveted holiday launch sales, it should correct itself over the coming months, and won’t have much bearing in the long-run. The key factor in hardware performance will be the differing strategies taken by Sony and Microsoft. Microsoft struggled in the last generation, as the Xbox One was vastly outsold by the PS4 due to its higher price, worse performance, and effort to create a multimedia ecosystem. Phil Spencer and the Xbox team have revamped their strategy, pushing GamePass (and GamePass Ultimate) as the core value proposition, rather than the console itself. The $10 per month subscription offering provides users access to 1st party titles such as Halo and 3rd party catalog content that is constantly refreshed. GamePass Ultimate increases the value proposition, as for an additional $5 per month, users also get Xbox Live Gold, which allows for online multiplayer play, and the ability to play on mobile devices through cloud gaming. While that technology is still a few years away from being widely adopted, this will allow Microsoft to slowly the scale the technology and operational knowledge without forcing customers to pay. Microsoft is leaning into the subscription model, even offering bundles that include monthly payment plans for the hardware. To really drive home the value of GamePass, the company acquired Bethesda for $7.5 billion to step-up its investment in 1st party titles and better compete with Sony. The Japanese-based company has always emphasized the high-quality of their exclusive titles as the reason that players purchase a PlayStation, and this will be no different with the PS5. Negative unit economics on the hardware will be made up by the focus on AAA titles that take advantage of all the improved technology in the new consoles to appeal to hardcore gamers. But the industry is seeing a dramatic shift towards more casual games, which may limit the willingness for players to upgrade their console. The Nintendo Switch has demonstrated that high-quality graphics aren’t essential, as it continues its rigorous sales pace, no doubt buoyed by the success of Animal Crossing last March. Additionally, the rise in cross-platform gaming, combined with the improvement in smartphones, means many people will be satisfied playing these games on mobile, rather than the big screen.
The Catalog Is More Valuable Than New Music
As the internet enables distribution changes, new business models must emerge to capture the value created by the shift from physical to digital. When the music industry first made the shift to digital, it tried to replicate the physical business model through the use of downloads. Instead of buying a CD, users could pay to download an album, or even just a song. The reduction in physical production and shipping helped improve margins at the labels, but by maintaining a transactional relationship with the consumers, the industry never evolved. The economics stayed the same across the value chain, with digital retailers (i.e. iTunes) replacing physical stores. The shift from ownership of music to access is the fundamental development that drives so much of the strategic decision making in the music industry today. With millions of songs at a user’s fingertips, artists (and labels) are no longer incentivized by purchases, but by consumption. The royalty based pay-per-play model completely changed how music was produced, released and promoted. With a physical copy, it doesn’t matter how many times the consumer played the album, or any song for that matter. The upfront purchase is the only money that went to the label. Superfans who listened to their favorite CDs on repeat actually got more value, as the cost was spread over more usage. They were vastly under-monetized. In the streaming world, the volume of streams dictates the financial success of a song, and superfans are more important than ever. Every time they listen to a song, money goes to the artist. To encourage more consumption volume, there has been a gradual shift to shorter songs. If each “spin” generates revenue, the best way to accelerate the play count is to cut back on the length. Why have one 6 minute song, when you can make double the amount of revenue from two 3 minute songs. Furthermore, the value of a full-length album has diminished as the revenue generated from listening to 10 songs once is equivalent to listening one song 10 times. Artists are no longer reliant on biannual album releases, with the release of singles to promote the music before it drops. Now, the whole album comes out at once, and increasingly without any advanced marketing. These surprise releases have proven effective in driving immediate listening. With an abundance of songs to choose from, artists are continually fighting for the users’ attention. There is a need to continually release new songs throughout the year to stay top of mind. More importantly, the release of new music tends to leads to increased consumption of older songs. With catalogs readily available, at zero marginal cost, users will spend more time with their favorite artists. As the catalog becomes a bigger proportion of consumption, and thus revenue, there has been a wave of acquisitions over the past year. Financial investors are attracted to the asset for their stable, predictable cash flows, especially in an environment with such cheap capital available. Strategic investors see more opportunity to drive consumption through expanding distribution either on-platform (playlists) or off-platform (a viral song on TikTok becomes a chart-topping song on Spotify quickly). Many older artists have been selling their catalogs, as a way to provide a lump sum payout to their estate, rather than the steady income stream. Other artists have taken advantage of the demand to generate much-needed liquidity in the absence of their main revenue source (touring). But catalog size will only increase as active artists continue to release new music, and drive more frequent listening. Audio streaming still has plenty of runway for growth, and everyone will want a piece of these recurring revenue streams over the years to come.
The Record Labels Find New Revenue Streams
The music industry was the first to experience disruption from digital distribution, with the rise of Napster at the turn of the century a real inflection point for recorded music. The shift from physical purchases to digital access has been a slow and difficult process, but streaming has finally revitalized the industry. The success of the new business model has changed the trajectory for record labels, but there are more challenges ahead. As streaming has cannibalized physical sales, the majority of revenues is now reliant on a few services (Spotify, Apple Music). There are continual battles, mainly with Spotify, to keep them solely as a distribution partner, and restrict their ability to compete directly with labels. Record labels remain a wholesaler, without any direct-to-consumer relationship, which is problematic in the internet age. Streaming services, with their abundance of data, and millions of users, can identify up and coming artists, easily promote new music to existing fans, and offer performance analytics for songs. With this looming threat, record labels are increasingly turning to social media platforms to help them connect with audiences and reduce their dependence on streaming. The rapid rise of TikTok over the past few years is a big reason for this strategic pivot. If you look at the top played songs on Spotify, the majority originated as part of viral videos/memes on TikTok. The TikTok algorithm jumpstarts the Spotify algorithm. With better discovery features on social media platforms, emerging artists are releasing and promoting music there, rather than pushing a Spotify page. If audiences like a song, there is no marginal cost for accessing it on their streaming service of choice, making it easier for tracks to become overnight sensations. Now, record labels are starting to work closely with TikTok to try and actively promote their artists/songs. This can be a tricky proposition. Forced, sponsored content doesn’t always work well, as younger audiences are attune to when brands are trying too hard. The best video challenges happen organically, come from inspiration from the user(s), with an element of spontaneity. Success breeds imitation, especially on social media, and other platforms have been quick to launch their own TikTok clone. But these are all video first apps, that use existing (licensed or original) music as a soundtrack. There is a massive white space for audio first applications. In the same way that Instagram made creating/editing photos easier, and TikTok made creating/editing videos either, there are opportunities for new apps to make creating/editing music easier. The music industry has always thrived on collaboration, inspiration and remix culture, and that is happening on social media platforms more than anywhere else, and more than ever before.
The Podcast Industry Begins To Offer Exclusive Content
It’s been notoriously difficult for music streaming services to differentiate themselves as the majority of content on each platform is licensed from the same labels. Experimentations around exclusive content provided cash to artists, but did not have a meaningful impact on subscriber acquisition. With ~70% of revenues going directly towards licensing costs, streaming services have turned to podcasts as a way to increase monetization, expand their selection of audio offerings, and most importantly differentiate themselves. The podcast ecosystem has always been open, with most content ubiquitously distributed to all the podcast players through public RSS feeds. But Spotify is looking to take more control over the industry, creating a closed ecosystem, where they have more influence on advertising. To do so, they are investing heavily, both in content and technology. The introduction of streaming ad insertion allows the company to customize podcasts ads for the listener, rather than utilizing the same host-read ads for everyone. This should dramatically increase the inventory available, as well as improve CPMs based on the ability to target users based on the massive amounts of customer data that Spotify has. The acquisition of Megaphone is important as it allows them to provide this feature to 3rd parties for the first time. To date, it’s only been utilized on Spotify’s Original and Exclusive podcasts. The improvement in monetization serves as a case study for publishers to utilize their platform, but also allows them to invest more in exclusive content that can drive users/subscribers. Podcasts have primarily been free, so putting them behind a paywall is difficult, as exemplified by the struggles of Luminary. But the combination of music and podcasts can justify the monthly subscription, as users pay for the music and get the podcasts for free. After all, the music services all have the same music and are all the same price (for now). As a result, streaming services are starting to partner with traditional Hollywood talent for exclusive content, where they can leverage their established fanbase to attract new subscribers. Joe Rogan is already seeing the same levels of success after going exclusive to Spotify, but he is an experienced podcaster that knows the medium. It’s questionable whether these big name talents, whose primary focus is elsewhere, can provide the quality experience that listeners would expect. The intimate nature of audio is unlike video, and requires a different set of skills to be successful. This is one of the reasons why there was a bidding war for Wondery, which has showcased their ability to produce popular, enjoyable content. The other key reason is that podcasts have become a breeding ground for IP that can be developed into TV and films. Amazon will be keen to utilize Wondery’s production capabilities to develop podcasts that can eventually be turned into Prime Originals.
The Show Must Go On, Even If Artists Can’t Tour
The live music industry has come to a standstill over the past year as the pandemic has prevented performances from occurring in venues, regardless of size. Touring has become the primary revenue source for superstar artists, and also serves as a promotional tool for new music. As a result, many artists have been reluctant to release new music without any insight on when they might be able to get back on the road. Independent musicians have had an even more difficult time, as live gigs are generally the only source of income (streaming doesn’t pay the bills). The need to bring in revenue has spurred much needed creativity in the live entertainment sector. At the onset, many turned to Facebook and Instagram to broadcast live sessions, where fans can enjoy the music from the comfort of their home. Then, the hip-hop industry did what it does best, and take an existing format, and put their own spin on it. DJs starting throwing virtual parties on Instagram Live, where users can come and go, but would usually stay to see what star guests would make cameos. Then there was Verzuz, a live battle series created by Timbaland and Swizz Beatz that had recurring events throughout the year. The split-screen, interactive collaboration was a breath of fresh air. Over time, established artists have experimented with new and innovative ways to create a live streamed concert for their fans. Video games have been a popular platform, as they can be produced in advance, not necessarily with the artist, and don’t always require high quality graphics for fans to enjoy. As short, free events these are a great promotional tool, boosting streaming performance, helping artists reach younger demographics, and allowing video game companies to experiment with new types of in-game experiences. The live concert is such a unique environment, that it’s really difficult to replicate in the digital world. Going the more casual route makes the distinction clear, but also reduces the ability to properly monetize the event. There have been a few successful ticketed live-streams, although it’s unclear how profitable they were. Still, it’s really important that these experiments are taking place. While touring will eventually return, artists and promoters still face ticketing challenges from the secondary market as they are unable to maximize their pricing. These live-streams will never replace the income from concerts, but they can still add value in a complementary role. It is a new way for artists to establish direct relationships with their most passionate fans, and utilize it various ways, whether it be a ticketing funnel for live events, discounted merchandise, or marketing for new music.
The Global Box Office May Have Reached Its Peak
The film industry has been a slowly melting iceberg for the better part of the decade, as increased ticket prices have masked declining attendance in box office results. Still, a $11+ billion domestic market and $40+ billion global market have provided ample reasons for studios and exhibitors not to do much to disrupt those cash flows. But the pandemic has handicapped theaters for almost a year, forcing a shift in the exclusive theatrical window. It’s no surprise that this is being directed by the major studios, who now have direct-to-consumer platforms that they need to acquire subscribers for. But even amongst Universal, Disney and Warner Brothers, there is no clear consensus on what the best path forward is. Experiments have ranged from establishing a new “standard” PVOD window (Universal), to creating a Premium Access Window on a DTC service (Disney), to putting movies directly onto the OTT service for no extra charge (WB). It’s important to note in all these instances, films are still going to be shown in theaters (day/date) while on the digital platforms. There will obviously be some cannibalization of moviegoing, but the ultimate goal is to give the consumer the choice of how they want to view a film. For big tentpole films, there may be a stronger desire to experience it on the big screen. But for smaller, mid-budget films, the comfort of the home may actually improve the financial performance. At least domestically. One of the pain points in this shift will be the lack of global distribution for these OTT services. With a traditional release, the film could be available in theaters across the world on the same day. Now, studios will need to customize their release strategy for each market depending on whether they have digital distribution. As a result, there will be added marketing costs, as there is no one-size fits all model, and they lose the ability for the buzz from a Hollywood release to transmit across the world. Additionally, piracy becomes a bigger factor, especially in Asia, as high-definition copies are available as soon as the film comes out on a streaming service. This means that studios will need to release films first in markets where they don’t have an OTT presence, which would signal they aren’t a high value territory. Or in the case of China, there is no real opportunity to launch a streaming service. The Chinese box office has been quickly growing over the past few years, and has become increasingly important to Hollywood as they look to capitalize on the growing middle class in the region that are avid moviegoers. They’ve had to work closely with government authorities to tailor the films to meet strict censorship rules, abide by limits on the amount films released per year, and take lower splits (25% vs 50%). While some franchises have continued to perform well (Marvel, Fast & Furious), local language films are actually driving a significant amount of the recent growth. In 2019, only 2 of the top 10 films in China were Hollywood blockbusters. Suddenly, the two biggest markets (U.S. and China) for Hollywood films are facing serious concerns about their box office potential going forward.
The Consolidation Of Domestic Movie Screens Is Inevitable
There are no billion dollar franchises without the theaters. The exclusive theatrical window takes away any choice for how audiences want to watch a film. That exclusivity has been gradually shrinking as studios look to move content to downstream windows quicker, allowing them to increase monetization and save on marketing costs. Over that time, theaters have done very little to innovate on their business and prepare for a world of streaming services that everyone saw coming. The introduction of subscription offers for moviegoers was only really valuable to frequent moviegoers, a segment of the population which is rapidly declining. While many theaters have digital apps that allow for mobile ticketing, reward programs, and reserved seating, these have not been widely adopted. Most moviegoers still buy their ticket at the theater, just a few minutes before the showtime. Most of the innovative focus has been around improving the big-screen experience. As studios rely more and more on franchise films, the theaters are responding by event-sizing these releases to maximize the box office. Films are shown in auditoriums with reclining chairs, premium-format screens, and with showings throughout the day and into the night. These enhancements have been the driving force behind the steady increase in ticket prices, and that should steadily continue. Domestically, the majority of theaters that can be renovated and generate the necessary ROI have been already been completed. But there are plenty of locations that will never be upgraded and will slowly erode without the bells and whistles consumers have come to expect. Exhibitors will look to eliminate these unprofitable locations as quickly as possible as they remain desperate for cash. The bloated footprint of major circuits is weighing heavily on the balance sheets, and rent abatements and deferred payments can only last so long. There is a need to liquidate assets, and there should be a consolidation in locations over the coming years. As the content world shifts to digital distribution, there isn’t too much excitement around physical theaters, but they can still add value, especially if the new owner is willing to innovate. With the recent elimination of the Paramount Decree, studios are now able to own theaters, creating vertical integration for the first time. While it’s hard to imagine Disney or Universal entering the space through a large scale acquisition, there should be opportunities to strategically pick-off locations. Acquiring screens near theme park locations, or customizing them into thematic content houses (i.e. haunted houses during Halloween) can add value to other parts of the business besides just the ticket revenue. Amazon could leverage locations to create warehouses, drop-off lockers, or other ways to improve the logistics and operational efficiency of their commerce business. Any new owner of theaters can’t treat it as a stand-alone business. It needs to serve as a marketing or promotional tool for a core business, or new revenue streams need to be added to ensure profitability.
The Bifurcation Of Sports Media Rights
Sports have long been the glue that is holding the cable TV bundle together. As cord cutting becomes more rapid, audiences are shifting to OTT services to fulfill their entertainment needs. But the only place to watch sports is on linear TV, and sports fans are making up an increasing proportion of the MVPD subscriber base. These passionate audiences are willing to pay the increasing prices, but casual fans are no longer willing to subsidize the costs. As networks shift more entertainment content to their new DTC services, the only programming that generates meaningful viewership is sports, especially the NFL. With most of its games on broadcast networks, NFL viewership benefits from its availability in every TV household. As the ecosystem erodes, more premium sports programming will move to broadcast where networks can increase reach, as well as drive growth in retrans revenue. Cable networks, with plenty of airtime to fill, can be utilized for simulcasts of games that are catered to specific audiences, whether it be kids, betting, or just 1 of the teams playing. However, the NFL is not immune and once again suffered a ratings decline in a contentious presidential election year. But the singe digit dip is a drop in the bucket compared to the other sports leagues whose schedules were impacted by the pandemic. There isn’t a single specific reason for the decline, but it’s hard not to see the incessant news and political cycle as a major factor. Presidential election events made up 20% of the Top 50 broadcasts, but its strength is mainly a reflection of the weakness in sports. Events like the World Series or NBA Finals, not to mention the Olympics, would normally comprise a few of the most viewed programs, but that wasn’t the case in 2020. It’s hard to imagine a swift bounce back either. The Olympics occurring this summer isn’t a sure thing. And while the NBA and NHL start their new seasons in home arenas, they are already experiencing the challenges of playing outside of a bubble. Without fans in the arenas, it’s tough to generate the same excitement for casual fans, especially when superstar players are forced to sit out games last minute. For the leagues, the focus should be on just completing the season safely in order to receive the coveted media rights revenue. But with renewals upcoming for the NHL, MLS, and NBA, there will be concerns of how the ratings fare. While league executives might point to the unique circumstances, there might be more macro-level shifts in consumer behavior. There is no doubt that networks will be ponying up the cash for the NFL, which means there will be less to spend on other leagues, especially as the Pay-TV ecosystem continues to decline. And with the tech giants still mainly sitting on the sidelines, the media companies will make it clear which sports and leagues they value the most.
The Sportsbooks Partner With Media Companies
There has been non-stop excitement around sports betting since PASPA was repealed in 2018, but last year it really captured the attention of big media companies and investors alike. Casinos have always been a brick and mortar business, and like other physical businesses, have struggled to make the transition to digital. The legalization and adoption of online gaming (whether sports, poker, casino) has forced casinos to embrace new technology and really lean into mobile devices. The need for an omnichannel presence has become even more apparent over the past year as locations have been closed or at limited capacity. But that has not stopped gamblers from placing their next bet. When all the major sports leagues were postponed in March, the sports betting handle evaporated, but there was a surge in online gaming. More importantly, this hasn’t subsided since the return of sports, especially the NFL, which is the most wagered sport. Internet gaming appeals to a broader audience, doesn’t require a lot of sophistication, and is conducive to a larger volume of bets. While iGaming lags behind in legalization, sports betting is moving along at a rapid pace and can serve as an important funnel to acquire customers. Sportsbooks have notoriously low margins, in large part due to their high customer acquisition costs, whether it be in brand advertising, promotions, or affiliate payments. As sports gambling became more mainstream, commercial sponsorships deals with leagues and teams, as well as traditional media advertising were always going to be the low hanging fruit. But recent partnerships have shown that media companies are becoming more aggressive in the space. The vertical integration of media and betting always made sense as it can turn the sales and marketing expense line into a revenue item. While still early, the initial success of Barstool Sportsbook highlights the benefits of the strategic rationale for Penn Gaming’s acquisition. But integrating a digital native company, with an established, enthusiastic audience is a lot more difficult than a huge legacy media conglomerates. The on-air sponsorships are the easy part, but every media company is looking to incorporate sports betting right into the telecast. The problem is that it doesn’t work with linear (TV) viewing, as the technology is not capable of the necessary interactivity. Bettors will just end up watching the game on TV, and using their mobile phone to place bets. There are also complications from the state-by-state rollout of sports betting, which eliminates the ability to offer national broadcasts with integrated betting. Lastly, there is a need for the content to be delivered over broadband, and there are limited services offering live sports that do just that. Virtual MVPD FuboTV has made sports betting a big part of their strategy, but it’s unlikely they can meaningfully differentiate their service to acquire subscribers/customers. Traditional media networks are just beginning to rollout their streaming services, and are starting with niche sports. ESPN+, Peacock, Paramount+ should all become testing grounds for integrated sports betting. As they are able to demonstrate success, these partnerships might turn into mergers and/or acquisitions ahead of the next round of Tier 1 media rights renewals later this decade.
The Gold Rush For SPACs
While SPACs have been around for decades, these investment vehicles have evolved to become more investor-friendly. Still, it’s hard to look at the rapid ascent in SPAC IPOs (and capital raised) and not think that a bubble is forming. The last time there was this much interest in SPACs was at the turn of the century during the dotcom craze, and there are a lot of similar characteristics this time around. For one, the growth in retail investors, mainly from the so-called “Robinhood traders” (led by Davey Day Trader and Reddit users from r/wallstreetbets) has accelerated since the onset in March. The zero-commission brokerages, a rallying stock market (S&P 500 up 68% since its bottom on March 23rd), and a booming tech industry (in part due to pandemic) have all played a part. There also have been some issues with the pricing of recent IPOs, which have shifted the value creation from the company to the institutional investors. AirBnB (up 112% on day of IPO), Snowflake (112%), and DoorDash (86%) went through this in the last few months, which has caused other companies to seek alternative IPO methods, like direct listings (Roblox), where they keep all the upside. As a blank-check company, the SPAC solves these problems as it negotiates an acquisition price with the target, making the IPO valuation stable. It also cuts down considerably on the costs and time it takes for a company to go public through a traditional roadshow, especially in the current environment. Under certain circumstances, SPACs can be the ideal vehicle for a public offering, but the sheer volume of SPACs will make things trickier. With only 12-24 months to complete an acquisition post-IPO, time is ticking and there will be an intense competition for the best performing businesses. The ability to use forecasted financials (rather than historical in a traditional IPO) makes high-growth companies the most attractive assets, even if they aren’t profitable. Across the TMT landscape, there is one sector that perfectly encapsulates those characteristics: sports betting. DraftKings went public through a SPAC in early 2020, and was up 140% at the end of 2020, along with Penn (up 233%) and Flutter (up 62%). FuboTV, which is an vMVPD closed the year up 160% (after briefly reaching a 478% gain) since its IPO in October, based solely on the promise of sports betting. As investor excitement continues in the space, there will be a lot of interest in companies that can ride the tailwinds of the sector, such as sportsbooks, data licensors, and B2B tech providers. Other promising industries to focus on would be around streaming, connected TV advertising, and video games. But there won’t be that many assets available, and many SPACs will have to look outside their initial target list, especially as time goes on. As a result, the demand should outpace the supply of viable acquisitions, driving up valuations for the most promising companies. Other underwhelming assets should still be acquired, albeit at overpriced valuation as sponsors become desperate to complete a deal in the time allotted.