Apple Schooled Music Execs Then, Here Are The Lessons Online Video Should Learn Now

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Editor’s Note: This post is written by guest author Peter Csathy, who is President & CEO of online video enabler and transcoding company Sorenson Media. Previously, he served as President & COO of online music pioneer Musicmatch. Thus, the following is written from the perspective of a long-time media executive, and meant to be a conversation-starter. Csathy blogs at Digital Media Update.

Apple’s all-in-one physical flat-screen iTV is coming, make no mistake. And, when it does, it will represent Apple’s attempt to reinvent the television experience in much the same way it did for music. But, while media execs were hopelessly naive in Apple’s presence back then, they feel they are ready this time. They are determined not to let Apple rule the premium online video world like they did (and still do) for online music. The question is, do they have the will?

Apple will, of course, follow its established playbook, which most CE companies inexplicably still do not follow, and seamlessly marry its beautiful hardware (the iTV) with its underlying software and services (in this case, movies and television) in the same way it did with music via the iPod and iTunes. Apple’s goal is to be the center of the online movie and television universe for consumers (just like it is for music). Yes, content is king to Apple, but only because content serves as the Trojan Horse consumers ride into Apple’s kingdom of riches (initially Macs and iPods, and later iPhones, iPads and the inevitable iTV).

Ay, but there’s the rub. The content king-makers — motion picture and television studio execs — now know this. They have seen this movie before, and this time they are determined to monetize content more directly for content sake – for themselves. Apple transformed itself into the #1 most valuable global company and juggernaut that we see today precisely because those media execs handed Apple the keys to unlock music value in the online world.

Steve Jobs wooed them with his charms, pitched a great story, and established the rules of the online music licensing game. Apple’s massive growth in the past decade all started there with its iPod-iTunes 1-2 knockout punch. That, in turn, led to the resurgence of Macs, which led to the iPhone, then the iPad. Apple would be a very different company today if didn’t get the music it needed 10 years ago.

And, how did Jobs’ playbook work out for the labels and musicians? Not so well. Online music sales (and royalties) were an asterisk next to iPod sales. Don’t get me wrong. Rampant piracy — and the music industry’s misplaced attack strategy — destroyed significant content value. Nevertheless, the music industry’s negotiations with Jobs one decade ago resulted in a massive transfer of value and wealth to Apple.

So, what lessons have media executives learned from this past decade?

Lesson #1 — Dictate the Rules of the Game, Rather Than Have Them Dictated to You.

Music execs were on their heels reeling in fear when Jobs approached them a decade ago with the promise of iTunes. They had no real experience with the Internet. They certainly had no experience with technology (many still do not) – and how it could be used for both good and evil. Piracy was rampant. Napster ruled the day (the bad one, not the good one). Kazaa’s Niklas Zennstrom was public enemy #1 (now of course he is a media insider with Skype, Joost and others). The music industry was understandably panicked.

Jobs promised a way out – under three conditions. First, Apple must be able to sell individual tracks unbundled from albums. Second, its price for those unbundled tracks must be $.99 each. Third, Apple must define and control the entire online music experience. The music industry capitulated, and these 3 commandments are fundamental rules of the game that still largely rule the day.

Well, those rules haven’t worked out too well for music creators and owners. Lesson learned. So, one decade later, media execs are striving to proactively dictate the value of their content and support multiple online experiences and business models. But, even now, they frequently significantly under-value their content. More on that later.

Lesson #2 — Never Again Put Too Much Power in the Hands of One Distributor.

Prior to iTunes, piracy was rampant, and only relatively small players (including my former company, Musicmatch) played legitimately in the online music world. Amid this backdrop, media execs empowered Apple to be the first and only established online music source and experience. As a result, iTunes incredibly still commands 60-70% of all online music sales. That represents incredible power in the hands of one. It represents a downright monopoly.

Media execs are determined not to allow that kind of power in the hands of any single player in the online video world. They instead are committed to fostering an eco-system of as many legitimate distributors as possible. They actively license their prized motion picture and television assets to all those willing to pay.

That’s why we already have myriad established behemoths in the premium online video game. We have Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Google/YouTube, Comcast. The list goes on and on. Apple too is on that list, but it is behind the curve this time. Those same media execs who ceded control to Apple ten years ago have refused, thus far, to broadly license their crown jewels on Apple’s terms. But Apple — or more accurately, Apple’s massive hoards of cash – can be very persuasive. More on that later.

Lesson #3 — License Broadly & Make the Licensing Landscape as Confusing and Opaque as Possible.

Media execs aren’t panicked this time. They have a decade of learning under their belts. Yes, piracy continues to be rampant, but they now understand that it cannot simply be litigated into oblivion. The best defense truly is a better offense. Support better customer experiences, make your content available broadly to those legitimate distributors willing to pay, and experiment with business models and terms.

That’s why we have over-the-top (OTT) “Internet TV” models in which content is monetized via paid downloads, subscriptions, and ads. We also have big cable’s “TV Everywhere” models in which consumers must continue to pay their monthly cable fees. And, coming soon, Google and others will become virtual cable operators that will also distribute live linear programming like ESPN. Apple too wants to be on that “virtual MSO” list, because that is the kind of premium content that ultimately moves mountains of consumers. Case in point: DirecTV’s “NFL Package.”

This melange is great for the studios. No two content licensing deals are the same. Each negotiation takes place in a black box. No clarity. No certainty. Just the way media execs like it (I know, I have been there). Now THAT’s power! Right? Up to a point. More on that later.

Lesson #4 — Be Audacious — After All, Content is King.

Jobs ultimately taught music execs one fundamental truth – that content is THE key to unlock tremendous value online. The corollary to this is that without content, value is lost. That’s why all the deep-pocketed tech titans are lining up for a chance to play in the premium online video game. Just as it is for Apple, premium online video distribution is strategically central to their business. Apple? Sell its hardware. Amazon? Sell more goods and services. Google? Sell more ads. Comcast? Hold onto those cable subscriptions. Netflix? Survive!

These players have inked a steady stream of significant licensing deals just in the past few months, the financial terms of which are almost never disclosed (remember, just the way the studios like it). But, one telling deal’s terms did slip out – Netflix agreed to shell out nearly $1 billion to stream shows from the CW Network. Think about that – if the CW can command those kind of numbers today, think about the price tag for real “premium” content like ESPN. And, we are still in the early innings of this premium online video game.

Apple – with its head-spinning $100 billion war chest – is a lock to win (or at least be a massive winner in) the online video game, right? Most likely, the answer is yes. The inevitable iTVs will fly off the shelves. But, Apple isn’t alone this time. It is playing on a crowded field with other deep-pocketed and committed players (including CE guys like Samsung). Even more importantly, to really hit it out of the park, Apple’s coming iTV must be an experience. That means Apple must offer an extremely deep pool of compelling video content from the start (including sacred programming like ESPN). Otherwise, consumers will find holes, get frustrated, and look to fill those holes with programming offered by others.

Each frustrated customer represents real significant loss, which is especially magnified in Apple’s case because of its closed product eco-system. For Apple, it’s not just about a single product sale (like an iTV). That sale, instead, marks the beginning or continuation of a long-term lucrative purchase relationship, which is the key driver of Apple’s stratospheric growth. That’s why Apple will be willing to strike very different content licensing deals with media execs this time around.

Of course, Apple doesn’t control the content – the studios do. So, who really holds the cards here? Will the studios be as audacious as Steve Jobs was one decade earlier and demand terms that they believe reflect the true value their content creates for distributors over time? In Apple’s case, one truly audacious idea could be to seek a share of revenue for every iTV sold. Remember, not every license deal must be the same. Value means very different things to different players. If Apple, or any other online distributor, refuses to play, then they lose out. No soup for you! There are many others (including the studios themselves), but only one ESPN!

Or, will media execs instead go for the quick-fix of easy money? After all it’s hard to say “no” to someone writing a big check. If they do go this instant gratification route (which is more consistent with their DNA), at least they should realize that their prized motion picture and television assets will be worth significantly more than they think in the online world over time. Avoid long-term deals!

So, yes, media execs have learned their lessons well. Content is, in fact, king. Apple will continue to wear the crown, however, unless media companies have the will and creativity to take it back. After all, Apple made $46.3 billion this past quarter alone, a number that dwarfs global motion picture box office receipts for the entire year. Apple could buy Hollywood. But, will Hollywood let it?

Excerpt image from SoulInTheMachine.com