Television, Video

Pulling on a Thread

A dozen years ago, I helped to lead a team that created one of the first “over-the-top” video and audio subscription offerings on the Internet.

For $10 a month, you got a decent package of audio and video programming. Nothing special by today’s standards, but it was the reasonably compelling for the time. [1] The service grew to millions of subscribers, generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues for our company, and generated millions of dollars a year in revenues to our media partners. It was a pioneering service for the time, but it also had lots of flaws and challenges and I certainly made my share of mistakes (a post for another day, or not).

In the making and operating of this service we stumbled on an interesting idea. We did the thing cable-killers dream about; we un-bundled the bundle.

We gave people a choice — buy the programming as part of our overall subscription bundle, or just buy the specific programming you want on an a la carte basis. For example, you could buy an MLB stand-alone subscription or you could get it as part of our bundle. [2]  In addition to giving people a choice,  we learned it also maximized revenues — for us and our partners. Everyone won.

A group of us started to push an effort internally to turn our subscription service into a subscription platform — let anyone offer and sell stand-alone subscriptions powered by our infrastructure and delivered through our player. That we could, and should, open up what we had built, and let 1000s of flowers bloom.

Unfortunately, the company behind the service decided to make other efforts including the Rhapsody music service, casual gaming, and sales of audio and video delivery software to big companies a higher priority than the video subscription business.

Would we have succeeded if we got to pursue this? I don’t know. But  the notion of making a platform that would give makers of programming — from big companies all the way to individual film-makers — the tools to create and distribute their own “channels” over-the-top and make money from that has been rumbling around in my head ever since.

When we launched Showyou in 2011, we started with the challenge of finding and watching video (“discovery” in the parlance of the Internet pros). We wanted to first focus on making an app that was as easy to use as your TV, but more rewarding.

But from the start we knew discovery – while necessary — was probably not sufficient. And plus we had bigger and broader ambitions as a team. We wanted to use the Showyou app as the platform for a more audacious move  — an over-the-top, tablet- and mobile-centric video distribution platform. And over the past couple of years, that raw idea from a long time ago got re-worked, shaped into something new and different and better by our team.

And that’s the Showyou Channel Platform, which we announced today. It enables anyone — from the biggest media conglomerate to an independent filmmaker — to build a beautiful video channel for the iPad (iPhone & Android coming soon) and make a living from that if they want. As we’ve stated before, our primary focus in on new programming made for and delivered on this new medium.

Of course, YouTube does some of this now with their channel program. And Showyou very much complements those efforts, and works seamlessly with YouTube. But what we are doing is also different in fundamental ways.

Just as we put the viewer in control with our app, we put the channel-maker in control with our  platform. You decide where to host your video. If you want to sell ads, you’re in charge of that, too. You decide who your advertisers and sponsors are. You keep the money you make. It’s your channel. It’s your business.

To be even more clear about what we’ve launched and are building: it’s an over-the-top video distribution platform for the future; one designed specifically for tablets and smartphones; where anyone can build a channel; where you can host your channel anywhere; a platform with  discovery, social sharing and virality built-in; where you control your business and business model; and where you keep the revenues from your efforts.

It’s a start.

Twelve years is a long time to chew on an idea. Ideas alone are worth nothing, of course. But if you pull on a thread long enough, and maybe you’re lucky enough to be with the right team, at the right time, with the right product, to try to make it happen. Exciting, that.

So it’s with real pleasure I get to type this today:

On Showyou, it’s your channel. Go build it.

1. This was at RealNetworks, and the offering was called RealOne. Programming in the US included live audio and copious video highlights for every MLB game; live audio, some live video and copious video highlights for every NBA game; CNN and ABC News on demand video; multiple live streams from the then-enormously Big Brother show; FoxSports highlights and shows; dozens of high-quality internet radio stations (you could eventually add Rhapsody for an added fee); and much more. We also offered packages in the UK and Europe with video and live audio for the Champions League, live cricket, live Rugby, BBC News, classic BBC shows, reality programming from Endemol, and more.

2. 2.  Let it be recorded for posterity that Real got MLB started with their fine efforts in premium audio & video delivered over the Internet and powered most of the back-end for that the first 2-3 years.

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Apple, Video

A Modest Proposal

The 21st Century Video Platform Apple Should Build

With Tim Cook’s appearance at D11 last week, and WWDC just days away, feverish talk about an Apple-made TV, or something of the sort, has spiked once again.

In the wildest dreams of us video-loving geeks, this Apple TV will have all of the programming and it’ll do everything. A beautiful way to navigate and control your cable or satellite TV service. On demand over-the-top services like Hulu and Netflix. Seamless access to the bounty of the Internet. A DVR. All with a beautiful screen, inventive remote, interoperability with the iPad and iPhone. Apple reinvents the TV just like they reinvented the music business and mobile. Glory!

Apple is without doubt fully capable of making the hardware. But as smart commentators like @monkbent have pointed out, the Apple TV of our dreams is a bit like the Grand Unified Theory and the unicorn. Forces beyond Apple’s control make it unlikely that this device will come to pass.

This is not the music business or the mobile business.

So what to do? Here’s my advice to you, Apple:

Forget the past, build the future.

For your Apple TV device, do just enough with your hardware and software to make the existing cable & satellite experience a little bit better. But don’t get too caught up on the world as we know it. Don’t build anything that requires the permission of the cable & satellite guys, or the cable networks.

Instead, put most of your focus on building a video delivery system for 21st century, and devices made to work seamlessly with that delivery system. The iPad is one of those, and an important one. But you need to help people build new over-the-top video services that reach the TV, too.

So create, as Apple can, the ideal Internet video platform for the 21st century. Where all programming can be delivered over ip to multiple devices — iPads, iPhones, Macbooks and the Apple TV— via IP instead of cable.

What would such a platform look like? Here are the core principles of any platform Apple should set out to build.

1. The Internet is Distributed. Embrace that.

YouTube — with its centralized hosting of content — is an anomaly. Tensions produced by that centralized control are becoming more clear.

So let people host where they want. Video standards and fast broadband enable this. Just add some quality of service controls and services on the client to ensure a good experience with a distributed architecture. And add some special sauce for live streams (but don’t get hung up on live — it’s doesn’t need to be at the heart of our 21st century system).

This isn’t radical; you already do it on the current Apple TV. And of course you already support this on the iPad and iPhone. Just do more of it, and make it better still.

2. Build innovative tools for a beautiful & consistent experience 

Traditional linear TV channels are an elaborate fiction. They appear to be live, but are (mostly) full of on-demand programming played at specific dates and times.

What’s a channel in this brave new world with these new devices? How does a it work and what’s it look like? How are they traversed, navigated, consumed?

Invent that.

And then give creators and publishers the tools they need to make their channels rich, fluid and fun-to-watch.

But put guardrails in place that ensure tastefulness and a consistent experience for viewers, so that watching and navigating through and among videos in a channel is simple, wonderful, better than TV.

3. Don’t outsource discovery

Learn the right lessons from the AppStore. When you (Apple) enable a platform on the Internet,you can expect millions of flowers to bloom. Don’t plan for 500 channels — plan for 5 million. Provide smart, simple, intelligent ways for people find and watch programming they know and love. And introduce them to channels they might like.

4. Allow a media ecosystem to bloom

Build beautiful, user-friendly advertising & pay systems that let creative people and media companies make a living. You’ve got a head-start with iTunes, but go further. Bundles are a powerful way to give benefits to consumers and scale to media-makers. Enable those, but think Humble Bundle, not cable bundle.

Provide tools that allow for better and more beautiful video advertising.

Oh, and don’t be too greedy. YouTube has to charge 45% rents from their partners. Advertising, after all, is their only business. You, Apple, make a LOT of money on devices. Use that to your advantage, and offer exceedingly fair terms. Remember: “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.”

5. Build an intelligent interest graph on your platform

This isn’t silly; it’s essential in a world where the supply of programming is practically infinite yet competes for our very finite free time.

In this new world we live in, sharing is distribution. When someone shares a link on Twitter, by guiding us to things that matter, by focusing our attention — that is distribution for the site or service behind that link. You’ll want a native, video-centric graph for your platfom that facilitates sharing and distribution. It’s an essential part of the new ecosystem you want to build.


Hello, future.

Now, if Apple builds this will HBO and ESPN suddenly move to the new Apple platform? Of course not. Don’t sweat that.There are plenty of other makers of media and creators who will embrace what you’ve built.

Let this new video distribution platform evolve in parallel to the legacy cable & satellite platforms. You’ve sold 13 million Apple TV boxes already doing so much less than what I’ve described above. Build something wonderful, offer them a taste of the future, and give creative people ways to make money and I suspect you’ll see an explosion of interest.

Plus, your video platform will run not just on whatever AppleTV device you make, but should also work seamlessly on on iPads, iPhones, and Macbooks. You’ll be able to reach people anywhere throughout the day, no matter where they are.

Last, and most crucially, it’ll be a global platform. Unlike the cable and satellite operators, you’ll run a platform without geographical bounds, enormous in scale. That will be a powerful asset for you, and an incredible draw for the best creative minds and media.


Exploding the screen for real this time.

Build that and you’ll have dented the universe again.

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Internet

It Ain’t Always a Problem You’re Solving

Twice this week I’ve seen posts advising entrepreneurs to “be very clear about what the problem is that you’re trying to solve.”

And yet, that framework often simply does not apply. What problem did Twitter solve? What about Instagram? Or YouTube? Or Facebook?

More broadly, what problem does TV solve? Or radio? Or the movies?

Things that entertain us, or allow us to communicate in novel ways, or that give us new forms of self-expression don’t really solve problems. They satisfy needs.

Building something that satisfies a need is quite different from making something that solves a problem. If you’re an entrepreneur, it’ll help if you know which of these things you’re trying to do.

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Uncategorized

Moments of Truth

Of all the things in Reed Hastings’ letter to shareholders that made the rounds yesterday, I loved this the most:

Our North Star is to win more of our members’ “moments of truth”. Those decision moments are, say, on Thursday 7:15 pm or Monday 2:40 am when our member wants to relax, enjoy ashared experience with friends and family, or is just bored. They could play a video game, surf the web, read a magazine, channel surf their MVPD/DVR system, buy a pay-per-view movie,put on a DVD, turn on Hulu or Amazon Prime Instant Video, or they could tap on Netflix. We want our members to choose Netflix in these moments of truth.

This is what all of us in the video space focus on; or should be focused on. We talk about this a lot at Showyou; indeed, I wrote the following on this blog in December 2012 when we launched Showyou 4.0:

It’s 9PM. You’ve worked all day, made it home for dinner. And now you just want to chill. Grab a beer, plop on to the couch, and unwind for a bit. What do you do?
Most of us grab the remote and turn on the TV.
Some of us have started to dial up Netflix, Hulu, iTunes or TV Everywhere for our fix.
And more recently, particularly in homes with iPads or other tablets, we’ve had a third option — tuning into the Internet and all the glorious programming on it.

What’s exciting to me, what keeps us working hard, is that this huge new market is wide open for services and apps that help you tune into the Internet. YouTube won the battle for clips on the web. But the battle for your 9PM has just begun.