TV’s Big Bang year

The internet era of TV’s development stretches from Bruce Springsteen’s “57 channels (and nothin’ on)” in 1992 to 2020’s “10 streaming services and I can only afford three”.

Consumers have complained bitterly over the years about traditional “bundled” cable and satellite packages, where they paid a monthly subscription for 100s of channels when they only ever watched a handful. Now many would welcome a return to that aggregation to find all of the content they want to watch in one place at a single price. Direct-to-consumer is the name of the current internet game and that can mean cutting out the middle man of traditional broadcaster or cable operator.

Walt Disney emphasised its DTC growth plans on Thursday. It expects to have up to 350m subscribers to its streaming services by 2024. Within that, it has more than tripled its forecasts for Disney Plus, to 230m-260m users, from 87m now. It is also planning to double its content investment and is working on about 35 television series.

Exclusive content is seen as the key differentiator in the streaming wars and cinema bosses are still reeling from Warner’s announcement last week that it will release all of its 17 new films next year on its streaming service HBO Max at the same time as in US cinemas. John Gapper’s column this week warns streaming could make the cinematic blockbuster an endangered species.

This has been a Big Bang year for television, with cinemas closed and stay-at-home audiences greedily devouring the content of new services coming on-stream. A report by UBS analysts this month on the future of TV forecasts a streaming land-grab phase till 2024 dominated by unbundling. From 2025 to 2030 they predict a consolidation phase dominated by the re-bundling and aggregation of services.

In the meantime, ordinary consumers have difficult choices to make. Ampere Analysis says the average US streaming household now takes four subscription services, compared to two in Europe. However, catalogues such as Amazon’s and Hulu’s are shrinking as studios hold back content for their own streaming services, forcing viewers into paying for multiple subscriptions to access all the TV and movies they want.

There is much more that’s watchable in the post-57 channel age, but as Ampere concludes: “The golden age of cheap access to content is coming to a close.”

The Internet of (Five) Things

1. Airbnb chief plays down stellar IPO
Brian Chesky tells the FT’s Dave Lee “I think we’ll have to just take a step back” as he tries to calm investor expectations for Airbnb. Shares in the accommodation rental service closed at $144.71 on Thursday, a massive leap from the $68 pricing for its stock market debut. That makes it worth two Marriotts.

2. UK fears Covid vaccine cyber warfare
British military and civilian teams have been placed on high alert over fears that malicious actors will seek to target UK citizens with disinformation as the country embarks on the world’s first mass immunisation campaign. The army’s 77th Brigade information warfare unit has been drafted in to help officials across Whitehall to identify the most serious anti-vaxx disinformation.

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3. SoftBank profits from robot venture
Japan’s SoftBank is selling the US robotics group Boston Dynamics to South Korean carmaker Hyundai. It will retain a 20 per cent stake through a subsidiary. SoftBank bought it from Google in 2017 along with Japanese robotics group Schaft in a deal valued at more than $100m. It will receive $574m from Hyundai.

4. Qualcomm following Intel to Apple exit?
Apple is replacing Intel’s processors with its own Arm-based Mac chips and now it may be reducing its dependence on Qualcomm for its iPhones. Bloomberg reports it has started building its own cellular modem for future devices. Ironically, that’s been made possible by its acquisition of Intel’s modem business in 2019.

5. Blood on the music tracks
Bob Dylan’s sale of his back catalogue has made the headlines recently and Nic Fildes reports for FT Magazine that artists starved of touring income are finding plenty of takers as they cash in on their old classics. But a bloody battle still looms over the small returns from streaming.

Tech tools — gadgets that give back

For those wanting to be better than carbon neutral, the $10,000 Eos Bioreactor allows you to capture and contain excess CO2. Its maker Hypergiant says the algae it uses are 400 times more effective than trees at extracting carbon from the atmosphere. Jonathan Margolis covers this along with the Fairphone and Turing Trust computers in this How to Spend It piece on gadgets that give back.


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