Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Ultraviolet Initiative Illustrates Business Issues

UltraViolet, the digital rights management initiative and "content locker service" backed by Warner Bros., Universal, Sony and Paramount illustrates some long-standing issues in the video content business, as well as an application of traditional thinking to a new channel, namely "cloud-based" applications and channels.

In many ways, Ultraviolet also illustrates why, though we keep getting more options for online delivery of content, in the movie and TV business, the range of options will be shaped and controlled, at least in terms of pricing and availability, by the willingness of content owners to make their content available online. 

The key implication might be that, in the case of popular movie and TV content, consumer access and pricing might not be subject to all of the retail pricing trends we have seen in the music and print content business, with one key exception.

One might argue that the pricing declines we have seen in print and music products now consumed online is due to a change in packaging, in large part. Music used to be as "albums," while print content has been sold as a bundle known as a newspaper or magazine. 

Online delivery unbundles those products into discrete songs and stories. If you assume there is a significant difference in value and pricing for a bundle of 10 to 12 songs, compared to buying one song, you also can see the analogy to pricing changes for buying one story as opposed to a whole newspaper or magazine. 

Also, you might say that in the case of print content, one version of a story that has to be bought also faces pressure from other versions of a story that might be available for free. The other bit of context is that movies traditionally have been a "fee-based" product, where print content typically has been an advertising-supported product.

Broadcast television has been more like print, in terms of end user pricing, while cable, telco or satellite TV pricing has been more like that of  movie products. 

UltraViolet is an effort to solve a couple of problems. 

UltraViolet will allow buyers of Blu-ray physical media to view those assets online, at no extra cost. For starters, the initiative is an attempt to preserve the value of existing channels even as the industry adapts to a new distribution channel. That is the thinking about nearly all content licensing schemes, as well as the system of staged release windows for access to movie content.

On the other hand, UltraViolet also is an effort to try and supply consumer demands for online viewing on any device, with declining sales of DVDs, which have been a key channel and revenue generator for decades.

To be sure, the original hope had been that the Blu-ray physical format would be the successor to DVDs in the era of high-definition television. That almost certainly will occur at some point, but the issue is whether collective Blu-ray revenue ever will match the heights of DVD sales in an era where online delivery will be common. 

UltraViolet further is an effort to create a revenue model for streaming, essentially by generating all the revenue when the physical product is purchased. That is similar to what cable operators are trying with TV Everywhere, essentially making purchase of the traditional video entertainment subscription as a prerequisite for using the no-incremental-cost TV Everywhere features.

It is something of a reverse "freemium" model, which gives away one product and then generates revenue on sales of add-on products. The Ultraviolet model does the reverse, making revenue on the classic product and then adding a "no additional fee" feature. The studios hope UltraViolet will help with the DVD sales drop

On the other hand, DVD sales have dropped precipitously over the last decade. The music industry faced roughly analogous issues, as have newspapers. 

As content migrates onto the Internet, there is a tendency for retail prices to fall. This price compression has affected major music label revenue from recorded music in part because of the ability consumers now have to buy songs one at at time, instead of bundled in the form of albums, which contain 10 or 12 songs and can be sold at a correspondingly higher price. 

UltraViolet aims to support DVD sales while providing something of the value provided by rental services as well, including Apple and Netflix. Ultraviolet

In principle, mobile-focused entertainment video has the same context as TV-focused entertainment in many ways. Movie products, which have been sold as discrete products, are less threatened than the bundled products we know as cable, satellite or telco TV.

Those products are susceptible to the same dangers as unbundling in the music business when sales shifted from collections to songs, or newspapers and magazines to stories. 

DVD sales dip


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