Manatt Digital and Technology

The pace of strategic moves (M&A, investment, and overall strategic transformation) in the digital media world continued to accelerate in October. Our November newsletter highlights some of those most significant moves and offers analysis of why they happened.

Cutting of the Cable Bundle, NOT the Cord—Welcome to “The Great Unbundling”

By Peter Csathy, CEO, Manatt Digital Media

2014 is a transformative year for the media business. We will look back several years from now and fully realize this.

First, anyone who reads our Manatt Digital Media (MDM) newsletter and my continuing blog posts knows that we are in the midst of multi-channel network (MCN) fever. Not a fad. But a fever. A fever justified by the rapid ascension of Millennial mobile video consumption and engagement which, in turn, accelerates the need for (and fuels the development of) compelling premium short-form video optimized for that digital-first platform. That means a growing need for media companies to successfully play in that world. And that means the growing importance of MCNs, which explains 2014’s accelerating pace of MCN M&A (more on that below).

But, there’s much, much more in 2014, particularly in the past several weeks. These weeks mark THE moment in time at which previously sacred traditional cable/satellite programming bundles—and the decades-old business models behind them—came under serious fire by concrete strategic actions by central players amid this accelerating mobile and OTT video reality (and the consumers—especially Millennials—behind it). Yes, there has long been talk of such moves. But, now major players in the overall ecosystem are taking real transformative action.

In October, HBO and CBS each announced in rapid succession that they would offer their own stand-alone over-the-top (OTT) services. No cable or satellite subscription required. Competing Starz network later confirmed its own major international-focused strategic initiative to that same end.

Other cases in point. Viacom recently licensed 22 of its live and VOD premium networks to Sony for its new OTT service for PlayStation, Sony TVs and other Sony connected devices. Verizon joined these others and announced an early 2015 launch for its long-anticipated “virtual” MSO that is so virtual, it is wireless—specifically designed for mobile. And, critically, core to its new service, Verizon announced a downsized “bite-sized” cable-lite programming package that features mobile-friendly MCN AwesomenessTV short-form video, in addition to big 4 broadcaster content and NFL games (via its existing exclusive smartphone deal). When announcing its new service, Verizon Chairman and CEO Lowell McAdam expressly pronounced what was almost unthinkable not long ago – i.e., that “among cable programmers, there’s been an attitude shift among cable programmers toward accepting a new over-the-top model for delivering pay TV.”

Welcome to “The Great Unbundling” of 2014. Transformative times in the media and entertainment business – particularly in the past few weeks.

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Leading Fashion-Focused MCN StyleHaul Acquired By Euro-Based RTL Group—Here’s Why

The MCN world rests for no one. While the L.A.-based digital media on a recent Friday afternoon readied itself for the weekend, leading trade publication Variety reported that Luxembourg-based RTL Group is buying leading fashion and beauty-focused MCN StyleHaul (we just recently exclusively profiled StyleHaul and its charismatic CEO Stephanie Horbaczewski). As expected, the deal values StyleHaul well north of $100 million—$150 million up to $200 million to be exact, based on satisfaction of certain performance criteria.

No surprises here. RTL already owns a minority stake in StyleHaul, previously investing $6 million. And, StyleHaul has long been reported to be in M&A “play” (although U.S.-based media companies were rumored to be the leading candidates in those reports). Just a few weeks back, MDM’s Peter Csathy moderated a panel at the Variety Summit in L.A. focused on the fast-breaking digital world—and openly predicted that StyleHaul would be the next leading MCN to be gobbled up just in time for the Thanksgiving season. In the past few months alone, Disney buys Maker Studios. Next, AwesomenessTV buys Big Frame. Then, Otter Media buys Fullscreen. And now this.

Why StyleHaul specifically and MCNs in general?

(1) RTL already knows the company and its management team, since it already had been a major investor and board member;

(2) The fashion and beauty vertical market travels well—style truly is international and speaks no language and this MCN’s 199 million network subscribers are truly global, which is perfect for an international company like RTL Group;

(3) Fashion and beauty products sell! And, that makes StyleHaul’s business model somewhat unique among MCNs, enabling commerce to be a potential significant (and perhaps dominant) video-fueled revenue stream for the company (in addition to more typical ad revenues and sponsored/branded content opportunities); and remember, StyleHaul need not split any commerce revenues with YouTube;

(4) StyleHaul is one of the largest and fastest-growing vertically focused MCNs with over 17 billion network video views and 4,900 network channels; that’s a lot of content;

(5) MCNs in general have sprung up as a result of two primary realities: (1) our video world is increasingly (dominantly?) mobile—and that means consumers are increasingly thirsty for the kind of short-form video content that is the MCN world’s specialty; and (2) those mobile-thirsty consumers are heavily the advertiser-coveted Millennials who frequently forgo traditional video programming in favor of the YouTube economy and nontraditional YouTube video “celebrities.”

Expect more vertically focused MCNs to be swallowed up in the next year. Here are MDM’s Peter Csathy’s previous predictions.

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MCN Whistle Sports Scores $7 Million from BSKYB—Here’s Why

Again, the MCN world sleeps for no one. We are seeing a constant barrage of major strategic developments in the world of short-form video and mobile/digital-first strategies.

Another major data point? Leading sports-focused MCN Whistle Sports (an MDM client we profiled in last month’s MDM newsletter). Still early in its first quarter (it only launched this past January), Whistle Sports just received another $7 million investment from UK-based broadcasting giant BSKYB. And, expect more significant sums coming soon to Whistle Sports as part of its Series B round.

This strategic investment is particularly notable because it represents the growing internationalism of MCNs—it isn’t just for U.S.-based media companies anymore. Let’s not forget German-based media giant ProSieben’s major investment in Collective Digital Studio and in its own Euro-based Studio71, which now aims to expand across the pond to the United States. And, the rationale in this case is clear (just as it is in the case of StyleHaul). Language is rarely a barrier with sports-focused content, meaning that sports (just like fashion) travels well. And, BSKYB—already heavily and long-invested in sports—can help to accelerate Whistle Sports’ international expansion (while it itself begins to play more aggressively in the mobile and digital-first content world, just as all other major “traditional” media companies need to be). Whistle Sports—which bills itself as being a digital and mobile-first ESPN for Millennials, by Millennials—had just recently opened a London office.

Whistle Sports now scores 8+ million subscribers and 1.25+ billion video views, despite the fact that it is still early in its game. That means that its growth is impressive. BSKYB’s investment brings the company’s overall investment to $25 million from longtime media giant Bob Pittman and others. And, importantly, Whistle Sports has partnerships with virtually all major U.S. sports leagues, including the NFL and the MLB. Impressive.

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Other Major Digital Media Deals and Announcements

October saw a series of other major deals, strategic moves, and announcements that continue to transform the media and entertainment space as both traditional and new media companies make bigger plays in partnerships and innovation. Below are just a few of the headlines from the past several weeks.

Going Over the Top and Direct to Consumers

As digital and mobile consumption behaviors continue to drive the “anytime, anywhere” model—and as noted above—TV networks, studios and carriers are accelerating their moves to innovate on their traditional business models. TV networks and studios are looking to deliver their content directly to consumers and capitalize on untapped opportunities: for HBO and Starz – the millions of people without premium cable subscriptions, and for the studios—volumes of catalog content that can be monetized. Carriers, on the other hand, are trying to retain their subscribers while attracting the new generation of “cord nevers” through innovative bundles that include online video offerings. Here are more recent moves to this end:

Upstreaming Digital-First Content

No one clear path exists to attract and engage eyeballs. While there are major trends toward “going over the top,” video creators (such as MCN Maker Studios’ stars) also are increasingly going the opposite direction – i.e., moving “upstream” to more traditional longer-form content platforms (including television and motion pictures). Whether or not the large and highly engaged audiences of these YouTube personalities follow remains to be seen. But, the pace of these experiments is accelerating. Here are some significant recent strategic moves to that end:

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MDM Client Company Spotlight: Qello

New OTT services continue to accelerate the fragmentation of the online video space, giving consumers more on-demand viewing options and enabling à la carte viewing. Although this leads to a more crowded space, content providers can better capture audience engagement by delivering experiences that authentically align with their audiences’ interests and passions.

New York-based Qello’s QelloConcerts is an example of an OTT service that engages its viewers through targeted and curated high-quality content for a niche, yet sizable, audience. Laura Martin, Senior Analyst at Cable & Media, observed that “many companies say they have OTT strategies, [but] not many companies are executing OTT successfully today. Qello is an exception. Qello is on the front lines of the shift from linear to digital video as an early adoptor of an OTT content strategy.”

Like a Netflix for music lovers, QelloConcerts provides its subscribers with on-demand streaming of over 26,000 hours of concert films and music documentaries. QelloConcerts has more than 3 million registered users in over 160 countries and 5 million app downloads. Qello has also established key partnerships in the ecosystem, with licensing partnerships with all the major music labels and distribution on all iOS and Android devices and most gaming consoles and connected-TV devices.

With wide distribution of unique content, both new and old, QelloConcerts not only entertains music lovers around the world on whatever device they are on but also enables music content owners to earn revenue on assets not currently being monetized.

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