Here's the pitch: string together 24 hours a day of curated music videos, hire hip experts to act as on-air hosts, broadcast it all to audiences wherever they can watch, and support it with ads and fees from pay-TV operators. Sound familiar? It should, because that was essentially MTV's business plan in 1981 and it worked brilliantly. And now, in a classic "what's old is new again" play, it's also the plan for VEVO TV, a new network that VEVO announced yesterday.
But wait, haven't viewers moved on from linear broadcasts to all on-demand behaviors? Yes and no. While on-demand's surging popularity is indisputable, the world isn't monolithic. There are times and situations where a good old curated broadcast stream is actually quite valuable to audiences. That's the bet that VEVO is making with VEVO TV and it seems pretty smart.
Vevo, the much-heralded "Hulu for the music industry" venture backed by Universal Music Group, Sony BMG, Abu Dhabi Music Company and Google/YouTube (and with video provided by EMI as well) officially launched late last night. I've been browsing around the site this morning and my first reaction is that it's a decent start, but has a long way to go if it is to fulfill its lofty mission.
Conceptually, I like the idea behind Vevo. The music industry, which has suffered multiple blows over the last 10 years, is getting together to create a destination site where music videos are distributed legally, with a coherent ad strategy. YouTube's participation means that videos that have been watched in the labels' YouTube channels can be branded Vevo, giving the new site tons of visibility, and helping migrate traffic over time.
From a design standpoint, the Vevo site has a similar feel to Hulu: large, wide-screen images on the home page promoting certain videos/artists, thumbnails below, of top videos, playlists and artists, quick links to most popular today, and search/navigation. A nav bar at the bottom of the screen invites users to easily create new playlists by adding up to 75 videos with one click. Videos are embeddable and shareable, and there are quick links to buy the music at Amazon and iTunes. The site was periodically very slow to load and occasionally even gave me a server error page. I don't know how much of this to ascribe day 1 hiccups that will be worked out over time or really poor capacity planning.
Less clear to me is how Vevo distinguishes itself from a user experience standpoint from YouTube itself. This has been a question that's nagged at me since the Vevo concept was first unveiled - how do the partners plan to make 1+1=3? The partners have made references to being indifferent to whether users watch at Vevo.com or YouTube, presumably because there would be similar advertising on both with similar splits. Yet, my experience going back and forth between the sites, albeit very limited, reveals lots of inconsistencies and a lot of promotional leverage left untapped.
Focusing on U2, one of my personal favorites, I found only about a dozen of the band's music videos on Vevo. Switching over to YouTube, I found many more tracks, such as "Beautiful Day," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "Where the Streets Have No Name," all in the Universal Music Group's channel. All of the videos were monetized: the first was preceded by a 15 second pre-roll ad for Chevy Malibu and the latter two carried an overlay ad to "Play Free Games" which was accompanied by a companion ad in the right column (the overlay was incredibly distracting, but that's another story). None of the videos had any Vevo branding whatsoever. It's also worth noting that even the UMG channel in YouTube has no Vevo branding or promotion.
Conversely, a search in YouTube for "All Because of You," a video that is available on Vevo, loads in YouTube with full Vevo branding. Above the video window are options to "Watch with Lyrics," "View Artist Profile," and "Create a Playlist." Clicking on any of these carries you over to the Vevo site. However, none of these actions are well-executed. "Watch with Lyrics" restarts the video, whereas a much slicker implementation would resume playing on Vevo from the point of drop-off. "View Artist Profile" simply displays a list other videos available, without any real artist profile information offered (background, upcoming concerts, etc.). And "Create a Playlist" just brings you to Vevo's home page, without any prompts for what to do next if indeed you want to actually want to create a playlist.
Elsewhere, the Vevo team hasn't even bothered to update its blog to officially announce the site's launch (it still says "Launching Tonight!" at the top). That's a missed opportunity, especially considering there was a splashy launch party in NYC last night (attendees ranging from Google's Eric Schmidt to Rhianna, Bono and Mariah Carey) and pictures and video from that event would have been a big drawing card. Come on - where's the Vevo PR team here?
How much of this should be forgiven to it being early days of Vevo's launch is a subjective call. From my vantage point though, I think the Vevo team could have done a lot more to think through and execute on the user experience. Back in November '07, when I looked at Hulu in its private beta, I gave it a solid B+. The Hulu team had clearly obsessed about each and every detail of the site - and have continued to do so. Hulu's user experience isn't perfect, but it has set the bar very high for those seeking to emulate it. For now Vevo probably rates around a C; much work is still ahead.
Following are 4 news items worth noting from the week of Sept. 14th:
1. Ad spending slowdown continues - TNS Media Intelligence reported that 1st half '09 U.S. ad spending declined 14.3% vs. a year ago, to $60.87 billion. Spending in Q2 '09 alone was down 13.9% vs. a year ago, the 5th straight declining quarter. The only bright spots TNS reported were Internet display ads (up 6.5%) and Free Standing Inserts (up 4.6%).
Rupert Murdoch and others in the industry have lately been suggesting that advertising is starting to improve and that the worst is behind us. But TNS SVP Research Jon Swallen was less sanguine, saying only that "Early data from third quarter hint at possible improvements for some media due to easy comparisons against distressed levels of year ago expenditures." While the online video ad sector has held up far better than most, the ad spending crash has caused many in the industry to re-evaluate whether ad-only models are viable, particularly for long-form premium content online. Subscription-oriented initiatives will only intensify the longer the ad slowdown lasts.
2. Veoh's court victory is important for all in the industry - I'd be remiss not to note the significance of U.S. District Judge A. Howard Matz's granting of Veoh's motion for summary judgment, effectively throwing out Universal Music's suit alleging Veoh had infringed UMG's copyrights. Judge Matz articulated the specific reasons he believed Veoh operated within the "safe harbor" provisions of the DMCA.
As a content producer myself (albeit at a completely different level than a music publisher or film studio!), I've generally been a huge advocate of copyright protection. But the fact is that DMCA - for better or worse - set out the rules for digital copyright use and they must be enforced clearly and forcefully. Anything less leaves the market in a state of confusion, with industry participants wary of inviting costly, time-consuming legal action (Veoh has said the UMG suit cost it millions of dollars in legal fees). For online video to thrive the rules of the road need to be well-understood; Judge Matz's ruling made an important contribution toward that goal.
3. Digitalsmiths announces new senior level hires - This week Digitalsmiths announced that it has brought on board Josh Wiggins as its new VP, Business Development, West Coast and two others, who will collectively be the company's first L.A.-based presence. They'll report in to Bob Bryson, SVP of Sales and Business Development.
I caught up with Digitalsmiths' CEO Ben Weinberger briefly, who explained that with tier 1 film/TV studios and other content owners (news, sports, etc.) the company's major focus, it was essential to have a full-time presence there staffed with people who know the industry cold. Ben reported that the company has honed in on target customers who have very large files, have video as their core business/revenue center, require sophisticated metadata management and often need a rapid video capture, processing and playout workflow. Digitalsmiths is proving a solid example of how to effectively differentiate through product and customer focus in a very crowded space. Announced customers include Warner Bros., Telepictures and TMZ.com, others are in the hopper (note Digitalsmiths is a VideoNuze sponsor).
4. New EmmyTVLegends.org site is a worth its weight in gold - On a somewhat lighter note, this week the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation unveiled EmmyTVLegends.org, which offers thoughtful, introspective video interviews with a wide range of TV's most influential personalities. If you have nostalgia for the classic TV shows from your youth, or just appreciate the amazing talent that has made the medium what it is, this site is for you. It is remarkably well-organized and accessible and brilliant proof of online video's power in presenting invaluable material that was previously available only to a lucky few.
I happily got lost in the site listening to Alan Alda talk about the fabulous writers of M*A*S*H and Steven Bochco describing the magic of "Hill Street Blues." I searched by "Happy Days" and quickly found the exact clips of Ron Howard talking about the role of his "Richie Cunningham" character in the show's arc and Henry Winkler revealing the influence of Sylvester Stallone on how he developed the voice of "Fonzie." Mary Tyler Moore is irresistible discussing specific scenes of the Mary Tyler Moore show and her poignant memories of Mary Richards navigating the working world. Kudos to the Academy, the site is a gem.
Enjoy the weekend and L'shanah tova (Happy New Year) to those of you, who like me, will be observing Rosh Hashanah this weekend!
Happy New Year and welcome to 2008!
With many of you taking last week off, a quick review of what you might have missed is in order:
1. iTunes-Fox download-to-rent movie deal rumors
The FT (reg. required) reported that Apple and Fox are close to announcing a deal under which Fox movies would be available for download-to-rent on iTunes. This would be a deviation from Apple's policy of download-to-own only. Call me a skeptic, but while some analysts think this deal is a big breakthrough, for me it's more of a ho-hum, for at least the following reasons.
Download-to-rent offerings have been around for a while (e.g. Movielink, CinemaNow, Amazon Unbox, etc.) and none have been grand slams. Admittedly none have enabled playback on an iPod. Yet, while many think iPod ubiquity is a killer advantage for iTunes rentals I disagree. It's one thing to watch a 30 or maybe a 60 minute TV show, but watching a 2 hour movie on an iPod? That's only appealing for a tiny minority of iPod owners. Further, while the rumored $2.99 or so price point is attractive, download-to-rent movies will come with the same cumbersome business rules (e.g. 24 hour viewing, window limitations, finite device sharing, etc.) that cause significant customer inconvenience. And DVDs, available for rental or purchase still offer superior portability and flexibility to any download model. Movie downloads' time will come, just not yet.
2. Wal-Mart Folds its Video Download Store
And speaking of download challenges, Wal-Mart decided to unceremoniously close its video download store less than a year since its launch. While it pointed its finger at its vendor HP, which decided to discontinue support for the technology underlying the Wal-Mart store, there are certainly other white label platform alternatives available if Wal-Mart had conviction about the download store's potential. It clearly didn't and so it folded its tent. More evidence of the challenges facing paid downloads.
3. YouTube's Top 2007 Videos Announced
Meanwhile over in YouTube land, the hits keep coming. YouTube released its top 10 list and the year's most popular video, with almost 23 million views, was "Battle at Kruger", which shows the fight to save a baby water buffalo from a group of lions and a crocodile. It's fascinating if you haven't seen it. Other top videos on the list were "Chocolate Rain", "Obama Girl" and "Leave Britney Alone", among others. If nothing else, this diverse group of videos shows that UGC is alive and well.
4. Queen Elizabeth and Roger Clemens Seek Out YouTube
And UGC wasn't for pure amateurs either. YouTube's reach was once again recognized as 2 celebrities, Queen Elizabeth and Roger Clemens posted videos serving their individual purposes. In a first for the 81 year-old queen, she posted her popular Christmas message on YouTube, augmenting its traditional broadcast. The Royal Channel - "The Official Channel of the British Monarchy" - also launched on YouTube.
Clemens, who's been fingered in baseball's steroid controversy, saw fit to post his proclamation of innocence on YouTube. Clemens is adamant in his own defense, and clearly believes that reaching out to fans with video instead of the usual press release is more compelling.
Trivia question: whose video do you think drew more views?
Answer: It's not even close: 741,000 for the queen vs. 274,000 for Clemens.
5. MTV Delivers 1.2 Billion Streams in '07
MTV self-reported that MTV.com, VH1.com and CMT.com delivered more than 1.2 billion video streams in '07, an increase of 30% vs. '06. It also reported the top 30 music videos it streamed, and number 1 was Gimme More by Britney Spears. Broadband is offering MTV an opportunity to return to its brand roots as the go-to destination for music videos even as more and more of the on-air experience is dominated by non-music video fare. As I wrote a couple months ago, music videos are becoming a sought-after new revenue stream for labels and aggregators. We'll see more emphasis on music videos in '08.
Rio Caraeff, EVP of eLabs, Universal Music Group's digital division says that licensing its music videos to the likes of Yahoo, AOL, YouTube and others now generates over $20M/year and is growing briskly. Supporting a forecast of solid growth ahead, Ian Rogers, Yahoo Music's GM believes that viewership of music videos will expand by "10 to 100 times over the next one to two years."
According to comScore, Yahoo is the web's #1 music destination, pulling in 23.4M uniques in August. Caraeff also noted that streaming accounts for the lion's share of the revenue, with paid downloads of music videos still miniscule. He cites the best-selling download of all-time, a Justin Timberlake single as generating only 58K buys, which, at $1.99 apiece, adds up to less than $120K.
None of this is to say that music videos won't continue to be used as promotional fodder. But these nascent, growing licensing and ad-sharing revenues show broadband's power to mine content value that was previously inaccessible. Sports leagues, particularly MLB.com, have been masterful at this as well, driving successful broadband-only subscription businesses. I expect others to sprout up as well.