Biz models diversify in digital distribution

Netflix loomed so large over digital distribution this year that its shadow may have obscured the emergence of a more diversified ecosystem feeding off of Hollywood content.

It was hard to escape the Los Gatos, Calif.-based streaming service in 2011, from the stratospheric growth of its subscriber base and stock price to a series of ill-advised strategic decisions that triggered the plunge of its market capitalization as well as acquisition rumors.

Even Hollywood got caught up in the drama, moving from the cold shoulder Time Warner topper Jeff Bewkes first gave the new competish to a warm embrace many congloms offered Netflix for ordering its first original series and signing a plethora of licensing pacts that rained revenue like manna to their bottom lines.

But there’s many more digital players that will command the attention of studios and consumers in 2012, from would-be Netflix rivals to those sporting entirely different business models and aiming to deliver TV programs and movies to every screen in U.S. homes.

The 22 million subs Netflix brings in validated its approach as it collects monthly fees in exchange for which customers can get all the programming they can stream or snag by snail mail. But CEO Reed Hastings’ success created an entirely new category, known as subscription VOD, that spawned imitators with the potential to steal away market share.

Hulu, for one, built an SVOD component, Hulu Plus, off its massive ad-supported base that has nabbed 1 million subs in over a year. Like Netflix, Hulu began commissioning original content and locking up exclusives on catalog fare, though it didn’t spend anywhere near as much on either front.

Netflix is set to revive the Fox comedy “Arrested Development” and adapt BBC drama “House of Cards,” starring Kevin Spacey. These are huge commitments that have spawned smaller original efforts like Hulu’s own original unscripted series featuring Morgan Spurlock. With more growth could come grander programming ambitions on par with what Netflix is developing.

Studios that had difficulty selling anything that wasn’t typical aftermarket fare like hourlong procedurals found that Netflix was willing to fork over high-six-figure sums for highly serialized dramas like “Mad Men,” effectively creating a new market for syndie distribs. But Hulu should stay competitive here, having made its own deals for shows that would have fetched very little in traditional broadcast and cable syndication, including NBC’s cult-fave laffer “Community” and Fox reality hit “Hell’s Kitchen.”

How exactly Hulu will try to close the gap with Netflix remains to be seen after its owners, News Corp., NBCUniversal and Disney, decided to take the joint venture off the auction block and run it for the foreseeable future. Regardless of how it plays out, the subscription revenue derived from Hulu Plus will be central to their plans.

Amazon’s own SVOD spinoff could be even more challenging to Netflix because it has the deep pockets to nab the kind of content that will differentiate the Amazon Prime offering from the rest of the pack. Jeff Bezos’ company has already stepped up to make big catalog deals approaching the scale of Netflix pacts with CBS and 20th Century Fox TV.

It’s possible that Netflix hasn’t even seen all of its SVOD competition yet. Verizon may enter the space in conjunction with Redbox, which has been sitting on the sidelines without a digital strategy for long because it has the clout to take its time.

The emergence of SVOD has eclipsed market entrants that paved the way in digital distribution by offering a la carte digital rental options, including Apple’s iTunes. It’s the king of a rather small kingdom given data showing the volume of transactions in so-called iVOD category is dwarfed by that of SVOD, but there’s no shortage of market entrants that could make trouble especially if they go the SVOD route, including Walmart’s Vudu and Dish Network’s Blockbuster.

Facebook poked a toe in the iVOD water this year with some one-off movie offerings from studios including Warner Bros. Although Facebook has talked a lot about having more of a presence in the content world, there’s only a vague sense of what its plans actually are.

Microsoft’s Xbox Live was the first to try a third digital-distribution model for video that everyone from Verizon to Sony has been reported considering: the virtual MSO model, which bundles a bunch of linear channels akin to how a cable operator does, but with much fewer channels at a much lower price point. All the while, Xbox stays in the iVOD biz via its Zune marketplace.

Like Microsoft, Google is a company to watch because it’s not relying on any one digital-content business model. Google has poured at least $100 million into an original-content strategy that has reconfigured YouTube into a more channel-centric outlet while beefing up the premium-content supply to its rental offerings. The company is even contemplating a virtual-MSO strategy via a broadband network being built for the test market of Kansas City.

What Google needs most is content to support its platforms, whether its own nascent Google TV service or the myriad handhelds powered by its Android software. Apple is thinking similarly, leaving perhaps the biggest question market hovering over the entire playing field: Will there be an Apple-branded TV set introduced to the market next year? Such a product would be an instant gamechanger if it comes to fruition.

Last but not least, don’t underestimate the incumbents all these digital players are trying to marginalize: the MSOs. Whether a cable operator like Comcast or satcasters DirecTV and Dish, they have the resources and relationships with programmers to innovate with real impact if they’re willing to experiment with offerings that might go head-to-head with their legacy businesses.

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