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Digital Media Trends That Will Define 2016 (Guest Column)

Unlike the mega-M&A that dominated digital media in 2014 (Disney/Maker Studios, Apple/Beats Music, Facebook/Oculus), one story dominated digital media in 2015: Netflix and an increasing number of premium content-focused over-the-top video services ascended and accelerated the unbundling of decades-old pay TV packages and business models.

A seemingly endless stream of new OTT services, including those backed by traditional media companies, finally followed Netflix into the digital-first world and offered consumers a barrage of choice like never before. Many like Netflix are subscription video on demand, some are advertising-driven, and an increasing number delivered internationally, leveraging the digital promise and global opportunity of the borderless Internet.

All are driven by the now widely held reality that cord-cutters and cord-nevers are here to stay, as their numbers grew significantly faster this year than most expected — which isn’t all bad for cable companies that feed voracious consumer demand with faster and higher margin pipes.

The recent Golden Globe nominations punctuated this new media reality, as OTT-first “television” programming dominated like never before.  Pay-TV darling HBO was not immune, as Netflix stole the longtime nomination leader’s crown for the first time in 14 years.

This is a remarkable achievement, since Netflix borrowed HBO’s “originals” playbook just a couple years back — a strategy at which many (if not most) industry insiders scoffed then. Well, they aren’t laughing now. Netflix continues to confound, with 70+ million paid subs worldwide and a $50 billion market cap–virtually identical to Time Warner’s.

Amongst traditional media, Comcast/NBC Universal is perhaps the poster child for 2015’s new video reality, as the giant struck out into the digital wild with full force, particularly in the second half of this year. Not only did NBC Universal invest $200 million into Vox Media and another $200 million in BuzzFeed one week later, it went all-in with OTT. First, parent Comcast launched its mobile and millennial-focused short-form video platform “Watchable.” And, in case that weren’t enough, NBCUniversal separately announced a longer-form stand-alone subscription service, Seeso, which launches January 7th.

And let’s not forget about Hulu, in which Comcast/NBCU is a joint venture partner with Disney and Fox. Hulu upped the ante significantly in its exclusive premium content war against Netflix.

Other traditional U.S.-based media companies have followed suit and are now very much in the unbundled stand-alone OTT world. These include CBS (All Access), Viacom (Nickelodeon’s Noggin), Dish Networks (Sling TV), Univision (Univision Now), Showtime (Showtime Anytime), and HBO (HBO Now). The list goes on and on and extends to non-traditional new media companies like Otter Media, The Chernin Group and AT&T’s joint venture, which backs Fullscreen, and telco behemoth Verizon, which recently launched Go90.

The line between last year’s headline-grabbing multi-channel networks and OTT also blurred as they morphed into multi-platform networks that moved beyond YouTube into the land of Facebook and Snapchat. Most major MPNs delved into the vertically focused HBO-like premium original programming game. There’s gold in those mobile-first vertical hills populated by a particularly rabid and underserved digital-native customer base.

Virtual reality grabbed its own share of 2015 headlines in digital media. VR’s promise, which most media execs considered fringe (and perhaps even fad) just last year, became very real indeed, setting the stage for expected early mainstreaming of VR in 2016. VR may become next year’s digital media headline story.

We all know about Oculus Rift after Facebook acquired it for $2 billion in 2014. But, Oculus is not alone – far from it. Virtually all major consumer electronics giants will soon flood the market with millions of premium VR headsets at price points that will drive adoption akin to the early days of game consoles.

For major studios and the creative community in general, VR presents a tantalizing new mega-commercial opportunity to thrill consumers with new forms of story-telling. After all, VR is not just about games, although game-focused VR will dominate in 2016. Live-action VR is now in focus, even as the language to direct those experiences is still itself in development.

Virtually all major studios at least smartly dabbled in VR this past year. But Jaunt, a Bay Area company that closed another massive round of $65 financing in 2015 from the likes of media giants Disney and ProSieben, made the biggest splash on the creator side. Jaunt opened its LA-based production studio this year.

Apart from VR, what else will dominate the headlines for digital media in 2016? Expect consolidation. The number and pace of M&A deals will increase significantly. So will their sheer size, as traditional media scrambles to connect with digital-first, mobile-driven millennials who matter most to marketers.

But which companies will come together? What VR productions will succeed? How many of these paid subscription services can the market take?  These questions are all part of the great unknown. We’re still early and market “noise” is great, so there will be blood.  But, in the immortal words of Yoda, “try you must!”

Csathy is CEO of Manatt Digital Media, a fully-integrated digital media/tech-focused business consulting and legal services firm; he is a frequent contributor to Variety and other leading media and tech-focused publications (in addition to his own “Digital Media Update” blog).

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