Content Over-Supply and the Future of the Media Business
The new reality of infinite choices and limited attention spans
By Alex Sun
We’re living in an era of content over-supply. Whether it’s more originals on streaming services, articles on our Facebook newsfeed, Instagram pics on our phones, or Tweets from everyone, we’re inundated with content everywhere. To prove it with hard numbers, here’s how much the supply of content has grown over the last several decades:
In 2000, 160 scripted TV series premiered in the US. By 2017, that number ballooned to 487, driven largely by the massive output of online video services like Netflix, Hulu, and Prime Video. In 2000, 370 movies premiered in the U.S and Canada, but by 2018, had ballooned to almost 900. In 2000, 750K books were published globally, but by 2019, had more than quintupled to 4 million.
In the music industry, ~40,000 albums were released in 2000, but grew to ~100,000 in 2015.
The content boom is especially true on social media and user-generated content: comparing 2010 and 2016, there’s was a 5 to 20-fold increase in hours of video uploaded to Youtube/Twitch, photos posted or shared on Facebook/Snapchat/Instagram/Whatsapp, and posts on Twitter/Tumblr.
What’s behind the content supply explosion?
So what’s causing this explosion in content supply? It boils down to 2 drivers:
Driver #1: The expanding range of content formats
100 years ago (1920), people had limited options in content formats. The basic staples were print (books and newspapers), radio, and the cinema (no color or sound yet). Television had not yet been invented. The internet was still more than a half-century away. People couldn’t even conceive of the idea of a handheld media device like a smartphone or tablet. But technological advancements in the decades since have unlocked a dizzying range of new formats.
In 2020, we have cable television, broadcast television, IMAX cinemas, online video, streaming video, streaming music, video games, mobile games, Facebook, Twitter, hand-held social media, blogging forums, avatar-based chat apps, VR games, etc. As each new content format matures, audiences on it will grow, which means more revenue, and more revenue justifies investing in more and more content for it.
Driver #2: The expansive nature of the digital world
Digital technology gave us the internet. And because the digital world of the internet has democratized access to creation and distribution tools, it has democratized the creation and distribution of content. Thanks to web pages, the supply of news articles is no longer constrained by column space on print newspapers. Thanks to digital video platforms, the supply of video programming is no longer constrained by the limited dayparts we see on TV channels (daytime, primetime, late news, etc.). While daypart-constrained broadcasters like CBS are lucky to squeeze in 30 new originals a year, Netflix can easily do 20x that number, since digital “shelf space” is, in theory, infinite.
In the music industry, it used to be that artists had to depend on a small number of big record labels to bear the high costs of mass-producing and distributing their music via physical cassettes and CD’s. And once again, the limited amount of physical “shelf space” limited the number/diversity of artists the big labels could support. But with digital, anyone can record tracks and distribute direct-to-consumers. And the pillars of DIY content creation and limitless digital shelf space also define Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat.
But while these 2 drivers massively expanded the supply of content, they haven’t expanded our attention spans. There can only ever be 24 hours in a day. And so, there’s only so much content we can consume.
The dark side of content over-supply: failure rates
It’s no surprise that content failure rates have skyrocketed in every content category.
In TV, twice as many scripted series were canceled in 2016 than were premiered in 2000. In the Box Office, aspiring blockbusters are forced to spend higher sums on production and marketing just to stay ahead of the influx in movies premiering each year. And yet, they’re spending more just to reach less people: per-capita-Box-Office-attendance in North America has declined 33% from 2002 to 2018.
It’s hard to convince consumers to drive 20 minutes to their local movie theater and drop $10 on a ticket when Netflix or Prime Video offer endless options from the comfort of home. And so predictably, Box Office “bombs” have skyrocketed — from 2010 to 2016, the percent of North American theatrical releases that recouped less than half of production costs grew from 10% to 27%, a near tripling.
In the internet media world, the digital democratization of content production to the masses made possible an entire generation of DIY content creators and social media influencers, some with millions of followers, but also led to a “burnout epidemic” among them. To stay relevant, top YouTubers need to constantly produce new videos, lest their audiences turn their fickle attention spans to other top YouTubers. It’s not hard to see why being a top YouTuber or Instagrammer is hardly scalable or sustainable: creating content by yourself is exhausting, and after uploading, you still have to engage/moderate your audience with comments/discussion/live-streams, only to have to repeat the whole thing the next day.
And finally, the pain is nearly unrivaled in the music industry. For major record labels, achieving a hit album has become so elusive that if it were not for the ongoing sales of legacy/catalog albums, overall profit margins would be deeply negative. The enormous unprofitability of investing in talent scouting and developing new artists (what industry lingo calls “A&R”) has triggered louder calls each year from consultants and insiders for major record labels to divest entirely from A&R and focus everything on legacy/catalog albums.
Even for established artists, earning a living is tough. Consider how, for only $9.99 a month, Spotify offers its users 50 million tracks (essentially every track ever produced in history) for on-demand listening anytime and anywhere. And because the average Spotify user listens to 1,300 tracks each month, he/she is spending a mere $0.0077 per track, with the artist behind that track receiving less than 15% of the $0.0077. If Jack Johnson’s tracks were to achieve 1 million streams on Spotify this month, he would get only around $1,155 for it. And this is on the world’s biggest music service.
In essence, content oversupply is awesome for consumers, but painful for creators.
So what are creators to do when content is no longer king, but a highly substitutable commodity?
Standing out in the over-crowded field
Today, two main avenues have emerged that determine whether content can stand out in an over-crowded field:
Avenue #1: Having access to a superior distribution
We’re unlikely to “click play” on something that we don’t easily see in front of us. Netflix brags about how Season 4 of Stranger Things was streamed by 60 million households in its first month of premiering, a historical record, but one can’t help but wonder how much of that had to do with its curation algorithm simply surfacing Stranger Things to the top of the Netflix homepage, ensuring that it would be seen and clicked on by 100% of its 180 million subscribing households, who easily and regularly open the app from their connected TVs, game consoles, laptops, and tablets. Here, the superior distribution amplifies the value of good content.
The case of AMC Networks is an insightful one. AMC has the credit for producing critically acclaimed content like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and yet both shows struggled with miniscule audiences in their early years on the AMC channel, a niche player within the crowded and decaying distribution ecosystem that is Pay-TV. But the debut of both shows on Netflix in 2011 completely transformed their trajectories. Netflix’s massive distribution reach (much smaller back in 2011, but still over 10x what AMC had) brought both shows the massive viewership that had hitherto been missing, and also meant millions of Netflix users now eagerly anticipated new seasons of both shows. Usually, TV shows see dwindling audiences with each new season. With Breaking Bad, the opposite happened — in the 2 years between its season 4 series finales, it went from 2 million viewers to 10 million. The moral of the story? Netflix’s superior distribution reach amplifies the value content, particularly good content that languished on traditional TV distribution.
We see the same “Distribution is King” effect in music. Thanks to the superior distribution of Spotify and other music streaming services (massive user base, on-demand listening, auto-curation), the music industry is witnessing a resurrection of revenue windfall for legacy content from The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Rolling Stones, etc., which were thought to be way past their prime. And this time, the revenue windfall reflects a more optimal distribution channel: massively recurring royalties from massively recurring on-demand streaming, instead of a brief 1-time windfall of cassettes/CDs/downloads purchases.
Going back to the example of AMC Networks — it went on to produce more acclaimed content like The Walking Dead, solidifying its reputation as a cultural powerhouse on basic cable. But great content and cultural capital don’t actually address the foundational shortcomings of linear TV as a distribution format: no possibility for on-demand viewing, severely limited programming space, and the one-sided content flow of analog technology. These issues are inherently offensive to consumers in the digital age, and so consumers just keep on cutting the cord. AMC’s annual TV viewers dropped a stunning 45% in 3 years, from 1.3M in 2016 to 0.72M in 2019. The moral of this story? Good content (and all the social buzz it comes with) simply cannot compensate for the harsh geometries of an obsolete distribution model. Distribution is critical.
Avenue #2: Owning highly recognizable “Franchises”
We’re more likely to make time for a story that we’re already familiar with. For example, in 2000, most English speakers between ages 14 and 49 were familiar with the fictional book series sensation Harry Potter, which had debuted 3 years earlier. So it wasn’t surprising that the movie adaptation the following year achieved the highest Global Box Office revenue ($974M) out of 405 theatrical releases that year. It even beat out the Lord of the Rings I, which was adapted from older IP that was more distant from modern audiences, as well as Shrek I, which was at the time new and unproven IP to audiences. The point is, the more familiarity a story is to audiences, the more likely they’ll set time aside in their busy lives for it.
It’s no surprise that over the past five decades, the content landscape has increasingly gravitated towards “franchise” storytelling, where well-recognized IP (whether from a best-selling novel, beloved comic book series, or a hit movie) is used as the basis for an expansive story universe that justifies multiple sequels and even spinoffs. The chart below shows the steady growth in the share that franchise films have out of the total U.S Box Office from 3% in 1980 to nearly 40% in 2019. Franchises that particularly stand-out in the chart include Marvel, DC, Harry Potter, Pixar, and Star Wars, among countless others. And growing dominance in the Box Office serves as a proxy for their growing dominance across all categories of entertainment spend.
Over the past 20 years, 3 things massively amplified the popularity of franchise content and will continue to do so.
First, technological improvements make it easier to bring fantastical universes from authors’ imaginations to the big screen, and to depict them realistically (the suspension of disbelief is critical to audience enjoyment). It’s no coincidence that the late 1990s and early 2000s saw so many mega-franchises being launched on the Big Screen (LOTR I, Harry Potter I, Spider-Man I, The Matrix I, Star Wars New Trilogy I). CGI technology was finally good enough to realistically create fantasy/sci-fi universes from the ground-up.
Second, the creative doctrine has matured significantly in media organizations. For example, Marvel’s Avengers blockbusters taught franchise-builders that large ensemble casts far outperform stand-alone superhero flicks both critically and commercially, establishing the necessity of owning undivided IP rights to an entire character universe. Sony is hard-pressed to compete against Disney when it only has the rights to Spider-Man, while Disney has the rights to the other 6,000 Marvel superheroes to build many crowd-pleasing ensemble casts.
Third, franchise-builders are (at long last) expanding popular franchises into a wide range of content formats beyond just movies. 42 years after its 1977 introduction to the world, the Star Wars Universe finally has a meaningful presence on TV (The Mandalorian). And in the 2010s, HBO’s adaptation of the Game of Thrones fantasy novels into an 8-season TV series was a major break from the book-to-movie adaptation route that was the norm for fantasy IP (Harry Potter and LOTR took that book-to-movie route). Non-movie formats, whether it be multi-season TV series, interactive video games, or thousand-page book adaptations, can sustain a level of prolonged consumer engagement that a movie (with an average runtime of only 1.5 hours) simply can’t.
With their busy lives, audiences have demonstrated their preference for the content that belongs to the franchise universe they’ve already invested many hours in, rather than content (even critically-acclaimed content) that falls outside of that universe. The massive (and unexpected) success of Guardians of the Galaxy (it achieved #3 in the Box Office for 2014) despite having been comprised of obscure characters from the Marvel comic universe can be attributed to the massive affinity that audiences had developed for the Marvel Universe at that point, thanks to the ~20 hours of action from 9 prior movies set in the Marvel Universe.
The rise of giants
Imagine a media company that wins the content game by owning as many big-brand franchises as possible. Such a company would be ruthless in acquiring any independent publisher that possesses bankable IP in order to incubate them into multi-billion dollar franchises. Such a company would expand the IP into every possible content format (adapting comic book IP into films, film IP into TV shows, film IP into theme parks, video game IP into film), thereby creating a vibrant story universe where audiences can spend as much time as they want, with multiple points-of-entry (movie theater, Playstation consoles, streaming apps, theme parks in Orlando and CA).
Such a company would stomach huge capital expenditures (immersive theme parks can’t be built overnight, since they require billions in upfront cost for land, buildings, and equipment) and endure years of slim-to-zero operating margins. But when the investments pay off, the returns are simply astronomical, the economic moat unassailable, and the brand equity of the content portfolio the envy of the entire industry.
Such a company already exists. It’s called Disney.
To highlight the results of Disney’s content-first approach — it alone accounted for nearly 40% of the U.S Box Office in 2019, nearly triple the share it had before 1990. That’s the predictable outcome of owning mega-franchise IP like Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars.
And the impact of those mega-franchises goes far beyond the Box Office (which comprises less than 10% of Disney’s total revenue) to larger business segments like Disney Parks & Resorts, TV Networks, and Direct-to-Consumer. The success of the Star Wars Reboot FIlms at the Box Office drives up subscriptions to Disney+ (a Direct-to-Consumer business unit), where The Mandalorian allows audiences to spend even more time in the Star Wars universe than the Reboot Films allow.
And if 12 hours of content from the Reboot Films + Mandalorian still aren’t enough, audiences can dive into the new Star Wars video games (Jedi Knight, Battlefront), which can each sustain hundreds more hours of gameplay per user, book their tickets to the Galaxy’s Edge hyper-immersive theme park at Disney World Resorts in Orlando, or pre-order the upcoming Star Wars extended universe novels. From a bird’s eye view, the impact of such mega-franchises is stunning: final earnings (profits) across Disney exceeded $11 billion in 2019, more than triple what it was 10 years ago.
While Disney races to the summit of the content mountain, digital-native Tech Giants (Google, Facebook, Netflix) are taking a distribution-focused path to get there. Rather than spending the last 2 decades acquiring/incubating the most bankable content franchises, Tech Giants focused on building/growing the digital platforms that were destined to become the primary distribution channels of content to audiences when the internet would inevitably mature.
Netflix’s early focus on perfecting digital streaming of long-form premium videos (this was actually hard stuff in the early 2000s) eventually paid off, though it soon realized the newfound advantage in distribution had to be followed-up quickly with massive content investment, due to (1) the inevitable day that content owners would pull their catalogs off Netflix, and (2) the general surge in content supply across the media landscape. Far-sighted leaders within Netflix pushed a strategy to aggressively spend billions each year on its original ($17B earmarked for 2020). Thankfully, its sheer scale and first-mover advantage in digital distribution allow it to spend these amounts on content.
It’s remarkable that the UGC Giants (Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) cracked an even better digital distribution model than Netflix — their massive scale and revenue can be maintained indefinitely with zero content spend. After all, UGC content is free and crowdsourced, and when millions-to-billions of users + UGC are aggregated together on Facebook/Youtube/TikTok, the result is a massive scale that’s hard for any new entrant to displace. In dominating the distribution of niche/UGC content that forms the “Long Tail” of internet media, Facebook and Google/Youtube become a duopoly that pockets a whopping 50% of the ~$400 billion in global digital advertising each year. For them, distribution is the only thing that matters.
The middle range players
But what happens to media players that don’t own (1) mega-franchise content, or (2) massive digital distribution platforms?
We can call those media players “Middlings”. Middlings are conspicuous in their lack of any competitive advantage in anything, whether it’s IP content, distribution, scale. Middlings are common and everywhere. Middlings include the smaller of the Big Six Studios (Sony Pictures, Paramount), all the studios outside of the Big Six (mini-majors like Lionsgate, indies), media corporations whose core businesses are mostly in declining TV networks (ViacomCBS, A&E), and “has-been” Internet companies from the days of Web 1.0 (Yahoo!, AOL).
Middlings coast by on legacy audiences that they won in a bygone era (and which diminish each year as their demographics slide in the wrong direction), or on the undying hope that if they were to invest just a bit more in content, churn out just 1 more slate of movies, try out just 1 more reboot of a show that was popular in the 90s, they’d hit a home run and rise up a few chairs in the ferocious competition for consumer eyeballs. But the content field is just too saturated, the competitors too numerous, and everyone is swinging bat after bat, hoping their next bat will also be a home run.
Below, we visualize consumer attention span as a top-heavy distribution across “The Hits” and the “Long Tail”. Middlings are neither present in the “Hits” nor dominant in the “Long Tail”. They’re stuck precariously in the middle.
As we enter the 2020s, the long-suffering Middlings will increasingly be pushed into 4 options:
Option #1: Exit the content game
Sometime in the early 2010s, the Murdochs of Fox came to a hard conclusion — Fox could only ever be a Middling in the content game, unable to match larger rivals like Disney or WarnerMedia in its pipeline of IP franchises and originals, and unable to compete against Netflix’s scale in the D2C streaming distribution model that was becoming ascendant. And if Fox felt it had no competitive advantages in either content or distribution (at least outside of live news and sports), then it had to exit.
In 2017, it sold its film and TV studios and most of its network TV channels to Disney. The next decade will see more Middlings sell off underperforming studios and TV networks to deep-pocketed giants. At Sony Pictures, where losing hundreds of millions of dollars annually has become a norm, chairman Tony Vinciquerra summed up in 2017 the future he saw for the struggling studio: “If we don’t grow, we will be somebody’s purchase.”
Option #2: Be acquired by a giant
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Marvel Entertainment and LucasFilms were struggling as stand-alone assets. The richness of their legacy IP vaults (Marvel’s 5K+ superhero characters, LucasFilm’s Star Wars franchise) meant little. In 1996, Marvel even filed for bankruptcy. But in 2020, with all the hindsight of the last 10 years, it’s hard to argue that joining the Disney family wasn’t the best thing that could have happened to both assets. On the back of Disney’s deep-pockets, at-scale presence in everything TV networks to theme parks, and that rare ownership of undivided IP rights across all formats, Marvel and Star Wars became relevant mega-franchises again. Even more importantly, Disney has expanded them into media formats they were previously never in before, like TV (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D on ABC), D2C SVOD (The Mandalorian on Disney+), and hyper-immersive theme parks (Galaxy’s Edge at Disney World Resorts).
Taking a cue from Disney, Netflix acquired comic book company Millarworld in 2017, in the hopes of adapting Millerworld’s IP into a big slate of live-action originals for its 180M+ subscribers. In the next decade, we’re likely to see SVOD Giants like Netflix and Amazon go from acquiring film rights from indie studios to acquiring those studios outright. Disney is already stripping out the original content from the studios and TV networks it acquired from Fox in 2017 and launching much of that content exclusively on Hulu in 2020. In the next decade, Giants like Disney, Comcast, and AT&T will continue to (1) acquire media assets and (2) strip out their best content to put on their D2C SVOD services.
Option #3: Chase after scale through mergers
Some Middling aren’t wise enough to either (1) exit the game or (2) be acquired by a Giant. In spite of their inadequate scale and outdated business models, they believe there’s still a path for them to become Giants. And they aim to do that by merging with other Middlings. The 2019 merger of Viacom and CBS was predicated on the logic that a combined company would (1) have more leverage to negotiate higher “carrier fees” from cable/satellite TV providers, (2) have a large-enough content library to compete in the Streaming Wars, and (3) be large enough to convince more Middlings to merge into it.
But the result has been a combined company (ViacomCBS) whose content spend in 2020 is still pacing to be $4 billion less than Netflix’s. And that $4 billion number doesn’t adequately express the weaker cultural relevancy of its content library — NCIS reboots don’t quite achieve the same fanfare as the next season of Stranger Things. Investors remain unimpressed with the company’s plans for its still-unlaunched streaming service, the stock price has dropped by half since the merger, and the company’s market cap today is one-seventeenth and one-fifteenth of that of Netflix and Disney.
In the internet-media space, the highest profile example of Middlings merging together in an attempt to find scale was Verizon’s purchase of AOL and Yahoo in 2015 and 2017 (along with other internet properties like Huffington Post, TechCrunch, Engadget) and merging them all together into a single entity called Oath. By late 2018, as AOL and Yahoo! continued to see declining audiences, Verizon execs had all but admitted Oath was a mistake that wiped out $4.6 billion in shareholder value. They learned two lessons: (1) just wishing that there was an alternative to the Facebook/Google internet advertising duopoly doesn’t make it so, and (2) when a consumer internet Giant declines due to a business model that’s now past its prime, its decline will be relentless and impossible to reverse.
Option #4: Be swallowed by a different industry
Content is inherently a hard business. Despite how much we obsess over the latest TV shows, superhero franchise, Taylor Swift album, and other media, the amount of money we spend on content is small. On a global basis each year, consumers spend $300B on TV, $140B each on video games and books, $41AB on the Box Office, and only $33B on music.
These global amounts are surprisingly small given the significant portion of consumers’ lives that are devoted to consuming content — the average American watches more than 5 hours of video and listens to 2 hours of music a day, and in China, addiction to online gaming has become a big enough public health crisis that the government limited game time to 1.5 hours a day for young citizens. $300B spent on TV may be a big sum in and of itself, but it’s 3% of the $9 trillion in global spend on healthcare. Consumers grumble about their cable TV providers hiking monthly fees by $5, but (understandably) would not hesitate to spend additional tens of thousands of dollars on a critical treatment for a family member. A year of Netflix and Disney+ may cost $108 and $70, but a year at Harvard costs $73K. The point is, total spend on content is relatively small, and in some formats, is even poised to shrink as digital D2C streaming services offer consumers way more content than ever before for every $ of spending (in 1990, $100 dollars allowed you to purchase 5 albums in a year, but in 2020, that $100 gets you a year of on-demand access to 50 million tracks on Spotify or Apple Music).
Content as a differentiator
So what happens when content (1) matters to consumers, but (2) doesn’t generate a significant consumer spend by itself?
Content is used to drive consumer spend to other industries that have better profitability economics.
This is fast becoming the ascendant business model in this day and age. Amazon’s Prime Video loses billions each year by itself, but drives sign-ups and loyalty to the larger Prime bundle, which in turn drives tens of billions of additional consumer spend on e-commerce purchases. Apple Music may be unprofitable by itself, but the 70 million subscribers it has each month (as of mid 2020) is a huge population that Apple can drive into its ecosystem of computers, smartphones, tablets, and other businesses that command high unit prices and margins. Why should Apple care if it loses $1.10 (in operating margin) per monthly music subscriber when upselling a single MacBook brings in $600 or more in operating margin.
So what industries would be strengthened by acquiring and integrating content assets, even if they are of the antiquated Middling variety?
Two high-profile examples from recent history, Comcast’s acquisition of NBC Universal in 2009 and AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner in 2018, affirm that the telecom industry remains the most obvious candidate. At its core, the telecom business is about providing communication bundles, usually phone + internet + satellite/cable TV, to consumers. Since most communication mediums (ex: internet) are inevitably used to access and consume media and content, a telecom bundle could become more attractive if it included free or discounted content. It’s also noteworthy that telecom bundles from the major providers (Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, T-Mobile) are largely undifferentiated from one another. So content can serve as a differentiating vector.
Video content is exceptionally differentiated — for example, The Office differentiates NBC’s content catalog relative to other media companies, while Stranger Things and Pixar movies do the same for Netflix and Disney respectively. With the U.S. telecom market already saturated and the government blocking any horizontal mergers due to antitrust issues, it makes sense that telecom giants have turned to vertical expansion into content to continue growth.
That is not to say that we should expect Verizon or T-Mobile to acquire a Middling like ViacomCBS or Lionsgate/Starz anytime soon. The flurry of media acquisitions by Telecom players in the last few years means many will be preoccupied over the foreseeable future with making those acquisitions work out. Verizon is out of the running, having made bad forays into internet media (Yahoo!, AOL) and still dealing with the giant debt load it created (still $100+ billion as of the end of 2019). So too are Comcast and AT&T. Both will be 100% focused on scaling their new D2C streaming services (Peacock, HBO Max) using NBC Universal and WarnerMedia content. The only incremental investment of billions they’ll be willing to spend is not on acquiring yet another media company, but rather on increasing content output from the media assets they already own (that’s AT&T’s big plan for HBO).
New patterns are emerging in the content landscape — low barriers to entry for content creators, an oversupply of content, too much competition chasing after a finite amount of consumer demand, and profit margins that have inevitably thinned. In any industry, the thinning of profit margins creates the need for consolidation. And consolidation tends to make today’s Giants even bigger ones tomorrow, and everyone else more peripheral.
The trend towards “Winner(s) take all”, despite all the concern and criticism it elicits, is increasingly becoming a core pattern of the 21st century. We see “Winner(s) take all” patterns in so many digital arenas of modern life: e-commerce (Amazon), social media (Facebook), computer operating systems (Windows/macOS), search engines (Google), ridesharing (Uber/Lyft), smartphones (Apple/Android), and daily productivity tools (Microsoft Office). With the digitization and “tech-ification” of media and content, why should it be any different there?
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