nScreenMedia OTT multiscreen media analysis

Fox gets in deeper with cable

Delivering to multi-screens is not an easy task. To provide a truly comprehensive n-screen media strategy requires a provider to handle mobile, PC and smartTV operating systems, 10s of different screen resolutions, many different streaming and security solutions and completely different navigation mechanisms. Today, with a lack of standards in much of the value chain of n-screen delivery, these technical challenges are simply outside of the core competence of many companies.

For content providers with multiple properties it’s even harder. Not only do they have to master the technical challenges, they must also repeat the solutions for each of the channels in their portfolio. Case in point: Fox. The sprawling Fox empire spans a local affiliate network, news, sports, movies and nature programming. Each channel has its own online strategy; each is marshaling a different solution to reach the ever expanding online audience.

This week, however, Fox decided to take a different approach. The company reached a multi-year agreement (rumored to be through 2020) with Comcast to deliver Fox content to Comcast’s 22 million video subscribers. Greg Rigdon, EVP of Content Acquisition at Comcast, commented that:

“This unprecedented TV Everywhere agreement enables us to take advantage of the innovative technologies and platforms we’ve developed to deliver the best content to our customers”

This is very good news for Comcast. In the past, it has been difficult for traditional cable operators to justify to content providers why they should work with them in the online world. This has led companies such as HBO to decide to go it alone online relying on cable companies only to verify a user has a pay TV subscription that includes their content. Comcast’s experience with Xfinity, streampix and X1 clearly has helped it adjust its technical solution to begin to offer content providers like Fox a shorter path to online viewers.

But there are risks in this deal for Fox.

From a revenue perspective, what is not clear at this time is if new online ad spots will be available for the Fox content. For example, Fox may want to replace an ad in a show that is several days old. I noted that in the CBS Superbowl App ads during the broadcast were often different to the TV ads. Clearly, CBS was able to sell these ad spots separately and in addition to the broadcast ads. Will Fox have such a facility with Comcast and if it does will it have to share the revenue with the cable company?

The customer relationship will continue to be owned by Comcast. This means all consumer preference, behavior and affinity data will be controlled by the company. While ad targeting is still in its infancy online, in the future this data will be critical in optimizing ad value in both live and on-demand shows alike. Fox will, to a large extent, be reliant on Comcast for the opportunity to leverage this data.

However, the biggest risk of all is stepping back from the opportunity online, particularly free online. And there are free online alternatives for much of what Fox is offering today. Some of it is pretty rough but you can bet that it will get a lot better, and quickly. Remember how bad cable news, even Fox News, was when it first started? At the time, the broadcast channels didn’t take them seriously either.

The problem is that putting impediments in the way of online consumers, even minor inconveniences like requiring a login, seems to be enough to cause them to move on to sites with less friction. Recent studies by companies like Gfk show that consumers are negatively impacted by authenticated (requiring a login) TV-Everywhere sites and more likely to move on to other frictionless sites. Huffington Post and WSJ video news sites have no login requirement; one click and you’re watching TV.

Fox is not totally reliant on Comcast for its online presence. Far from it. The company releases content through Hulu, each channel has its own website with plenty of video available. The company even has its own mobile app called Fox NOW. Increasingly, however, the company forces a potential viewer to prove they have a pay TV subscription to view the content. Even for the free-to-air Fox channel, to see new episodes of a favorite show requires a pay TV subscription.

Although the deal with Comcast is almost certainly not exclusive, clearly Fox is receiving additional compensation of some sort from the cable company for these additional distribution rights. The problem for Fox is that an awful lot can happen in the web-world between now and 2020. Their ability to react to these changes is compromised by long term agreements such as this.

One thing is certain: Comcast would not be pleased if Fox were to start making content that is part of this deal freely available online without a pay TV subscription. And that may be precisely what the company has to do in order to retain its audience.

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