Unbundling in entertainment doesn't threaten TV revenues

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Today's word is "bundle."

Until recently, a bundle was the essential unit of commerce in the infotainment industries. If you liked music, you had no choice but to buy the bundle of songs known as the CD. Print came bundled in the form of magazines, newspapers and certain categories of books. TV and radio networks were bundles of talk, drama, comedy and music.

Combined with the global distribution mechanism known as the Internet, digital technology is the great unbundler. It tears apart these artificial packages as wantonly as it smashes the mass market. In some cases, information and entertainment companies are trying to harness this phenomenon. Last month, for example, a start-up called iUniverse arranged to sell informational texts published by IDG Books piece by piece over the Web.

For the most part, though, the unbundling activity has been happening in defiance of traditionalists' wishes. The recording industry has been battling Napster, a freely available Web system that allows users to download single tunes from other individuals' home PCs. Their battle would seem to be in vain. The technology is unstoppable. It destroys packages, bundles and networks.

But it need not destroy their value. That, at least, was the message I got from yacking with Jeff Morris, the president and CEO of Yack.com. In fact, companies like Yack, which bills itself as "the Internet program guide," could, paradoxically, be the savior of the bundle.

Before I get to the why, let me explain the who. A mustachioed Alan Dershowitz look-alike, Mr. Morris is one of the pioneers in the field of media multiplatforming. I first met him when he was an exec at Showtime, where his experiments in synchronous TV and Web programming uncovered a substantial viewership playing the zapper and the mouse simultaneously.

The cable network eventually became an aggressive deployer of orchestrated, cross-platform programming, introducing opportunities to let viewers vote on the movies they wanted to see, for example, or chat during boxing matches.

TV (and other media) has no choice but to work across platforms to attract and maintain viewers, Mr. Morris learned at Showtime, because fragmentation and unbundling require networks to extend their brand franchises and deepen their relationships with consumers--concepts previously alien to the TV industry. The situation is only getting worse, and the need stronger. "We guess there are 10,000 to 20,000 pure-play streaming media sites," Mr. Morris told me over a recent repast at Manhattan's Bryant Park Grill. "When you add one-time cybercasts, real-time streaming, archived streaming and conventional media sites, it could be as many as 2 million media opportunities at any one time." Meaning? Networks will have to adapt to a model that disfavors directing audience flow. Huge sampling for the show that follows a "Seinfeld" can no longer be taken for granted.

Yet Mr. Morris disabused me of my belief that networks per se cannot survive the Internet. For every customer lost through unbundling, a new one can be gained. He used my own infatuation with TiVo--the hard drive-based, video recording technology extolled earlier in this space--to set me straight. "In theory," he said, "disaggregation doesn't threaten existing revenue streams. It does put people in control, but that can gain you incremental new usage. Look at TiVo: It can give you a new audience by taking a network's 2 a.m. show and letting you watch it at 10 p.m. If you're an HBO, that helps you justify the monthly subscriber fee. It still allows a show to build and monetize existing revenue streams."

There are three missing links in this equation, of course. The first is programming, the second is branding and the third is a guide.

Unbundling means a bad program cannot ride on the coattails of a good one; secondary content will most surely die a quick death. Consistent good programming, packaged effectively and across platforms, can, however, create for a New Media network the type of real brand that does act as an audience magnet, even in an unbundled environment. TiVo, by way of example, may have made it easier for me to extract selected shows from their discrete dayparts--but it's also made me even more loyal to Turner Classic Movies.

And the guide? It may be the only way through the cacaphony and confusion. "As the TV environment went from 36 channels to 300 channels, the killer app turned out to be the electronic program guide," Jeff Morris told me. "Now that it's up to 2 million venues, Yack becomes the Internet version of that EPG--the one-stop shop where you can find what you want." That makes a bundle of sense to me.

Mr. Rothenberg can be reached at randallf@echonyc.com .

Copyright July 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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