netflix

Netflix’s UK Drama Originals

One of the issues that Netflix has to face is how it can satisfy all its users in every country around the world. If you set up in France, you need to produce local French programming. If you set up in Australia, you need to produce local Australian programming.

To some extent, Netflix has been able to dodge some of this in English-language markets, because a UK audience will happily watch a US-made Netflix Original (NB. What constitutes a Netflix Original is an interesting story in itself). Netflix can get around some of this by licencing lots of BBC, ITV and C4 programming, as well as buying ex-US rights to US network or cable series. But in the end, a drama on Netflix probably has to work in multiple territories. The sums just don’t add up if they have to make substantial commissions in each territory in which they operate.

So more and more, Netflix is commissioning UK originated material. I’m going to explore some of Netflix’s higher-profile drama shows, and see what they really mean and who they’re targeting.

The Crown is probably their biggest success. It’s quite possibly the most expensive drama Netflix makes full stop, on a per hour basis anyway, and if we exclude some of their films. It’s premium quality drama and it wins lots of awards. (An admission: I’ve not got more than an episode and a bit into it. I know, I know. I will get around to it).

Of course, a drama featuring the lives of the Royal Family is going to have international appeal. This is the kind of series, that had the BBC been able to make it, would have shown up on PBS in the US too.

Safe, which was released in May last year, was a very curious piece indeed. Theoretically, it’s a British crime thriller, but everything about it was wrong. The series was created by Harlan Corben, an American crime writer. It starred Michael C Hall (of Dexter fame) playing a British paediatrician whose daughter goes missing within their gated community.

So a series created by an American (although written by the very British Danny Brocklehurst), featuring an American lead actor who has a very mannered, yet nondescript British accent, and set within the type of community that’s actually fairly rare in Britain (I’m not saying that there aren’t such places, but they tend to be more frequent in the US).

Throw in a French teacher played by Audrey Fleurot (or Engrenages/Spiral fame), and you get the distinct impression that several boxes had to be ticked to get this series green-lit. American audiences will watch for Hall; French audiences will watch for Fleurot; British audiences will watch for everything else.

The series even avoided mentioning any locations, by not really giving anyone any regional accents, and talking about going to “the city” rather than anywhere too specific. I really hope that this wasn’t because international viewers might get confused by anywhere in the UK that’s not London.

I confess that I bailed on this before the end.

The Innocents appeared midway through last year – and seemed to be aimed at teenagers. I didn’t watch most of this either, although I note that while the cast was mostly of unknowns, there’s also Guy Pearce in there.

It’s a strange supernatural tale that seems to be partly set in Britain, and partly in Norway. There are some accents, although the story is such that what producers were really going for was a sense of alienation and other-worldliness.

Which brings us to Netflix’s most recent UK original, Sex Education, starring Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson. It’s hard to know where to begin with this frankly bizarre series.

Butterfield plays Otis, the teenage son of Jean (Anderson), and best friend of Eric. They are outsiders at their local school, which is kind of understandable, because it seems to exist in some kind of strange time warp. Although the series is very much contemporary – smartphones and mentions of Ed Sheeran – everyone dresses up like they’ve walked out of a John Hughes movie from the eighties, and the soundtrack is stuffed full of the kind of music you might of heard on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack. Everyone seems to drive vintage cars, and Otis and Eric ride to school on old racing bikes.

The school itself is a curious American-style High School, with “jocks” wearing jackets and it having a swimming team – or should that be “swim team”?

And everyone is obsessed with sex. If you thought The Inbetweeners had a one tracked mind, you haven’t seen this lot. It must be something in the water.

As it happens, Otis’s mother is a sex therapist, and the premise of the series is that Otis will use what knowledge he’s gained from his mother to help his classmates out with sex-advice for their various issues.

If you think that’s a deranged premise – that anyone at school, learning about their own sexuality, would pay heed to a classmate in such matters – then you’d be right. But like everything else in this series, you have to go with it.

The series is theoretically set in a Welsh valley, although nobody actually seems to speak in a Welsh accent. Instead there’s a general you-could-be-anywhere feel to the series, even though the valley were they shot this series is fabulous looking.

Now part of all of this is clearly a kind of stylistic device. We’ve seen similar kinds of things in other series like Legion and Maniac with retro-contemporary settings. But you also wonder whether Netflix is consciously trying to make something that doesn’t completely alienate a US audience.

I do worry that so many of Netflix’s UK originals seem to have any sense of localness surgically removed from them. I’m not saying that they should only be making dramas that would give Jimmy McGovern a good run for their money in their depictions of troubled inner-cities, but providing at least some sense of place would be nice.

Last week the BBC opened a consultation on being able to keep programming on iPlayer for longer than 30 days. They note that audiences – especially younger audiences – expect to be able to watch full series as they do on Netflix.

The concern for all British broadcasters must be that Netflix dominates in due course. But their idea of a British drama is very different to current broadcasters views of drama. A British series shouldn’t just be an American series with different accents and cars on the other side of the road.

Is Bandersnatch the Future of Television?

No.

No, it’s not.

Bandersnatch is the recently released episode of Black Mirror from Charlie Brooker available on Netflix. It takes the form of a choose your own adventure book/game and I loved it!

In many respects, this episode ticked just about every box for me. It was set in the eighties, in and around writing games for the ZX Spectrum. I bought my ZX Spectrum in 1982 (I still have it), and WH Smith did look like that – on the outside anyway. The one in Bandersnatch looked more like a record store on the inside, whereas records were just one thing you could get in a WH Smith.

I also read and played lots of the choose your own adventure books written initially by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. I remember trawling around London bookshops desperately searching for a copy of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain when it too was published in 1982. I seem to remember finding it in the Puffin Bookshop in Covent Garden.

I read magazines like Your Sinclair, Popular Computing Weekly and Crash. I bought games from WH Smith, Boots, or mostly frequently, a stall on my local market. We copied games with our tape to tape players, and I failed to learn assembly language from Machine Code for the Absolute Beginner.

I bought The Quill and wrote my own adventure games – including having one broadcast on LBC on a show that I have subsequently learned included Ed Miliband as a contributor!

I digress…

Bandersnatch was great. It cleverly incorporated the choose your own adventure nature of following paths into the actual fabric of the story. In other words, it’s quite a meta experience.

The real issue with choose your own adventure stories is that if you’re not careful, quite a lot of material will be thrown away and perhaps never experienced at all. When the books came out, the theory was that kids would play them repeatedly, and go through all the various endings and options. But short of being incredibly methodical and mapping out the various “paths” it’s hard to do.

An author probably hopes that most of their words get read, but when authoring a choose your own adventure book, they probably have to accept that not everything will be read. But even then, there are tricks to keep people on the main narrative. Sometimes there are just side-paths that in due course get you back into the main storyline. What you don’t want to do is have a binary choice fairly close to the start of a story and then tell two widely divergent stories whose paths never again cross: “Do you go to the city, or go to the seaside?”

That’s even truer in television, where every minute costs more money. How long should a TV choose your own adventure last? 45-60 minutes? But if you have to shoot 120 minutes of material, that effectively doubles the cost.

Bandersnatch avoids a certain degree of that wastage by taking the viewer back through some of the different choices they could have made. While I don’t believe I’ve seen every ending, I think I’ve seen most of them – and that was all in one sitting.

But in the case of Bandersnatch that sort of made sense. The structure of story worked to allow you to experience multiple options without feeling that you’ve repeated a lot of what you’ve seen (You’re not made to sit through the same 10 minute sequences on a repeated basis).

I don’t see choose your own TV programmes being a big thing because of reasons of cost and the fact that many stories don’t lend themselves to it. And nor do I really see Netflix taking great learnings from this kind of technology as a writer on The Verge suggests.

Choose your own books are much more economically viable, and yet no major novelist has, as far as I’m aware, written such a title. There are one-offs here and there, but it’s not a thing.

That all said, I loved Bandersnatch, and need to catch up with some of the Black Mirror episodes that I’ve not yet watched.

The Dark Ages of Film History?

I was recently talking to a some colleagues at work about one of my favourite films of all time, the classic Howard Hawks screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby.

Made in 1938, it stars two of Hollywood’s biggest ever stars, Kathryn Hepburn and Cary Grant, both giving terrific performances in a classic of the genre.

How can we see this film I was asked by my colleagues? 

Both of them have Netflix and Amazon, and one has Now TV from Sky. Needless to say that Bringing Up Baby is on none of these platforms. It’s not available to buy in the UK iTunes Store, it’s not on the Google Play Store, and nor is it available to buy from Amazon’s streaming platform.

There is a DVD available on Amazon, but the price  has been fluctuating wildly. When I looked for it at the time of my conversation it was £26.89, and according to Camelcamelcamel has been retailing for as much as £30! It has now dropped back to £11.99.

That’s for a third party “Fufilled by Amazon” copy.

There are cheaper non-UK copies of the film on DVD, but they’re mostly NTSC, and are sometimes region-locked. That’s assuming that either of my colleagues still have a DVD player at all.

Bringing Up Baby is listed by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time. But you essentially it’s incredibly hard to get a legal copy of it in the UK in 2018.

That hasn’t always been the case. That disc that’s being sold for nearly £27 was released by Universal Home Video in the UK in 2007, and for many years it sold for between £2 and £5. Judging from the chart at CamelCamelCamel, sometime around late 2014, the title went out of print at Universal and over time the dwindling remaining stock in circulation saw its price rise.

But in recent years, DVD sales have fallen off a cliff, and there are fewer and fewer retail outlets selling physical discs. Aside from Amazon, there are just HMV and Fopp left on the High Street – both with many fewer stores than in years gone by. Big releases still sell decent quantities via supermarkets. But with the exception of specialist mail order sites and labels, that’s about it. 

The answer should be that all these titles have moved to digital. And with the bigger budget blockbusters, that’s been the case. But significant chunks of the archive have not been uploaded.

They’ve not been leased to the streaming giants like Netflix or Amazon Prime, and nor have they been made available to buy from the Google Play Store or Apple iTunes Store.

It’s as though we’ve entered a “dark ages” period, where unless the title was made recently, it’s lost to us and is no longer available. It feels as though there are fewer titles available to watch than DVD and Blu Rays sales peak in 2007/8.

The chart above, based on data from a Netflix scraping website, shows you the number of films, by release year that Netflix UK offers subscribers. Obviously this data will change daily, but at the time of writing, of the 3,522 films with release dates (all bar one film), 73% were made 2010 onwards.

This second chart summarises this by decade. 

To be specific, there is one film from the 1920s on Netflix – Cecil B DeMille’s first version of The Ten Commandments. 

There are zero films from the 1930s, and the 17 films from the 1940s are nearly all war films, I believe mostly to accompany a 2017 three part WWII documentary from Steven Spielberg, Five Came Back. You won’t find any Oscar Best Picture winners from this period on Netflix.

There are fewer films from the 1950s than the 1940s – just 13. But they’re all minor titles with only Some Like It Hot and Touch of Evil being especially notable.

From there, things slowly improve, with more classics finding their way into the catalogue. But it’s a lean selection.

(I should again emphasise that I’m critiquing the UK selection. US reader may well have a deeper and better stocked catalogue.)

While as a Netflix subscriber, I can and will moan about the selection, they’ve never set themselves up as a classic movie service. And to an ever greater extent, they’re moving towards owning more of their own properties and relying less on renting catalogue material from studios. So I expect that the paltry fare currently offered will actually further diminish over time.

Now it’s true – there is the BFI Player. And while researching this piece, I came across FilmStruck which notably has access to the Criterion Collection (although the latter’s UK catalogue is vastly smaller than its US cousin). But today we learnt that Warner Media is shutting down FilmStruck. Whether on its own it was uneconomical, or whether this is more a move by TimeWarner ahead of it building a more singular streaming vision led by HBO; we don’t yet know.

Both the BFI Player and FilmStruck are/was rental offerings. And from the abrupt closure of FilmStruck, we can see the issue. A corporate change of direction and suddenly there’s no place in the market for classic films.

Also streaming services invariably don’t have the range or consistency of offerings. A film that there this month is gone next month. If I want to see The Maltese Falcon, I’m going to have search a lot of different services to see who has it available – if anyone.

Another operator who specialises in quality classic films, MUBI, goes out of its way to minimise choice to a rolling list of 30 films that sees one title added and one removed every day. Intelligent cinema, yes, but an incredibly limited choice. If I’ve got something in mind to see, these aren’t necessarily the places I’d go.

Films are less of an overall offering of the bigger free-to-air channels – BBC2 is more likely to be showing repeats of Bargain Hunt than an old black and white film. And while we have got the welcome addition of Talking Pictures TV, the quality of the prints they show can vary (Seriously! Get the Criterion Collection Blu Ray of His Girl Friday, or the Columbia Classics DVD. Don’t watch the “public domain” copy that Talking Pictures TV uses, or that can be found on Amazon), and they have a relatively low bit-rate for broadcasting which doesn’t help either.

Other channels tend to keep the same popular fare repeated on hard rotation. You’ll know when you hit ITV4 if you go channel surfing at 9pm.

The problem is that the retail model made sense for a lot of studios. Over the years, they dug deeper into their libraries and they released just about anything they thought they could sell. Costs were relatively contained, and even manufacture and storage costs were lowered as just-in-time manufacture of discs became more achievable. The Warner Archive Collection is a great example of this.

In theory, that should have followed through to the digital sales stores of iTunes, Amazon and Google. If you’ve gone to the ‘trouble’ of digitising a film you own the rights to, why wouldn’t you just upload copies to iTunes, Amazon, Google Play Movies and others? Set a price and watch those sales trickle in. 

Sure, nobody’s going to get rich overnight, but you’re working your assets, and fulfilling demand.

Yet for some reason, it doesn’t seem to have been worthwhile for studios to do any of this. It’s hard to understand. Unlike physical products, there’s no warehousing cost, or indeed physical manufacture of any sort. You take a digital asset, upload it to the sites and even if the film only earns a few dollars a year, that’s money that would be left on the table otherwise. But there are a vast range of films, including some relatively recent titles, that simply haven’t been uploaded to these services.

The trouble is that in the meantime, consumers have moved increasingly towards subscription models for all their entertainment. They rent their music, and they rent their TV and movies. And there isn’t necessarily room for all that many competing services. There is ‘subscription fatigue’ when you realise just how many things you’re subscribed to.

The real difference between the movie/TV model and music is that Spotify and Apple Music make all the music available (or nearly all, anyway). Now that just about all the biggest holdouts have given in, you don’t tend to see albums or artists drift in and out of the service the way movies do on Netflix. I know that I’ll be able to hear The Beatles on Spotify today, tomorrow and next year (probably).

What I don’t know is where I can watch Inception, or Star Wars, or Psycho, or Gone with the Wind, or Bringing Up Baby on any given day. Are they on Netflix or Amazon? Maybe. Maybe not.

For at least one of those films, I know it’s not on any of the services.

And that’s surely a problem. I shouldn’t have to wait until the BFI runs another screwball season to watch a film I want to see.

Marketing TV

If you’re a TV channel and you’ve got a new show you want to tell people about, it should be relatively simple. You make a trailer or two for it, and then you run that trailer around programmes that the audience for the new show are already watching.

You might want to be a bit cleverer than that, perhaps pulling in viewers of less obviously related programmes. Indeed if you’re really clever you might make different trailers to target different audiences.

But for the most part, TV companies use their own channels, which makes a great deal of sense. Or perhaps did. Because as the audience becomes ever more dis-aggregated, it’s getting harder to reach potential audiences. Viewers are spread far and wide, and you can’t be certain that you’ll reach a large potential audience just using your own channels.

It’s instructive that if you visit a big US city like New York, you’ll see advertising for movies and television shows everywhere. When I visited in April, even the city’s bike hire docking stations had advertising for Showtime’s Billions.

TFL Have Missed a Trick

Yes, Times Square has historically been full of movie and TV billboards, mostly elaborate digital screens, but it was interesting to see just how many Netflix and Amazon shows were being promoted. Beyond those, you have bus sides, taxis, and subway carriages. Traditional media. Ads were everywhere.

Times Square Ads

Tourists

Americans

Bosch

Compare and contrast with the UK, where advertising budgets seem more modest. Yes, BBC One advertised Troy reasonably heavily on posters, and indeed their current World Cup coverage (I’m not at all certain that the latter is the best use of marketing spend incidentally). Sky has put significant budgets behind Bulletproof and Patrick Melrose in recent weeks. And ITV and Channel do occasional campaigns for bigger shows. But there’s not the same consistent spend as you’ll see in the US.

Yet even those US spending levels aren’t enough.

A really good piece in The Information explains that although Netflix is upping its spend on marketing alone to $2bn, that’s not always enough to gain cut-through.

The story cites a Netflix show called Disjointed, that they promoted via a pop-up weed store in Los Angeles costing $20,000. I would point out two things from that. Yes, it will have created some local buzz (pardon the pun), but that doesn’t particularly do anything much for viewers outside of the Los Angeles area. Secondly, the marketing had zero impact outside the US. I like to think I pay reasonably close attention to the television landscape, and have never heard of this show, even though it had a big star in Kathy Bates! That $20,000 might have been better spent on regular advertising.

It’s also worth noting that the story compares Netflix’s $2bn spend with CBS’s $246m. The difference, though, is that the former is spending across the globe, while the latter is mostly spent in the US.

Netflix today has dozens of original films and series that I simply know nothing about. Unless I’m willing to watch a trailer to learn what a title I’ve never heard of is about, then they are heavily reliant on traditional routes to media. That could be sending stars onto the promo circuit, or just word of mouth. But as the volume of production intensifies, things are much more likely to get lost.

Even a couple of years ago, a die hard Netflix viewer would probably have been able to name most of their big dramas. Today, I no longer think that’s possible – assuming you’re not an industry exec with a professional interest.

“The most common complaint I hear from fellow Netflix showrunners is that they would make a great show, and no one would know that it was on,” said a creator whose show is currently being produced by Netflix.

I don’t know what the answer to Netflix’s problem is, with their vast number of productions, from all over the world, fighting to break through. But I do think some British networks need to probably invest more in off-network promotion.

Netflix, Independent Cinema, and Hollywood’s New Business Model

The other day The Ringer published a piece about Netflix and their original movie strategy. The piece, entitled Netflix and Shrill listed the original movies that Netflix has already released in 2018 and challenged readers to see how many they recognised. For most people, the most familiar title will have been The Cloverfield Paradox. This was an $XXm space horror film that became part of the Cloverfield franchise. However the studio that made it, Paramount, got cold feet and decided to sell the thing to Netflix lock, stock and barrel. They promptly gave it a surprise release right after the Super Bowl, during which of course, they promoted it.

But what about the rest of the titles in Sean Fennessey’s piece? Well only three others on the list actually resonate with me at all – Mute, Kodachrome and Mercury 13. The former because it’s a Duncan Jones film, and the latter two because I just added both to my Netflix List.

Netflix gets films in a few different ways. It sometimes licences big name studio films either directly from the studios or via third party rights packages. That’s the way most of those familiar titles end up on the service. However, those titles are probably only licenced for a specific period of time. That’s why you get lists of movies that are coming off the service.

Then there are those it acquires at film festivals. The model for smaller independent titles has often been to scrap together funding from wherever, then pitch up somewhere like the Sundance Festival and try to get a distributor to take on the picture, getting it into theatres and, importantly, marketing it. The latter is expensive, and it’s the reason why titles sometimes end up unseen even though funding had been found to actually make them. Netflix’s preferred model is to buy the global rights and buy out the film in perpetuity. But sometimes that’s not possible because different territory’s rights may have been given up as part of the funding model. Furthermore residual rights for home release like Blu Ray or iTunes may reside with someone else.

Finally, there are Netlfix original productions – those that are put together on paper and then shot specifically for Netflix. These are labelled “Netflix Originals,” although confusingly, so are those acquired at places like Sundance. When Netflix owns the film in totality, they get to release it globally and own it in perpetuity on every platform. They control whether you can ever even see the film somewhere like iTunes.

What all this means is that the list at the top of The Ringer article only completely applies to the US. That said, when I checked, all but one of the films was also available in the UK.

I recently read a really good new book called The Big Picture by Wall Steet Journal reporter Ben Fritz, who has long covered the entertainment beat. The book goes through deep into the current Hollywood business model, because it has changed fundamentally inside the last ten years. You only have to look at the table in The Ringer piece.

Fennessey notes that the six major Hollywood studios have released a total of 25 films in the first 16 weeks of 2018. During that same period, Netflix has also released 25 films!

But there’s a reason for that. Hollywood has just dropped out of the middle market – those $30-$80m or more production films that weren’t based on franchises, relying instead on audiences turning out to see stars. They included thrillers, romantic comedies and more serious fare. Fritz’s book takes a really good look at the model that yet used to hold up Hollywood, because some of those titles in the past might have lost money, but others would have made decent cash.

However in the scheme of things, Hollywood was only make 10% and now for a studio like Disney it’s closer to 30%. That’s because they don’t these days make films that aren’t based on franchises or other known intellectual property.

Most famously Disney has Marvel. But they’ve also got Star Wars, their own animated back catalogue now being remade in live action, Pixar (who are perhaps the only real originators of new stories at the moment, even if they themselves are relying more than ever on franchises. Did we really need another Toy Story, or did the trilogy end perfectly before?), and coming soon Indiana Jones.

Fritz’s book looks closely at the travails of Sony. In part because they were the studio that were considered the most talent friendly in the past. Amy Pascal who led the studio had great rapport with the talent and was as a result Sony was home to lots of those kinds of mid-budget films, while only really having Spiderman as a top tier franchise.

The other reason the books uses Sony as a case study is because of the massive email hack. All those communications ended up online and viewable to all. These caused Sony enormous damage at the time, not least when studio heads bad-mouthed people in some of those emails. But Fritz uses them to illustrate some of the inside thinking at Sony as they realised that they desperately needed franchises, and at the same time were struggling with their most valuable asset in Spiderman. As long as they kept making new Spiderman movies on a semi-regular basis, Marvel wasn’t able to grab back arguably their biggest property.

This is all important in light of The Ringer piece because it explains why the number of studio releases this year equals the number released by Netflix. If it wasn’t for Netflix, it’s not clear how those movies would get released at all!

I’m not saying that some of them wouldn’t make it to our screens. In the US, Alex Garland’s highly regarded recent release, Annihilation, based on the Jeff Vandermeer novel, got a theatrical release. But the studio who made it – Paramount again – got slightly cold feet and sold the rights for the rest of the world to Netflix. So a film that was visually spectacular ended up going no a screen no bigger than our televisions, and no doubt for many people, no bigger than their phones. However, that’s another discussion for another day.

Had Netflix not existed, then yes, I suspect some kind of theatrical release would have happened for Annihilation – certainly in the UK. But I can’t see studios like Paramount continuing with this kind of strategy for long. Nor can I see Netflix wandering around picking up and endless succession of studio releases that the studios have suddenly got concerned about. While Annihilation is excellent, the same can’t be said of The Cloverfield Paradox which is decidedly the weakest in the somewhat contrived franchise.

The risk is that Netflix is perceived as the dumping ground for movies that have tested badly with the distributors. Of course Paramount and their ilk manage to avoid having a flop on their hands, and come out cash neutral, or perhaps with a small upside.

Meanwhile, I completely understand that filmmakers must be frustrated. They made these films to be shown on the big screen – that’s how they’re conceived and shot. You frame things differently for television. On the other hand, it has long been the case that far larger audiences will see films on television than will the big screen.

More and more, then, it’s going to continue to be Netflix and Amazon that become the homes of these medium and smaller films. What they perhaps struggle to do is sufficiently market those films.

A lot is made of Netflix’s algorithms that surface films that viewers will want to see with incredible accuracy. I don’t agree. I’ve long felt that Netflix (and Amazon) are woefully bad at surfacing their own titles. They think they know me, but they really don’t.

When Netflix emails me to alert me to a new Adam Sandler release, Netflix being the exclusive home of new Sandler releases these days (Fritz’s book details this deal), then Netflix has failed to grasp even the most basic understanding of my interests. Of course they only know what they know. They don’t know that I enjoy Westworld on Sky Atlantic; The City and the City and Howard’s End on the BBC; Endeavour on ITV. They don’t know that I saw nearly all the Oscar Best Picture shortlist at the cinema this year.

Furthermore, when big releases like Annihilation or that recent flawed Duncan Jones title, Mute are released, I have to really go searching to find them. Did either Kodachrome or Mercury 13 show up on the Netflix home page? No – I had to do a search.

Now these are titles that I’m actively aware of. What about others that I suspect I’d like if they were marketed properly? Well those are the titles that are disappearing into the depth of the platform.

It still seems remarkable to me that neither Netflix nor Amazon are able to replicate what a good physical store is able to do in showing me new titles. If I visit a branch of Fopp (about the only significant retailer of physical discs in the UK right now), I might browse at a display of films from the Criterion Collection, the BFI or Second Sight. In some instances, I simply won’t have heard of some of the titles, but I’ll still pick up discs and browse at them. I may actually buy them. The same is true in a good bookshop where as well as the latest bestsellers, the bookseller has perhaps contrived to display some thematically interesting books together on a table somewhere.

A properly released mid- budget or indie film will have press ads, posters, bus sides, and importantly, reviews. The latter is an area that Netflix and others need to work hard at. Most of the broadsheets have full time film reviewers, but in the main they don’t review streaming titles very well. The release medium seems to dictate what gets reviewed. In the past studios would “game” this. A release that was really “direct to DVD” would get a brief cinema release over a weekend just so they got notability before you spotted the title in the DVD aisle of Sainsburys the following week.

Somehow a movie poster can tell me more about a film than a small box with barely even a one line description of the title. Netflix has some incredible algorithms to test multiple images to find just the right one to appeal to me. Am I a fan of a particular actor? Then I see that actor in the image on the platform. You see something different to illustrate the same title. But beyond that, they need to work harder. Choosing to start a stream is a much more proactive choice than flicking through the channels on a remote control before settling on something.

So that’s the real reason why those movies have disappeared without me aware of them. That said, if you gave me a list of everything released at the cinema in the first few months of this, many of them too would be unfamiliar. There are a lot of films craving for attention, and only so much attention that they can be given.

I’m not going to criticise Netflix for their release strategy – but they do need to work harder on marketing of titles. Otherwise, yes, it can feel as though these films didn’t exist at all. An unfamiliar movie title in a long list remains just that. A consumer gets more excited when they seen a known property than an unknown one.

The Ringer piece notes forthcoming films from Paul Greengrass and Alfonso Cuarón, both of which I’m excited to see. Netflix will also be bringing Andrew Niccol’s new SF film, Anon (It’ll air on Sky Cinema in the UK). I’m always keen to see a new film from the man who brought us Gattaca. As long as Netflix does enough to raise the profile of these films rather them just at best appearing as a meaningless title that tells us nothing, then I’m excited for their future.

The studios, however, I’m more worried about. Their strategy of shifting to fewer and bigger films runs all kinds of risks in the longer term. The words ‘eggs’ and ‘baskets’ spring to mind.

Marvel may be unassailable at the moment, but it only takes one or two duff movies, and that success can begin to slip. In his book Fritz notes that the reduced number of releases affords movie executives more time to spend on the titles that they are releasing. They can give them the time that they need, delaying releases if necessary. That’s great in theory, but even Marvel films have dates to meet, particularly if the outcome of one film leads into the next Avengers title or whatever.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is, as he says, the world’s highest budget TV series. Audiences go and see the new Marvel films regardless of the hero, a bit like watching your favourite TV shows week in and week out. Marvel tries to structure the films a little like a TV a procedural. You can basically watch each as a standalone, but of course there’s a larger story arc underlying the series. But as we know, even the biggest TV series juggernaut, eventually falls from grace eventually.

And will audiences continue to actually go to cinemas? They’re fighting the battle by laying on bigger and better seats that can sometimes be more akin to a business class seat on a long distance flight. They’re offering in-chair food and drinks service, and we’re seeing new formats like IMAX 3D and 4DX. Yet cinema ticket prices continue to rise ahead of inflation, and they become ever more hostile environments when they don’t ensure that patrons keep their phones switched off for example.

Disney’s answer to this potential uncertainty is to get skin into the streaming game as well. With its Disney Life app in the UK, and the forthcoming bigger offering that is coming in the US, they get to do their version of Netflix. Star Wars and Disney titles will soon disappear from Netflix as a previous deal expires. Don’t expect to see further expansions of the Netflix Marvel TV series featuring the likes of Jessica Jones and Daredevil, although I suspect the existing titles will continue, with the former having just been renewed for a third season.

Disney is claiming back its catalogue, and will no doubt look towards making its own Marvel TV series, and almost certainly, a live action Star Wars universe series. Who would bet against a reboot of the Young Indy series in the future too?

Will audiences get bored of superheroes? Are there enough franchises out there? How often can the same series be “rebooted”?

Who knows. But Hollywood is betting big time on them not running out any time soon.

Is Netflix Quite As Smart As Everyone Says It Is?

That’s possibly a provocative title, but I’ve come to the conclusions that while Netflix is very good at some things, I’m not certain that its recommendation engine is entirely as linked up as you’d think it’d be.

A couple of recent cases in point.

I was really looking forward to the new Alex Garland film, Annihilation. While I was slightly disappointed it wasn’t getting a cinema release, I was very pleased that Netflix was investing in it (well, buying the rights), and making it available to its subscribers. I dutifully searched for it ahead of its 12 March release, and added it to “My List,” Netflix’s somewhat clunky system for saving things you want to watch.*

Although I believe the film was made available at midnight UK time, but I waited until Monday evening to open the Netflix app on my Nvidia Shield and settle back to watch. I thought that they’d probably have the film front and centre when I opened the app. After all, it was a big coup them getting it. Plus I’d explicitly added it to my list.

There was no sign of it. It wasn’t in trending (too early I guess), or in any of the top lists of things I might want to watch. I ended up using Search to find it. It was – but hidden.

Then over this past weekend, while I was out and about, I got some Instagram advertising for a film called Paradox with Darryl Hannah and Willie Nelson. I’d not heard of it, but clicked through and saw video for some kind of western themed film. “I might watch that,” I thought – vaguely intrigued. Netflix are obviously promoting it, I’d catch up with it at some point.

Later, with that thought having drifted out of my head, I did open Netflix again in search of something to watch. Had I spotted Paradox, I’d have at least given it a second look.

But it wasn’t there. Or more to the point, it wasn’t obviously visible. In any case, because a film I’d seen promoted precisely once, was no longer in my view, I didn’t search for it. I only remembered this at all because I saw a second Instagram ad for it earlier today.

But again, it feels like Netflix is being a bit slow and doesn’t have all its ducks lined up. It’s not that I don’t think they can do some clever stuff, but they’re not as good as they make out.

Have you heard of a Danish comedy drama called Rita? Maybe if you’re Danish, but otherwise, you might not have. Netflix never recommended it to me. It was someone on Twitter who noticed it. It’s very amusing.

I started watching a Spanish series called La Casa de Papel. It’s a series about a gang of thieves who try to rob the Spanish Mint. It starts well, but like another Spanish series I saw on BBC Four last year, the strong hook doesn’t last the course, and we end up with an interminable number of episodes where not a lot happens, and the villain is really villainous. More plot and fewer episodes please Spain. I mention this because after I’d watched a few episodes on Netflix, the series promptly changed its name. It’s now called “Money Heist,” although it wouldn’t be obvious to those like me who’d started watching it under another name entirely. I had no idea what Netflix had done!

I’m always suspicious of over-claims about how briliant someone’s algorithms for discovery are – mainly because I’ve yet to experience anything that’s really that good. Amazon is pretty bad at recommending me books I didn’t tell it about, and music recommendation engines are pretty poor in my experience – especially if you move beyond the obvious.

Maybe they work for some, but I’m underwhelmed.

* I say it’s clunky, because it’s incredibly binary, and doesn’t allow you to make lists for different things. Furthermore, when you watch something that was on the list, it doesn’t then remove that item from your list. I’m also not aware that Netflix alerts you when something that’s on your list is shortly to be removed. Another useful feature.

Netflix: $8 Billion and 700 NEW Shows?

How much programming is Netflix actually making?

The answer is a lot, but I think that the widely reported numbers are a little misleading.

Heavily retweeted earlier today was this:

I’m not trying to pick on one person; these are figures that have been reported elsewhere.

Most pieces reference a Variety story: Netflix Eyeing Total of About 700 Original Series in 2018. But you’ll note that the Variety headline includes the word “total” in it.

The key section of Variety’s report is this:

The “700-range” figure [Netflix CFO, David Wells] cited includes 80 non-English-language original productions from outside the U.S., such as psychological thriller “Dark” from Germany and “Club de Cuervos” from Mexico. The total encompasses both new and existing original series (such as “Orange Is the New Black” and “Narcos”). [My emphasis]

In other words, this is a cumulative figure and represents the total number of original series on the platform.

It does not mean an additional 700 originals!

The Variety report is based on an investment call that Netflix had, and as is the way with these things, the transcript of the call is available online.

Here’s the relevant section:

Unidentified Analyst
Right. So moving from maybe the big-picture stuff to more into here now. What are your priorities for 2018? Where are you focused and where is the team focused in making sure the company executes this year?

David B. Wells – Netflix, Inc. – CFO & Principal Accounting Officer
Well, I think — a lot of what you hear many of us say is internal execution, right? So we think we have a large market. We just talked about there’s so many more nonmembers than there are members, and so our focus is really to continue to improve the product that we have. We’ll be adding increasingly more and more of our originals in our global content. This year, we’ll have 80 originals in the global category, meaning these are non-English language original produced content things, like Club de Cuervos, Dark — O Mecanismo is a new one coming from Brazil. And so the — our muscle in that area is increasingly being built and exercised, and I’m excited about lots of great stories coming from different parts of the world. And again, people seem to love high production quality and a good story. It doesn’t really matter where it comes from. So I think our focus is building out our production muscle, building out our global production muscle, increasing our product in various parts of the world. We’re the newest in Asia. So I’d say it’s continuing to sort of localize pieces in Asia, continue to improve the product there. But we also have an eye towards not losing our leadership position in other parts of the world as well. So it’s not like we’re not also improving the Americas.

Unidentified Analyst
You mentioned 80 global originals. That’s TV series, so that’s distinct from your film strategy?

David B. Wells – Netflix, Inc. – CFO & Principal Accounting Officer
Yes. That’s distinct to film, and it’s even distinct from television series that you might describe as sort of global, like Orange Is the New Black or Narcos. These are things that are produced in a non-English language market. So I just want to make that distinction. So there’s even more than 80 that are sort of for the global market. If you think about the total number, it might be somewhere in the 700 range.

That makes clear that there are 80 original “global” originals – non-English language originals. And there are 700 in total. They obviously measure movies differently, and categorise them separately, but then they are still both commissioning original movies and also buying them outright after festivals such as Sundance, beyond the regular licencing of movies from studios. Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer has previously said that they will release 80 original movies in 2018.

But how do you even determine what is a Netflix original? It’s not that simple.

Stranger Things or Narcos are relatively simple. They’re 100% Netflix. But for others it’s less clear. For example, in the US, the science fiction series The Expanse appears on SyFy, but it counts as a Netflix original in much of the rest of the world. Star Trek: Discovery appears in the US on the CBS All Access streaming platform. Everywhere else it’s a Netflix Original. Troy: Fall of a City is currently airing on BBC One and was co-commissioned by both the BBC and Netflix where it’ll appear globally.

Even seemingly homegrown series like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, aren’t strictly Netflix exclusive. Orange is the New Black is currently airing on the Sony Crime channel in the UK, having done a deal with Lionsgate the producers. In France House of Cards originally aired on Canal+ since there was no Netflix in France and the producer, MRC, was able to sell it to them. On more recent 100% Netflix commissions, it has reportedly tightened contracts to prevent that programming appearing elsewhere – unless they choose to allow it.

In any event, a Mashable report makes clear that this 700 number includes some of these co-commissioned series:

A Netflix representative told Mashable that this content budget includes properties we already know and love like Stranger Things, as well as licensing content from partners like AMC’s The Walking Dead.

Note that The Walking Dead is not available on, for example, UK Netflix, because Fox International has the rights and they distribute it on Sky’s platform in boxsets.

It should also be pointed out that “originals” can include one-offs as well as series or seasons of shows. Think about all the stand-up comedy specials that Netflix is commissioning.

So to summarise, there will be 700 originals in total at the end of 2018, which includes new commissions, previous commissions and co-commissions.

Netflix is definitely spending a lot, although it’s in the ballpark of what other large media companies also spend each year. But it’s not launching new series at the rate of two a day!

They’re also losing money – negative free cash flow in the parlance. I’m not arguing that there isn’t an underlying business model that makes sense, but it’s worth noting all the same. The theory is that as they build up their library of originals, they don’t have to licence as much third party material (See also the recent news that Disney won’t renew their Netflix deal and will shift their output to their own new streaming platform).

Netflix faces the issue of needing to have relevant programming in multiple local territories, and while there’s value in older series, viewers will continue to seek new programming. Netflix will have complex calculations about how much it needs to spend on new programming versus catalogue versus subscriber growth versus how much it licences. It’s a complex grid.

On Sky Q, Netflix and BARB

Note: This is a subject likely to be of even more niche interest than many of my other blogs here. You have been warned!

Yesterday Sky announced that it had reached agreement with Netflix to add Netflix to their Sky Q platform. What this means is that Netflix programmes will appear within the wider Sky Q ecosystem. It means that individual programmes will be promoted without necessarily having to dive into a Netflix “app” as you would on many TV platforms.

On Twitter this raised a few questions: Sky’s on BARB, so might we see ratings for Netflix in due course? Does this mean that Sky will know what their customers are watching on Netflix?

The first thing to say is that this Sky deal isn’t unique. On Amazon’s Fire TV platform, for example, individual Netflix programmes are recommended alongside Amazon’s own shows. You can dive straight into an episode of Stranger Things if you want to (and have obviously previously logged into your Netflix account). And that probably means that Amazon has some idea of what programmes their customers are watching.

I’ve no doubt that the carriage agreement between Netflix and Amazon stipulates that data can’t be shared, since as we all know, Netflix doesn’t publish ratings figures. But Amazon probably has some view on that. Of course, it’s only a partial view since there are a multiplicity of ways to get Netflix on your TV, from built in Smart TV apps, to games consoles, Chromecast, Apple TV and many others. But you know, if you have a big enough sample… I’ll return to samples later.

It’s worth noting that a multiplicity of companies potentially have some kind of awareness of how Netflix is performing. Netflix has a complex Content Delivery Network (CDN) globally to ensure that you get what you want when you want it and where you want it. More importantly, some larger Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are part of Netflix’s Open Connect network. In other words, the ISPs cache Netflix’s programming locally on their own data servers, speeding up delivery time to viewers, but also saving the ISPs money in terms of connectivity with the wider internet. Both the CDNs and ISPs have the potential to understand in great detail what is being consumed (albeit there may be encryption and obfuscation to limit or prevent this).

One thing that Netflix being on Sky doesn’t mean is that there will be BARB data. Recall that Netflix is already on other TV platforms such as Virgin Media. It’s also worth noting that even if all parties wanted to, BARB isn’t really set-up to provide meaningful data at this granularity, and that’s to do with sample sizes.

There are about 26m TV households in the UK, each of which has one or more people. BARB is the UK TV ratings organisation and it recruits a panel of households that provide detailed viewer data which is used to determine overall ratings. There are roughly 5,100 BARB households, with each BARB household representing around 5,000 other households.

That’s a decent sample; it’s large enough to provide robust data on programmes across the larger TV networks. (Things do get a bit more complex with smaller channels, and I’m always wary of anyone telling you how few people watched a show on a minority interest channel, since the sample doesn’t really cater for it). BARB has to work across each TV region, since advertising is sold on a regional basis.

But back to samples, and specifically Sky Q. How many Sky Q households are there in the UK?

In late January, Sky’s results for the six months until 31 December 2017 revealed that there are now 2m Sky Q homes in the UK and Ireland. BARB only measures UK TV viewing, but we’ll use 2m as a working number, alongside 26m TV homes. BARB needs to make sure that it’s panel is reflective of how people actually watch TV – the right number of Freeview, Sky Q, Sky+, Freesat, Virgin Media homes and so on.

Sky’s figures suggest that 7.7% of UK homes, roughly, have Sky Q. If that’s replicated in BARB’s 5,100 panel, then we’re talking about 392 BARB households with Sky Q.

In a paper published in January 2018, BARB says that 7.5m homes have Netflix subscriptions in the UK, or 22% of homes (This is based on a large survey that BARB conducts called the BARB Establishment Survey. It’s used to ensure that BARB knows properly how the UK public is watching TV and video).

As things stand then, assuming that Netflix subscribers are spread evenly across all TV platforms (a massive “if”), then we need to further reduce our sample to find Sky Q homes who currently have Netflix. It seems likely that current subscribers would be able to link their accounts to the Sky Q platform, and of course Sky and Netflix would like to see subscriber growth coming from those homes.

Let’s be generous and assume that instead of 22% of Sky Q homes having Netflix, it’s likelier to be closer to 50%, based on the greater disposable incomes of those households and them likelier to be earlier adopters. That means our sample is down to 196 homes. And that’s a very small sample to start trying to model what those households are watching on the Netflix platform.

This is all moot anyway, since unless Netflix changes tack radically, they don’t need to join ratings bodies like BARB. They’re not an advertising led business (the reason commercial services need BARB), and they know precisely how much their shows were streamed.

These digital providers are rolling big dice. Netflix says that it will spend close to $8bn on programming this year. Amazon is expected to spend $5bn. Facebook and Apple have promised to spend big too.

Recode has an interesting chart that puts 2017 spends in context.

But we probably need to contextualise that a little because Netflix and Amazon are spending globally, while many of the other players on this chart are predominantly US companies with relatively little ex-US programme spending.

I’m not sure where any of this gets us except that these digital streaming platforms are going to be everywhere even more, and we’ll probably never get a clear picture of how popular much of their programming really is.

Faster, Faster, Faster!

There was a Buzzfeed piece recently, exploring those people who listen to podcasts at super-fast speed. I don’t just mean 1.2x or something, but some of them listen at 3x speed or even faster.

Elsewhere, a Guardian writer thanked Netflix for allowing him to skip all the intros to TV series and the ability to skip the end credits.

To me, both of these are problematical, and not really to be encouraged. My biggest question would be, what are you trying to get out of what you’re listening to? Are you listening or watching for pleasure, or is it more a list ticking exercise?

“Yesterday, I did Ozark on Netflix, and I burnt through all of S-Town at 3x speed!”

The pacing of these series is important. While I wouldn’t pretend that every series needs all 13 episodes it was commissioned for, I have to wonder what kind of enjoyment you’re getting out of it if you’re racing through. It can be the equivalent of picking up a paperback copy of The Lord of the Rings, and then deciding that the Wikipedia plot summary is all you really need.

Recently I’ve been seeing adverts for a company called Blinkist which claims to boil down the ideas of business books into packages that take 15 minutes to read! While I’ve no doubt that some business books probably do only really contain one idea, and it perhaps should have been boiled down to something simpler, I know too that reading a book for several hours lets the ideas contained within seep into your mind better. The quick hit approach is not going to have that effect, and I wonder whether the ideas taken from such material might stay with you.

It’s like reading the York’s Notes of Julius Caesar rather than the Shakespeare play itself.

TV series introductions are key to setting the tone of the programme you’re about to watch. At their best, they can be beautiful artefacts that lower you slowly into the world that you’re about to enter. They say to, “Settle down and join us, where serial killers/dragons/mafia gangsters reign…” You put down your smartphone, and let the story takeover.

Similarly, at the end, the closing music brings you back to reality slowly once more. Certainly the credits also recognise the dozens or more people who were involved in the programme’s creation, but the tempo is a nice outro from what you’ve been watching. Of course on some network shows, this is instantly interrupted by trailers or continuity announcers desperate to keep the audience from channel surfing. And in the on-demand world, you have perhaps a three second window before the next episode starts automatically. I find myself desperately flailing around looking for the remote – particularly with Star Trek: Discovery where I might have the obnoxious After Trek start streaming. As far as I can tell, Netflix has no setting to let you turn this off. [Update: Thanks to James in the comments pointing out that there is a way to turn this off. Go to https://www.netflix.com/HdToggle and turn off Auto Play. Update 2: I found the same setting in Amazon. In the UK at least, go here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/video/settings?ref=atv_surl_aiv_settings and scroll down to Player Preferences and Auto Play.]

I understand that if you’ve just spend your Sunday afternoon binge watching all 8 episodes of The Marvellous Mrs Maisel back to back, you might be a little fed-up with intro sequences, but I wonder more what that says about you? Perhaps you should take a break between episodes?

And who on earth wouldn’t want to watch the pitch perfect Stranger Things opening credits each and every time it comes on? That series simply couldn’t have had a better opening sequence in all its simplicity.

What about podcasts? Well technology means that we can speed up audio without making every show sound like it’s voiced by people with ADHD on helium. And software will also take out silences – you know, the bits of space where you’re supposed to think about what has just been said. If you’re listening to a podcast with someone who has an especially languorous way of speaking, then that is surely part of the show? Are you listening to ideas and thoughts, or a horse race commentary?

I suspect that for many, this high speed reading/viewing/listening is really to enable them to say that they have “done” such-and-such. Tick another one off the list. You’re a complete-ist and in an age when new works never stop coming, you feel you must run just to stand still.

I say slow down.

Appreciate things for what they are.

You might actually get a little more out of it.

Premier League TV Rights – 2019-2022

The new Premier League TV rights auction for the UK has just got under way, with bids due in at the end of January, and the results announced in early February. Such are the scale of these rights now, that the announcement tends to be made to accommodate the stock market. If a PLC is spending several billion pounds on something, this is “of note.”

Where do we stand, and where are we likely to go?

At first glance, there really doesn’t feel like an enormous growth left in the UK market. Last time around, the value of UK live rights rose a colossal 70%, from £3bn to £5.1bn!

This increase in cost didn’t come without consequences. Subscribers to both Sky and BT have seen increases in their subscriptions, while Sky in particular (who’s packages increase the most in value), has cut costs elsewhere, reducing some coverage – notably tennis.

But different players have different needs from Premier League football.

Sky

As the bid from 21st Century Fox for complete ownership of Sky continues to navigate regulatory hurdles, Rupert Murdoch himself is selling out to Disney. While the Disney deal itself will need to overcome any US regulatory concerns, the general feeling is that it will get through unscathed (While it shouldn’t involve the US President, Trump is reportedly more concerned about the future of Fox News than anything else, and Murdoch keeps ownership of that). Meanwhile, the prospect of Sky News being a Disney property rather than a 100% Murdoch owned, is probably more palatable to more people. The separation organisationally from the unsavoury practices at Fox News is probably helpful too. There perhaps remains a question of when the various deals go through, so that waving the Sky deal through before the details of the Disney deal have been finalised might be problematic.

But returning to the Premier League, for Sky the rights are an important – not to say critical – part of its overall offering. Sports also remain an important part of Disney’s offering.

ESPN has for many years been a substantial revenue generator, but of late it has began to suffer. So-called “cable cutters” don’t all want ESPN. It had been regularly bundled into all basic cable offerings, taking a substantial share of a household’s monthly cable bill, regardless of whether that household actually wanted to watch sport. As such, it became a cash cow. That’s still the case, but as younger subscribers choose their digital offerings in a piecemeal way – Netflix here, HBO Now there – ESPN was beginning to miss out. It was losing overall subscribers, and has of late announced a series of redundancies to cut costs.

In part to bolster that, Disney has picked up Fox’s regional sports networks as part of the Fox acquisition, qne they provide very solid ratings revenues.

The problem with all sports for broadcasters is that in large part, they are not actually owned by the networks. Every few years, the rights are put out to tender, and the rights owners tend to expect big increases.

That extends from the Premier League to the NFL, the IOC, the ICC, the NBA and so on. Sport has become disproportionately important because for the most part, the value is in live rights, and an audience that advertisers love being unable to skip the built-in advertising.

Sky needs the Premier League, and it has to pull out all the stops to maintain the crown jewels of the packages offered. But at some level there will be a red line beyond which it doesn’t make sense to bid.

BT

BT is in a slightly different position, as it built its TV offering as much as anything to support its broadband proposition. This has developed further when BT trumped Sky to buy Champions’ League and Europa League rights. Unlike previous minority rights holders of Premier League football, BT was clearly a serious player with serious cash available. By offering sport initially free, and later at a discount to its broadband customers, it was able to stem the flow to other broadband providers.

In TV terms, BT does still feels like a smaller player in the wider marketplace.

There may be a slight shift at BT now, as it develops a stronger TV offering built around IP delivery, but the company is really in the business of running wires and cables into your home.

Sky and BT Making Up

Interestingly, Sky and BT have recently reached an agreement to properly wholesale their packages to each others’ customers. While BT Sport has been available to Sky customers since launch, viewers had to deal separately with BT to view the channel on their Sky box. The new agreement will make it easier for Sky customers to add BT Sport to their existing Sky package, buying it directly through Sky. In return, BT will make available Sky’s Now TV offer via its own BT TV platform. That effectively provides a mechanism for BT to offer the full range of Sky Sports channels through its platform.

Commentators have suggested that the pair have reached this agreement in part to mitigate the chances of the pair outbidding one another in the upcoming auction. While I doubt they’d collude (which may be illegal anyway), it’s likely that the status quo would suit both parties just fine. The pair do potentially face some opposition however…

Sidenote: One curious consequence of the Disney takeover of Fox (and in turn Sky), is that BT currently has a deal with ESPN for much of its US sports programming. In essence this leaves Disney with at least a small foot in both camps.

The Packages

Note: This is based on published information. Precise details of first picks is likely to appear in the tender documents which aren’t ordinarily made publicly available.

Under this contract, we will be up from 168 matches to 200 of the 380 total Premier League fixtures being broadcast live on UK TV.

Previously, there were five packages of 28 games, and two packages of 14 games. BT won the rights to 28 Saturday 1730 fixtures, as well as a further 6 midweek matches and 8 Saturday matches. Sky won all the remaining fixtures.

This time around the seven packages are built somewhat differently, with Saturday evening primetime being added into the mix, as well as some intriguing midweek packages.

2019-2022 Packages
Package A: 32 matches on Saturdays at 12:30
Package B: 32 matches on Saturdays at 17:30
Package C: 24 matches on Sundays at 14:00 and eight matches on Saturdays at 19:45
Package D: 32 matches on Sundays at 16:30
Package E: 24 matches on Mondays at 20:00 or Fridays at 19:30/20:00 and eight matches on Sundays at 14:00
Package F: 20 matches from one Bank Holiday and one midweek fixture programme
Package G: 20 matches from two midweek fixture programmes

Packages A and B are the same as before, but increase from 28 to 32 games. Package C had previously been exclusively 2pm fixtures, but now has eight primetime Saturday night games.

Package D tends to be the most valuable package, in the past containing the majority of first picks (in other words, broadcasters can put the biggest matches in this slot, other considerations such as police advice notwithstanding).

Package E now gets some 14:00 Sunday games as well as Monday and Friday night football.

But, beyond an overall increase in fixtures and the Saturday night slot opening up, it’s packages E and F that see the biggest changes. Previously these were a mix of mid-week and Bank Holiday fixtures throughout the season. But under this auction they will account for four individual programmes. For example, when there’s a full midweek fixture list, all games are usually played on a Tuesday and Wednesday. But by offering rights to all these games in a given week, any one viewer can only really watch two of them, since multiple games take place simultaneously. So while there are 40 games in total across the two packages, there are potentially only 8 opportunities for a viewer to watch a game, with the other 32 happening during one of those 8 timeslots

So while it’s technically innovative, you wouldn’t expect this package to go for a vast amount of money compared with the others. It’s fewer games than other packages for starters. But it also seems squarely aimed at getting streaming services involved.

Both Sky and BT would be able to offer this choice – they both did or do similar things with Champions’ League group stages. But a decent number of the games are not fixtures a broadcaster might ordinarily choose to televise – think of those matches towards the end of an average edition of Match of the Day.

But if this is aimed at getting digital players involved, it would seem to require an awful lot of marketing for just 8 opportunities to watch on as few as 7 individual days.

The Premier League can only really show all its fixtures in midweek slots because there’s a blackout during Saturdays at 3pm to support the wider football world. But I wonder whether by 2022, we’ll see every Premier League game played outside the 3pm Saturday window? That would enable all matches to be shown live, and perhaps a 2pm Sunday slot having the majority of fixtures.

Potential New Entrants

A bit like the broadcasters, different digital groups have different reasons to use video. Are they looking to increase dwell time on their services, are they looking to grow their user numbers, or are they looking for something else altogether?

Sport isn’t out the question with streaming services, bringing with it loyal fans. But it also brings issues with having a robust technical backbone, and excludes those who don’t have solid broadband.

Furthermore, only UK rights are being sold. While the UK remains an important market for most of the big players, being able to offer streaming to multiple territories is preferable to global operators. The Premier League, of course, sees greater value in selling international rights in different territories to different operators rather than bundle them all together.

What is certain is that the Premier League is desperate for one or more of these companies to enter the market. If Sky and BT would be prepared to stick with the status quo and only offer modest increases in their bids compared with last time, it would take a third party entering to push bids upwards. The only possible existing TV group who might be persuaded would be Discovery via its Eurosport channel. But it’s just not clear that the rights make sense for that brand. While Discovery has spent big on the Olympics, it doesn’t have much of a UK footprint at all in football beyond various secondary UEFA and FIFA competitions.

Facebook

Facebook notably did bid for Indian Premier League cricket rights for a large number of territories, but the deal the IPL eventually did with Star India (also being sold to Disney as part of the Fox deal) included global streaming rights, so they lost out.

You wouldn’t count out Facebook from bidding for Premier League football, but the challenge for them is that these are UK rights. While Premier League football potentially offers increased dwell time on the platform, assuming that the games are broadcast free to viewers, there’s relatively little in it for Facebook in terms of gaining new subscribers.

However Facebook is investing in premium video, and they have money to burn, so a bid isn’t out of the question.

Google/YouTube

YouTube has bought sports rights in the past – cricket immediately springs to mind. Google is constantly evolving its offerings, with a rumoured reversioning of its music offering in both audio and video terms, due to be launched soon.

As with Facebook, Google doesn’t face any problems in being able to afford rights, but it’s not clear what it really gains for them. YouTube is already phenomenally successful, and Google’s reach is nearly complete.

Again, that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t bid, it’s not entirely clear why they would.

Apple

Apple is also making a play to develop a premium video offering, but it hasn’t as yet entered the sports arena. It’s platform is much less developed in the UK, and if made available exclusively via Apple apps or devices, any bid would curtail audiences a bit.

It seems much less likely that Apple would bid compared with other digital players.

Amazon

Amazon may be interested. Their model is slightly different, and they’ve not yet achieved the prestige in the video marketplace that others have. They’re certainly jealous that Netflix has developed stronger video brands than they have. The recent acquisition of The Lord of the Rings rights shows their ambition in this area – spending $250m on the rights alone to make a series, before they spend a single cent on production.

Notably they have now bought a range of tennis rights, outbidding Sky for the men’s ATP tour rights, as well as buying US Open rights. However we should be careful here. The entire ATP rights package cost Amazon less than Sky pays for a single Premier League fixture.

Tennis feels like a toe in the water for Amazon. They also stream Thursday night NFL games – something Twitter did previously, but outside the US you may not have noticed (games happen after 1am local time in the UK, and 2am in central Europe). It should also be remembered that Thursday night NFL is the least valuable package, and Amazon shares the rights with CBS and NBC in broadcast.

Amazon certainly has the technology to offer streaming, both via its Amazon Prime Video platform, as well as Twitch, potentially allowing it to reach a younger audience.

As such, it feels the likeliest bidder of all the digital platforms, even if the strange nature of packages F and G don’t really seem to make sense for anybody.

Twitter

Twitter has played with live streaming, offering everything from an alternative election night programme with Buzzfeed, to eSports and, as mentioned above, some NFL games last season.

Of all the digital players, it feels like Twitter perhaps has the most to gain in terms of getting new sign-ups from something like this. However it’s not trivial to get Twitter video onto your TV set.

As a company, Twitter is a scale lower than other digital businesses (see also Snapchat, who I’ve not even considered here), and so cost may be an issue.

Netflix

This feels to be the least likely digital bidder. Their business has not been built on sport, and as mentioned above, the real problem with sport is its lack of repeat-ability. If you’re paying £10m+ for a property, then they want to sweat that asset over a number of years. The value of a live match is a one-time thing, and really doesn’t seem to fit their model.

Outcome

We’ll find out the answers to all these questions in a couple of months’ time. Would the Premier League leave Sky and/or BT without games or a severely reduced offering? If the money was right, then yes. How would pubs show games “broadcast” on Twitter? Someone’s phone hooked up to a TV set?

Just because these businesses have the cash, it doesn’t mean that it makes sense for them to bid for rights. There has to be a reason. It might be adding value to a wider package such as Amazon Prime; it might be growing the number of users, or increasing a site’s dwell time. But many of these services are doing quite nicely already.

I can’t see BT and Sky increasing their bids at anything near the level they’ve previously managed. The value just isn’t there. Sky has managed to diversify its offering with originals and exclusive deals with providers like HBO. Renewing that HBO deal feels almost as important as doing another Premier League deal.

In the end, it’s probably best not to second guess these things too much. All will become clearer in February when consumers will discover just how many subscriptions they need to get the full range of Premier League football on television.