Monday, September 15, 2014

MCN CEO Profiles -- Your Michelin Guide to Who’s Hot

All in one place -- consolidated for your consumption -- easily digestible.  Here are my recent detailed interviews and individual profiles of leading MCNs and their CEOs (ok, in one case, President & COO).  All of these MCNs (identified in alphabetical order) are important.  And, all of these execs -- each of whom I have come to know -- are passionate about (and authentically into) their individual missions.

I am a believer in each of them ... and you may find their insights to be enlightening ....

Here’s my bonus “under the radar” pick -- which is not quite an MCN, but is in the same world --

Friday, September 12, 2014

TV v.2014 -- “When The Walls Come Crumblin’ Down ..."

John Mellencamp’s campy song is back with a vengeance in the world of television.

Just in the past two days -- and in rapid succession -- two fairly remarkable announcements that should be rocking the media business even more than they likely are.  Make no mistake -- these are big deals, in every sense of the word.  

First, Viacom licenses 22 of its live and VOD premium network to Sony for its new OTT service for PlayStation, Sony TVs and other Sony connected devices.  And, second, Verizon announces an early 2015 launch for its long-anticipated “virtual” MSO which is so virtual, that it is wireless.  This ain't no FiOS TV -- this is TV re-imagined for your 24/7 companion.  In other words, your small screen ....  

Yes, Verizon announced that its down-sized, “bite-sized” cable-lite programming package will include the big 4 broadcasters and NFL games (via its existing exclusive smartphone deal).  But, even more symbolically and, therefore, significantly, Verizon -- in the same breath as referencing the traditional content of those august institutions -- also announced the featuring (yes, featuring!) -- of new-fangled “bite-sized” AwesomenessTV programming.  And, with that acknowledgement, Verizon elevated (rightfully!) YouTube economy premium short-form content to the ranks of “mattering” to at least some in the most senior ranks of media (a process that started earlier this year with Disney’s landmark $500-$950 million acquisition of Maker Studios -- a deal which, I believe, will be seen as a shrewd move a few years from now ... Google buying YouTube anyone?).

When making his announcement yesterday at Goldman Sachs’ annual mega-media conference (funded, no doubt, by the bank’s own special form of technical prowess during the past decade), Verizon Chairman and CEO Lowell McAdam proudly exclaimed the almost unthinkable -- that (as reported by intrepid reporter Todd Spangler of Variety, one of my favorites) “among cable programmers, there’s been an attitude shift among cable programmers toward accepting a new over-the-top model for delivering pay TV.”  In McAdam’s own words -- perhaps a bit unfortunately chosen in terms of its NFL-like imagery at this particular moment in time -- “It’s moved from almost a stiff-arm to much more of an embrace.”

And, Verizon’s McAdam was not alone.  CEO Jeff Bewkes of Time Warner emphasized the company’s growing interest in offering HBO Go as a stand-alone OTT service -- absolute heresy ... until now.  

In other words, the times, they are a-changin’ ... and consumers soon will be able to choose never-before-available smaller, more affordable premium programming packages.  

Doubt we are seeing much “embracing” about this transformation in the ranks of traditional media.  But, we are seeing acceptance.  And, acceptance is the first step in the road to recovery.  Eyeballs -- especially coveted young eyeballs -- are increasingly off traditional MSO services and on YouTube and leading MCNs (and increasingly viewing that content on mobile).  That means those younger eyeballs are increasingly less likely to pay in a “traditional” way (a reality underscored by a new study concluding that cord cutting will rise in the next 12 months -- also reported by Spangler -- and the words of Disney’s CFO Jay Rasulo).  That disruptive reality calls for non-traditional thinking -- and that is precisely what we are seeing here.

The long anticipated -- and inevitable -- dismantling of the traditional cable “bundle” is happening right before our eyes.  And, once the dam opens, it can never be closed.

2014 will be seen as a pivotal year in the world of media -- and not just because all of us are here at this moment and in this time.

Just look around you.  Watch how others around you are watching.  Especially the kids .... 

Monday, September 08, 2014

5 Questions with StyleHaul’s CEO Stephanie Horbaczewski -- EXCLUSIVE Q&A with THE Leading Fashion-Focused MCN (& Rumored M&A Target)

StyleHaul -- one of the leading and “buzz-worthiest” multi-channel networks (MCNs) around.  Vertically focused on all things fashion & beauty.  Catering almost exclusively to a young female demographic.  On the tongues of many in the media and brand business at the highest levels right now, because rumors abound that the company is in M&A “play” right now (interested potential buyers have been reported to include Hearst, Conde Nast, Amazon, and 21st Century Fox).  And, I absolutely believe this is a proverbial “where there is smoke, there is fire” situation. 

I have tracked StyleHaul for a long time now (just like I track all of the leading MCNs, including Whistle Sports which I just featured this past Thursday).  I make it a point to try to meet the CEOs behind all leading MCNs to truly understand the personalities and motivations upon which those “new media” companies are founded.  And, I have found that literally all share two key attributes -- passion and authenticity.  It is not just about the money.  It is about transforming the media industry within their own particular niche of interest.  

In that context, I have come to know StyleHaul's dynamic founder & CEO Stephanie Horbaczewski, one of the few people I know who has perhaps an even more difficult name to spell and pronounce than mine.  Stephanie is a force -- as is the company, which now counts 15+ billion network video views, 175+ million network subscribers, and 4,500+ network channels.  And, StyleHaul has a compelling multi-pronged business model comprised of, yes, ads and branded content -- but also obvious significant (uniquely powerful?) direct commerce opportunities, as well as the potential for “upsell” content.  For StyleHaul, its network of video creators, and its deeply engaged audience, the fashion itself IS the “thing.”  And fashion sells!  This is not lost on marketers and brands, of course, so the monetization opps all around are intriguing.

I am a believer.  The company will not stay independent for long.  That is virtually certain in my view (and something that I have long predicted -- well before the current rumors).

So, on with my 5 Questions -- and Stephanie’s unedited answers.

(1) What is the reason your company exists (and what problem(s) are you looking to solve)?

Social networks like YouTube and Instagram have created a new way for people, especially millennials, to communicate.  That conversation excluded brands until companies like StyleHaul created new scalable products and content that connected brands with influencers in huge multi-platform marketing campaigns.  StyleHaul is solving for the need to extend your brand message from print, TV and digital advertising opportunities to social conversation at scale.

(2) How are you different from your competitors?

The great thing about this ecosystem is that by having a number of companies with differing perspectives about the opportunities, the contributions have been vast and varied but all provide value.  We are incredibly focused and dominate fashion and beauty to the extent that we really have no direct competitors for the work we are doing.   We are the only global, multi-platform, fashion and beauty network that commands the highest levels of engagement available and can do it at this scale.

(3) Why will you succeed (and what is your single most important ingredient for success)?

StyleHaul has had a deep commitment to the importance of our influencers and our brand from day one.  StyleHaul focuses on keeping the network about quality over quantity to ensure we have the most successful campaigns and the lowest attrition and we also pride ourselves on working very closely with our industry partners like Google, YouTube, Fremantle, Gleam and Addition to deliver the strongest offering available.

(4) What makes you unique (and what do you enjoy most outside of building your business)?

My passion for this space has made me obsessive and as a result I iterate on the opportunity every day, allowing StyleHaul to continue to be a leader in the development of the ecosystem. There don’t seem to be many hours left in the day outside of my work as an entrepreneur, but StyleHaul came from combining my passions and I still love all things fashion, beauty and style.

(5) What digital media trend is most interesting to you (and what is the least)?

Most interesting: engagement. Least interesting: scale without context or appropriate application.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

5 Questions with The Whistle Sports Network’s CEO John West -- My Exclusive Q&A with the Leading Sports-Focused MCN

Today’s “5 Questions With ...” (in my continuing series with leading innovators in the digital media space) features John West, founder & CEO of #1 sports-focused multi-channel network (MCN) The Whistle Sports Network, a company about which I have written several times in the past (and, disclosure, is a Manatt Digital Media client).  I believe in The Whistle and in the market opportunity they are attacking.  John and his extremely talented executive team first impressed me -- a deal guy -- by the fact that they had already inked major strategic partnerships with virtually all major sports leagues (a feat unfathomable to many, me included).  Moreover, the wild world of sports, of course, is a unique animal.  Just about nothing else matches the intensity and passion felt by sports fans -- and it is precisely that kind of passion that fuels deep engagement which, in turn, has the potential to fuel deep-pocketed monetization via multiple revenue streams (ads, branded content, sponsorships, premium content, and commerce).  

That already-massive monetization opportunity is also universal and global.  Virtually everyone on this planet likes a sport -- and follows, or is inspired by, at least one athlete or team.  That’s why today’s Q&A is particularly apt.  Today, the company announces the opening of its new London office.  But wait, there’s more.  YouTube’s former Head of Football, Jeff Nathenson, leads the new London office and will join another key former YouTuber, Julie Kikla (a founding member of the YouTube Sports team) to lead The Whistle Sports Network to inevitable new heights.  With that kind of roster of top talent, it’s no wonder that this vertically-focused MCN has already reached 1.1 billion video views and counts 7.25 million subscribers to its 156 channels.

If you are intrigued, read on.  The Q&A begins.  Here are my 5 questions answered in CEO John West’s own words:

(1) What is the reason your company exists (and what problem(s) are you looking to solve)?

Sports fans are more excited, more engaged, and more loyal to their teams and the love of the game than anyone in any field.  It’s a passion that starts young and lasts a lifetime.  That’s why there are over 50 million young fans and athletes in America alone, and hundreds of millions around the world.

But I noticed with my own family that there was no single sports entertainment destination created specifically to speak to and engage the digital generation.  There was no platform that ignored the steroids and scandals that made up most media and gave them, on any screen they wanted to use, content that was engaging, uplifting and gave them the chance to customize, discover and interact with that content on their own terms.  That’s the “underserved audience” perspective. 

From a content creator perspective, we saw the emerging multi-channel network (MCN) market and noticed that while Machinima was concentrating on gamers and StyleHaul was focused on fashion, nobody had stepped forward to own the sports vertical.

We now own that vertical from a YouTube perspective, are creating a community for those creators, and will help them migrate their content to multiple platforms like our new Xbox app.

(2) How are you different from your competitors?

We are the first sports property to combine the content, support and investment of major pro leagues like the NFL, PGA, NASCAR and Major League Baseball with the excitement, talent, fan base and focus of a new generation of digital celebrities like Dude Perfect and Brodie Smith.

Our multi-channel network launched on January 1 and quickly scaled to over 156 channels, 7.25 million subscribers and 1.1 billion views. The launch of our Xbox app last month is another step in our building a Cross Platform Network that connects with engaged sports fans and creators on every device where they spend their time.

(3) Why will you succeed (and what is your single most important ingredient for success)?

We built an incredible team, which includes founding members of the YouTube Sports and YouTube acquisitions teams, my co-founder Jeff Urban who was the SVP and head of sports marketing at Gatorade, and a sales team with experience at Major League Baseball and Yahoo Sports.  We’ve built an incredible community full of exciting content creators that are actively recruiting other top talent to join.

With the help of pro league partners like Major League Baseball Advanced Media, we’re building out multiple platforms where our under served audience can be entertained, engaged and activated.  Our target audience is at the point in their lives where they are creating lifetime commitments and lifelong patterns with brands that have been eager to join us.

(4) What makes you unique (and what do you enjoy most outside of building your business)?

What I enjoy most is the chance with my wonderful wife to be an engaged parent to our sons and daughter. That also feeds my passion for the business – knowing that we are building something they can learn from, enjoy and be educated and inspired by for years.

The mix of support and engagement from over 10 pro leagues, hundreds of content creators, and millions of fans are unique to The Whistle Sports Network.

(5) What digital media trend is most interesting to you (and what is the least)?

Our advisor and best-selling author of "Grown Up Digital” -- Don Tapscott -- splits the world into “digital immigrants” (who adopted technology as it was created) and “digital natives” (who grew up with the web and mobile as part of their lives).  Digital media began as an exercise by digital immigrants to change existing content into a new form for consumption by digital natives. The biggest change is that digital natives have taken control of the content creation and distribution themselves and are driving change from their own phones and screens. I am most interested in how eager they are to become part of a larger community and reach a larger audience.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

My 1,400th Post - I Guess That Qualifies Me As Being a Writer/Journalist?

WARNING - this post is a bit self-indulgent.  But, forgive me, this is my 1,400th post.  For me, a major milestone.  And, one that is hard to believe.

Rightly or wrongly, I have always considered myself to be a writer.  Have always enjoyed it.  And have not worried about writing partial sentences like that one, because that is an aspect of my informal style -- an informal style that matches who I am.  Spell-check be damned!  

My official “professional” writing journey began 8 years ago on October 11, 2006 with my first words in this "Digital Media Update” blog.  1,400 posts over those years averages out to about 1 new post every 2 days.  That’s a lot of early mornings.  And a lot of coffee.

My first post focused on Google’s recent acquisition of YouTube.  Not a bad place to start, given my continuing and accelerating writing about the over digital media/video transformation happening before our eyes.  Back then, I wrote this about that GooTube 1-2 punch:  "The deal certainly underscores the power of video over the Internet -- and the fact that consumers have fully embraced video over the Internet.”  That was then, when most both in the “traditional” media and tech worlds scratched their heads at the $1.65 billion price tag.  This is now (a recent post about the state of multi-platform media/video today) when no one does (although many today similarly scoff at Disney’s $500-$950 million acquisition of leading multi-channel network (MCN) Maker Studios, which itself may look like a bargain in the years to come).

Over the years, and in addition to my writing here, I have also accelerated the pace of my writing for other leading media and tech publications, including TechCrunch, Variety, Billboard, Venturebeat, The Huffington Post, Wired, VideoInk and others (a list of some of those articles can be found on my LinkedIn page).  This has enabled me to extend my reach -- and hopefully add some insights to you and the overall conversation.

Speaking of LinkedIn -- and with this 1,400th post -- I have officially added the position and title of “Writer/Journalist” to my profile.  And, that is no small thing.  For me, that designation represents a core element of who I am.  What I like to do.

As one example, in all of my spare time, I have begun to write my first book focused, of course, on media’s overall transformation over the past 15 years, during which time I have been fortunate to have a front-row seat to, and active participant in, this disruption with some of the pioneering companies who led the charge.  I first spent a decade in major media companies when the Internet first commercially “hit.”  Then, I served as President & COO of Musicmatch, a true innovator and white hat in the world of digital music amidst the storm of piracy and Apple’s early domination and near take-over of distribution.  Next, together with Dmitry Shapiro, I pitched (unsuccessfully) YouTube’s vision before YouTube (Dmitry went on to take that vision into Veoh).  After that immersion into digital video, I dived (dove?) deeper and first became CEO of video community/technology company SightSpeed which gave us all the power to communicate via live video chat before Skype video and when no one believed (except for Logitech, who ultimately bought us); and next, CEO of Sorenson Media, a key driver of the overall digital video revolution in the first place.

Now, here I am based professionally in LA, but doing the vast majority of my writing at my home in San Diego (no, I don’t commute every day).  In my role as CEO of Manatt Digital Media (a role I love and deeply appreciate, by the way, because it ties it all together) I have deep access into the great minds and innovators who understand and actively lead the digital transformation about which I write.  That’s a lot of deep insightful perspectives.  Perspectives I process, synthesize, and ultimately transform into my own.  Into my own voice.

For those of you who have followed me along the way, heart-felt thanks.  It is appreciated.  And, for those of you new to the ride, thanks for checking it out.

And, for all of you, please buy my book when I finish it!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

For Hot (Yet Still “Under the Radar”) Video Company Jukin’ Media, Failure Is the ONLY Option

Jukin’ Media.  If you’ve never heard of it, read on.  You should.

I met with this next-gen YouTube economy-based video company the other day at its offices in Culver City, California (the home of leading now Disney-owned Maker Studios and others).  Sat down with President & COO Lee Essner and Mike Skogmo.  Learned a lot.

Jukin’ Media’s mission is to be “THE Home of Viral Video.”  All viral video on all platforms -- initially digital, but certainly its vision can extend upstream to more traditional TV platforms, etc. (in fact, many “clip-based” shows on TV depend upon Jukin’ Media for their content, as well as well-known brands that include MTV, CNN and ESPN and Today).  The company’s roots -- and still its bread and butter -- are in “stunts gone wrong” (in other words, so-called “fail” videos) that go viral due to their inherent humor.  Think of them as “America’s Funniest Home Videos” -- with a heavy dose of “Jackass” -- for YouTube.  And, they tell me that their “special sauce” is their ability to find viral videos before they go viral.  Jukin’ Media to date has over 1 billion total views and 12-13 million uniques per month with a demographic that skews, not surprisingly, heavily young male.  They also have a deep international following, because the concept of “ouch” travels and has no language barrier.

In some ways, Jukin' functions like an MCN.  But, I don’t consider them an MCN (nor do they), because they feature only a small number of channels and feature ONLY content that they exclusively license, produce and own (unlike MCNs that generally primarily feature hundreds to thousands of individual personality-driven UGC content).  And, this fundamental difference enables a very different kind of multi-pronged business model.  Think of Jukin’ Media as having 4 separate areas of focus:

(1) Content Acquisition/Video Library

Jukin’ Media’s essence -- from which all else flows -- is its prowess in content acquisition and its resulting deep library of viral video that can be mined in myriad ways and over and over again.  That means that margins are high.  Content development for Jukin’ is primarily a function of editing rather than video production (with its associated costs).  And, they know what they are doing when they acquire that content.  One example -- they strip out potentially infringing music and substitute their own.

(2) Content Licensing 

As a result of its deep library of content, you can think of Jukin’ Media as being, in part, a Getty Images for viral video.  The company licenses its vast library of content to others (including those mentioned above).  But, the company tells me that, unlike Getty and its stock images and videos, it focuses on a smaller volume of non-stock videos that its licensees can feature more exclusively.  And, that means higher price-tags.

(3) Turnkey Services

The company also outsources its overall video “platform” for the benefit of others who retain Jukin’ to find precisely those viral videos they need (again, including major networks).   Jukin’ automates and optimizes the finding, clearing and acquisition of rights from owners of relevant viral videos.

(4) Original Content Development

Increasingly, the company is in the world of original content development -- albeit “original content” in a different way -- i.e., organizing multiple viral videos under one relevant theme (such as those “fail” videos under the name of its “FailArmy” channel).  The beauty here is that Jukin’s type of content development -- unlike Hollywood or story-focused content development -- can be almost wholly data-driven.  Genetically engineered, if you will.  Jukin’ precisely knows which videos are performing (i.e., going viral), why they perform, and -- therefore -- that those videos will succeed within the umbrella of a larger show.  Just think of the possibilities ...  Out-flixing Netflix?

Jukin’ Media.  What some call the hottest “under the radar” digital video/digital-first media company around today.  I like them.  A lot.

Am a believer ....

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

MCNs - They Matter (Because They Represent Media’s Fundamental Digital Transformation & the Accelerating Millennial Movement)

[NOTE -- this article was published yesterday as a guest article in VideoInk.  Different title, essentially the same content.]

I write a lot about the multi-channel network (MCN) digital video world.  And, I follow it closely.  Why?  Is it because I think MCNs are the only relevant players in the new world video eco-system?

Of course not!

Rather, I follow them so closely because the rise of MCNs -- and the massive M&A and investments in those companies -- are key data points for the overall digital “movement.”  Of the fundamental transformation of Hollywood.  And, of the fundamental transformation of the overall media business.  MCNs represent the new multi-platform media world that we had anticipated for years, but finally came into its own in a mainstream way just this past year.

It is here.  It is now.  Consumers “get" that.  Especially millennials.

But do the major “traditional” media companies?  Do the big brands?  Do you?

Certainly not to a significant degree -- and that is at their and your peril (if you fall into that camp).  I recently wrote about this after attending my first VidCon.

Core to this transformation is the mobile device -- a device that is with most of us (even non-millennials) virtually 24/7.  Now high quality video is available to consumers virtually any time, anywhere.  And, we are voraciously eating it up (to the pleasure of the carriers and their data plans).  The bottom line is that different platforms are optimized for different forms of content.  And, the vast majority of video consumption on the small screen is of “bite-sized” short form video.  That means that premium content development for that small screen is fundamentally different than it is for traditional longer-form video platforms like TV.  That requires specialized expertise.  Expertise that most traditional media companies don’t have.

That’s where MCNs fit in.  They don’t supplant traditional platforms.  Rather, they EXPAND them.  They enable consumers to consume the full spectrum of entertaining, informative, and impactful video content.  The mobile platform -- that small screen -- is finally ready for prime time.  Scratch that.  It isn’t just ready -- it is here -- it is now.

What else?

Our multi-platform media world -- in which consumers demand these new forms of premium content (after all, they are “voting” by their sheer numbers) -- also demands “personalities” who can speak most effectively to the massive young audience that has shifted much of its content consumption downstream to that mobile device.  And, that personality isn’t the mainstream celebrity.  Rather, because these “bite-sized” videos ideal for mobile viewing are typically produced on very low (or, more usually, non-existent) budgets, they are grass-roots-driven (at least initially).  They began with people like you and me (well, not me, I am not in that demo).  And, some of these grass-roots videos and personalities take hold -- for some reason -- and rise to the top.  Somehow some of them rise above the din.  It is THESE YouTube personalities who are the new “celebrities” for millennials.

A recently published study confirms that reality.  YouTube celebrities are now more popular than mainstream celebrities to U.S. teens.  Think about that!  Brands -- you better.  If you want to reach this key burgeoning demographic, then you must -- RIGHT NOW! -- shift significant marketing funds to the YouTube economy.  To MCNs.  To YouTube “celebrities."  To Viners.  Play time is over.  It’s time to go “in” big.  And, with these digital platforms, you have the added benefit of being able to reach and pinpoint the precise “right” audience for your messages.  Then it is up to you to engage with them, effectively.

And, that takes “authenticity” -- a word that is foundational to this new world order.  YouTube personalities rise -- MCNs rise -- and brands effectively rise -- only with authentic voices.

Take some of the leading MCNs.

I recently profiled #1 dance-focused MCN DanceOn and its founder/CEO Amanda Taylor.  Why did she start DanceOn in the first place?  Fundamentally, because of her love of dance!  Because she already was helping professional dancers expand their opportunities because she was aware of their challenges.  She felt their pain.

I also recently profiled Larry Fitzgibbon, founder/CEO of #1 food-focused MCN Tastemade.  Why did he start Tastemade after his successful IPO of Demand Media (which he also founded)?  I’m sure he had already made some significant cash -- so it certainly wasn’t all about the dollars.  Rather, when I met with Larry, he started our conversation talking about his love of food.  Of the beauty and creativity of food and cooking as an art form.  And, of the international bridging of cultures that food makes possible.  That is authentic!  (And very very cool).

That same authenticity is pervasive by essentially all founders and CEOs in the MCN world, several of whom I have come to know well (and some of with whom I have the good fortune of closely working).  Founder/CEO John West of #1 sports-focused MCN The Whistle?  Absolutely -- love of sports -- believed that millennials deserved their own voice of sports.  Not their father’s ESPN.  Roy Burstin, founder/CEO of Mitu Networks, the #1 Latino-focused MCN.  Same story.  Roy -- from Colombia -- “felt” the dearth of compelling video content for the Latino market (which he tells me has higher mobile consumption rates than other cultures).  Stepahine Horbaczewski, founder/CEO of #1 fashion-focused MCN StyleHaul?  Again, the same.  You can feel it by the faux furs she wears around her neck at events, even in the summer!  And then there’s Allen DeBevoise, Chairman of #1 gamer-focused MCN Machinima and the godfather of the MCN world in general.  Allen is such an authentic believer in this new world order that he personally has invested in virtually all of these (and more).

THAT’s why MCNs matter.  That’s why I follow them and the entire multi-platform media/video world so closely.

And, that’s why I am excited about the massive opportunities in (and privileged to be in) the media world that is now transforming in fundamental ways right before our eyes.

Let’s be clear.  It’s not “out" with the old.  But, it is absolutely about “in” with the new ....