Reading like an Agatha Christie novel, MCNs continue to be picked off one-by-one. The past month has been a whirlwind of YouTube economy MCN and OTT machinations – March Madness that continued into April and, as expected, shows no signs of abating.
It all started with Warner Bros. $18 million investment in leading gamer-focused MCN Machinima. Then continued with Disney’s mega-acquisition of more horizontally focused leading player Maker Studios for up to $950 million (a deal that Relativity Media later hoped to disrupt in this highly disruptive space). Followed in quick succession by AwesomenessTV’s acquisition of smaller MCN/talent firm Big Frame. And then with a smattering of sizable strategic MCN investments, including German TV giant ProSieben’s significant investment and stake in Collective Digital Studio and Lionsgate’s strategic partnership with RocketJump.
And then, in a bold (and, to many, surprising) move, AT&T launches a new $500 million OTT/content-focused venture with The Chernin Group that integrates The Chernin Group’s recent controlling interest in leading anime-focused MCN Crunchyroll (check out this “must read” analysis of the deal by Gigaom’s Janko Roettgers). Major OTT moves -- by Netflix, AmazonPrime, Yahoo!, AOL (the latter two which are hitting the accelerator to catch up in the space) -- also surface almost daily, underscoring how hot this content-focused premium online video space has become. It is absolutely prime time.
Who’s next in this mystery in which remaining significant strategic MCNs are disappearing fast and partnering up with major studios and service providers? Here’s my educated “take" based on conversations in and around the overall digital media ecosystem – including venture capitalists, media executives, bankers, media execs, and the MCN community itself. At the risk of patting myself on the back (forgive me), I accurately predicted the “action” with Big Frame and Crunchyroll -- so, I’ll revisit these predictions in a few months. I identified several of these before -- but believe this augmented/updated list is worth repeating in light of continuing developments. And, one important over-arching theme -- virtually all of these MCNs are vertically (i.e., “niche” content/audience) focused.
FULLSCREEN -- I identify this one first, because a credible source tells me it may be in “play” right now (although, to be clear, that “play” may have been the just-announced AT&T/Chernin deal because The Chernin Group also is a significant investor in Fullscreen). The company is a known “player” in the space -- somewhat of a cross between Maker Studios (broad-based content) and ZEFR (deep analytics and technology -- see below). That makes it “different.” And, different can be good in the right hands.
ZEFR -- while technically not an MCN (although there is no single “right” answer to the question, “what is an MCN?” anyhow), this LA-based company is built on top of YouTube and is hot, hot, hot. Great technology, great mega-name brand clients. This company won’t be independent in 12 months tops.
MACHINIMA -- despite the fact that this one just recently closed its major strategic round with Warner Bros., again, it’s only a matter of time here. This one is obvious. It is one of the most high profile MCNs, and it caters to the coveted young male demographic. New CEO Chad Gutstein took the helm less than one month ago -- and most certainly will focus on strategic alternatives. In the “right” hands, this could be magic.
MITU -- this MCN has a sizable lead in the Latino market, a vertical that is significantly under-served in the overall YouTube/OTT economy. No question that big players are mulling this one over in a Crunchyroll kind of way right now. Specific non-English vertically-focused MCNs -- what Janko Roettgers calls “niche” programming -- make absolute business and consumer sense in our pluralistic society. I am Hungarian. If I were fluent, I’d want my full complement of Magyar programming right now!
STYLEHAUL -- this one is vertically-focused on fashion/beauty/lifestyle -- kind of the anti-Machinima demographic. This company is hot as well, with over 4000 channels and a potentially massive international opportunity. Lots of very positive buzz here.
DANCEON -- this vertically-focused MCN is the “MTV of dance” and fills an obvious void for that massively under-served market. DanceOn is hot and growing fast -- very fast -- and is backed by A-list investors, including AMC Networks, Nigel Lythgoe (creator of “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance”), Guy Oseary, and Madonna. Madonna??!!! And dance??!! How can you go wrong? You can’t! DanceOn owns this very international category. This one is also only a matter of time.
THE WHISTLE -- here’s an obvious vertically-focused MCN, which apparently wasn’t obvious to to many, since it just launched in January of this year (but already has millions of subs). Its sports focus alone makes this one intriguing. Think of it as the new ESPN for the current ESPN’s kids who want their own experience. An impressive management team has closed strategic partnerships with virtually all major sports leagues -- a Herculean feat that many, including myself, would believe simply couldn’t be done. Which makes it doubly Intriguing.
Let’s revisit these predictions on an ongoing basis. We are still in this book’s early chapters -- and can’t skip to the last page yet.