The Digital Media World Is in Flux. What Does This Mean for You?

By Paul Maxwell Report Archives
Cover image for  article: The Digital Media World Is in Flux. What Does This Mean for You?

It's getting complicated out there. Each hour (or minute) brings a harbinger of change, more change and damn few answers. I keep hearing, in the back of my mind, Stephen Stills and Buffalo Springfield with "Something's happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear."

Indeed, everything about the old world of media, from program inception to consumption, is changing. In the "olden days" (aka pre-digital) programming came to us via over-the broadcast or cable. But then came the internet a multi-directional infrastructure game changer which launched a deadly assault on cable's fault line. For years, the industry kept raising rates using the justification of new but often lost in the shuffle networks. The industry did this, and continued to do it, simply "because it could."  Thus cable, which at one time had neighborhood residents chasing install vans down the street in order to watch HBO, pissed off its customers until it finally reached a point where nobody except cable operators said anything nice about the industry.

As the wholesaled, that is the cable bundle packed by the operator, started shifting to the retail model for streaming services, the streamers packaged the internet-delivered and off-premises storage of a group of titles that could be accessed and watched at any time -- connected through the updated gatekeeper (the set-top box re-envisioned) of a Roku, Amazon or Apple TV packager.

As what at first what looked like a challenge as the packager, led by Netflix and followed by a hoard of copycats, skipped dealing with the operators, it still had to ride the cables, or fiber, to the customer. And the cable industry finds itself on both the wholesale and retail world at the same time.

In many ways, the cable industry (and I now include Viacom/CBS and AT&T's WarnerMedia and even T-Mobile plus any other 5G or wireless system as a part of it) has done very well with this conundrum.

As the model shifted from the cable bundle to the a la carte streaming packager, the business model found itself coping with the conundrum of having both wholesale and retail packages on the same internet. And don't count out over-the-air broadcasters moving to ATSC 3.0 with multiple streams. There's a lot for operators to cope with.

Meanwhile, some internet entrepreneurs (FAANG is now MAANG) built the strongest advertising sales behemoths that have managed to re-make the entire ecosystem of how and why ads get consumed … without paying for the underlying infrastructure that delivers the ads.

Kind of like making a product and not paying for distribution.

Meanwhile, I wonder what we're going to call the broader collection of individuals and companies that populate the broader marketplace?  We've got writers, producers, actors, packagers, networks, cable operators and telcos that really function the same as cable operators, viewing devices (TVs, computers, tablets, smartphones as well as theaters, advertisers, printers, digitizers, etc. ad infinitum) … so think about it.

Random Notes

Let's review what's happened in the past few weeks: President Biden finally nominated current Acting Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel as Chairwoman of the Federal Confusion Commission just as she was running out of time to serve thanks to that New Year's Day deadline. Biden also nominated Gigi Sohn, sort of the ghost of former Chairman Tom Wheeler, who served him as chief aid and has long been a network neutrality proponent, to the empty commission seat which will give Democrats control of the FCC … if they get vetted by the Senate. Alan Davidson was nominated to run the NTIA.

  • The Consumer Technology Association and the NCTA wants the NAB to notget away with imposing fees on Big Tech to use unlicensed spectrum.   
  • Roku (which pretty much invented the best early streamer "set-top box") dumped YouTube TV and the ability to watch streaming local channels (and a few throw ins).
  • Our friend John Ourand, of Sports Business Journal, reports that fully 34 of the top 100 shows on TV this year were, as you probably guessed it, NFL live games.
  • Fox jumped headlong into the ad-supported app business with Fox Weather (not a bad effort either) by passing over TV sets for smart phones.
  • Amazon's Fire TV fired HBO Max.
  • Comcast married a set-top/streamer box with a TV set that it sells via Walmart.
  • Lots of other streamers, such as Tubi, Hulu and a dozen others have been making deals with TV manufacturers like LG, Samsung and more, too.
  • So, who wins the race to control streaming with a management aggregation? Probably only two or three of the current contenders (Roku, Amazon Fire and Apple). Or, make a few guesses, I'm sure more are on the way. For example, Comcast's TVs are merely a set-top box substitute like the one now included with Comcast subscriptions connected to Comcast infrastructure which is what, of course, delivers internet access and streamers to the home, office or computer or cell phone.
  • If you search for TVs within and Amazon browsers, guess which TV set will appear first! (Can you think "favoritism"?)
  • A small number of cities, with Chattanooga probably being the largest, have built infrastructure for the city itself. It delivers the internet and more. More are being discussed every day.
  • Think tank Local Self-Reliance claims roughly 83 million Americans have only one choice for a home internet provider.
  • That overlooks satellite providers a bit … but a lot of households, like mine in Puget Sound, have too many trees around for good access. We buy Sunday Ticket over the internet, not via satellite.
  • Some local once-called-cable internet providers are being overbuilt with some actually succeeding, such as WOW.
  • Open access providers are proliferating … UTOPIA, in Utah, is now expanding with competitor providers using its lines.
  • Des Moines, Iowa plans to build a major conduit network with Google Fiber (which stumbled a few times as a classic cable TV/internet provider) paying the city for access … but local MSO Mediacom isn't happy about that.
  • California is building a state-owned open-access intrastate network with $6 million in state funds … a project focused on making certain every populated area is interconnected.  A missing mile approach to better connectivity.
  • Open access networks are more common in Europe; just ask Liberty.
  • The idea is to share the infrastructure instead of overbuilding forever. How many duplicate lines make any sense?
  • Axios' Margaret Harding McGill, in an October 27th edition, reports Underline, "a community infrastructure company" backed by AOL founder Steve Case and investor Laurene Powell, is building an open fiber network in Colorado Springs.  McGill notes that Underline is spending more than $100 million in capital to build out 400 miles of fiber for the Springs' 55,000 residences.
  • A telling point: Underline CEO Bob Thompson told Axios that it picked the Springs after looking at factors like how many households lacked access, the number of existing fibers and, tellingly, "the number of existing provers and how angry customers were [with] their current internet options."
  • Someday, perhaps, Congress will pass a couple of bills including the first bipartisan "infrastructure week" in a while and that actually is a month plus … maybe. That could provide serious fiber installation … and some good news for customers. The also once $3.5 trillion and now about $1.5 trillion social bill includes broadband outlays as well.

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