Online Video in 2011: Ready for Drama?

Friends, online-video is going to be a fun storm in 2011 as the drama has just begun. It’s the first official business day of 2011, and that prompted me to awaken at 3:00 a.m. with great curiosity. I spent 4-plus hours diving into dozens of articles and blogs, and have wrapped it all up nicely for you. It’s my late Christmas gift.

Here are “things to watch” in early 2011, including some recent articles. See also my 2011 predictions, which is a mandatory scan. This will be on the exam.

Can WebTV tame the "Big Media" Tiger?

1. The WebTV Bloodbath Is Just Beginning: Check out this killer article by Fortune’s Jessi Hempel titled “What the Hell is Going On With TV” to get a flavor for the impending drama in this space. And I quote: “Netflix, Google, and Apple can’t just swoop in and disrupt the $85 billion home entertainment industry. The challenge lies in navigating the entrenched interests that make up the television business.” Jessi’s piece reminds us that only a 1/10th of a percent of people have left cable television for the web, yet Microsoft says 42% of the premium Xbox Gold users who rely on it to view video are watching more than an hour a day, or 30 hours in a month. “If you’re a cable provider, that should be terrifying,” says Forrester analyst James McQuivey. The author points to Clicker.com as one I’d watch closely… a made-for-web TVGuide and search tool that allows you to locate various shows (Modern Family) and select viewing options: free, per episode or subscription. But Jessi likes Comcast as a driver of a mature online-video model because it protects the financial interests of content providers (as well as its own). I sadly believe she’s right given the confusing and frustrating state of online-video on television today (which she likens to Internet circa 1998).  Fortunately we’ve got two forces to keep Comcast motivated: consumer demand and willing startups ready to meet that demand. And he, Comcast has been asked to be cool (see Bloomberg/Businessweek article).

Click image to read more of Fortune's "What the HELL is Going on With TV"

2. Online-Video Platforms Continue to Get Commoditized, Then Interesting. Frankly I’ve never been as interested in the boring infrastructure supporting online video as I am the marketing, community and content that sits on top of it (where the air is easier to breath). But Streaming Media’s Dan Rayburn explains it well. Sure the space is commoditized, but just because YouTube is free doesn’t mean online-video platform vendors can’t charge a premium for more flexible solutions that can scale and provide unique functionality. According to Rayburn’s “Commoditization Is Not a Dirty Word,” vendors are shifting from talking about how they encode or embed (yawn) and how they a) integrate with ad networks and analytics, b) deliver the right video content to the right user on the right device. That makes sense, and I would not underestimate the power of a platform that meets the needs of creators and advertisers (David Russek‘s SevenEcho, for instance, is one of the best-kept secrets for storytellers and brands). There’s a wide opening for a video platform which better meets the needs of creators and advertisers (see MediaPost article by WatchMojo’s Ashkan Karbasfrooshan). The challenge, of course, is that today traffic (not content) is king, and YouTube continues to reign by miles (comScore). Thanks to music videos, Vevo and Blip.tv continue to grow — but still small fish.

3. YouTube Community Still Alive. Is YouTube a thing, destination or community? Yes, depending on whether you live there 2 hours a day or slide over to see the latest viral clip of search for a meme. Community is still alive, and the eager and weird folks from StirFryTV are cooking up a “YouTour,” a YouTube Tour which starts in Orland on a Jan. 18 event. It will include YouTube allstars Michael Buckley, Shane Dawson and CoolGuyWithGlasses. We’re not sure if John Basedow will be sneaking onto the YouTour RV, and going shirtless to each event to pitch his “Take Control Fitness Package” (making the rest of us feel like fat asses). Paul (odcasting101) remains alive with his YouTube Gathering ning. There’s a San Antonio, Texas YouTube gathering planned in June 17-June 19). While YouTube’s Creator blog has gone dry, it points to 488 YouTube gatherings listed on Meetup.com (mostly tiny ones). I just discovered YTGatherings on Twitter too, and it alerts us to such events like Jake & Amir’s Toronto event on Jan. 27, 2011. I’d be surprised if a YouTube event doesn’t spring up as part of the popular Austin, Texas SouthBySouthwest event March 11-20. After all, there are several YouTube and online-video sessions as part of the programing and Felicia Day is keynoting.

4. Video Search Will Suck Less Get Better. Sure we’ve been saying that for years, but ThinkJose’s Jose Castillo explains why video search sucks: “The internet was never designed as a platform for video… the basic structure and platform we are using to consume visual data is an outdated system originally used for sending text messages between universities.” Castillo reminded me that Blinkx.com is still around, and that Microsoft’s Bing search has a mouse-over playback (and don’t tell YouTube, but I think Bing is curating better with a homepage of videos that I regard as more relevant than what I’m finding on YouTube). He also points to CastTV, which provides blended results from YouTube, CNN, Amazon and other sites. See also Clicker.com (point one).

5. Video Greetings Will Get More Awkward in 2011: Cheesy Christmas video greetings were hot, with some being fabulous and others being downright painful. They didn’t stop, as evidenced by Profnet’s stunningly awkward 2011 New Years video. I hate to say this, but I think we’ve only begun to see how low corporate video-greeting cards can go. Sure this isn’t an “industry shaker,” but it sure will be fun to watch.

6. Video Destinations Rival YouTube: When I pop into a few well curated online-video sites, I increasingly believe YouTube, while still growing in views, will lose share in 2011. Check out Bing’s site and you’ll find a piece about Mona Lisa’s eye codes by NBC (saw it on TV last night), the “No” baby (that has viralinated), and how to break your soda habit via Howcast. That’s far more relevant than what I’m finding when I browse YouTube’s inhumanely edited topic areas, or surf my bloated subscription box. Yahoo Video is still luke warm, but I’d expect it to steal share with the shift away from consumer-generated content in March. AOL Video is still Revverish (insert tumbleweed and sound of crickets) but getting better. While YouTube focuses on being a platform, being relevant on television and mobile, and hopefully searching video better.

7. Damn We Need Curators. It’s simply not possible to “browse” for good videos on YouTube anymore, although perhaps Google will consider some of my unsolicited New Years Resolutions for YouTube. Ultimately I’m not likely to find good content surfing the “most viewed” on YouTube (now dominated by a few niche “web stars” that appear to be “crowd sourced” by a tiny segment of apparently stoned teenage video enthusiasts). Instead, we’re more likely to find it via curators like eGuiders. Why aren’t we seeing more curators (see NYTimes blog on subject from last year). For instance, ReelSEO’s Jeremy Scott carefully selected some fantastic viral highlights from last year. That was more helpful to me than combing through YouTube. I wrote a lot about curating in Beyond Viral; go buy that dang book so I’m not the laughing stock of Wiley. Hitwise’s Bill Tancer saw the migration of early YouTubers to curated content sites a year ago, but it’s been oddly quiet.

8. Online Video Gets More Social. I didn’t hit that hard enough in my 2011 predictions, so let me point to Hitwise’s report about Facebook driving the social engine of the Internet. Basically Facebook’s growth hasn’t slowed down, and MySpace and Bebo are crumbling. YouTube, surprisingly, is flat relative to Facebook. I’m telling you… watch for Facebook offering revenue sharing and see if the YouTube community shifts over to Facebook. Daneboe’s cracked Facebook via the insanely popular Annoying Orange with nearly 7 million “likes” (compared to only 1.5 million YouTube subscribers despite his 423 million views). Currently Daneboe uses Facebook to alert fans to a video, then streams it on YouTube where he generates a percentage of income. How easy would it be for him to start using Facebook if the company revenue shared? Most of us YouTubers haven’t cracked Facebook yet, and it’s high time for that. NYTimes Tech Blogger, Miguel Helft, also points to Clicker.com (someone’s doing good PR) for socializing video.

9. You’re Going to Pay More for Broadband: Video will soon dominate the percent of Internet traffic (see 2011 “Year Ahead In IT,” point 6). You .o5 percent of cable snippers are draining the economic system like illegitimate welfare recipients or those pesky entitled Boomers looking for social security payouts. Sure maybe there will be a poor-man’s broadband solution, but the rest of us are going to pay. With broadband suckers like Netflix and the new Skype iPhone Video one-to-one apps, do you honestly think telecommunication firms and broadband providers aren’t going to get wise? The U.S. is 18th in the world for speed, and we can bet that’s going to get some attention despite the historical year-over-year flat cost of broadband.

10. Google Going Beyond YouTube. Despite the GoogleTV Sony/Logitech launch running into a mix of praise and hiccupsreworking software and media-company resistance, we can expect Google to go beyond YouTube in 2011. Check out Information Week’s predictions on what Google will do this year. Among them: going Hollywood. That appears a difficult but inevitable play for Google to “organize the world’s information,” when you recognize “big media” as a large, sustainable chunk of it.

Finally take note of NewTeeVee’s Liz Shannon Miller’s poll about what force will really impact the space. Most votes are not for Hulu, Netflix, TV Everywhere, Apple or Google… most of us believe the real “shake up” or transformation will be driven by… something else. If YouTube and Facebook’s relative overnight success taught us anything about this still-maturing market, it’s that where there are problems and unmet consumer needs, there’s always something sudden and new that can keep it interesting.

Darwinian Evolution: Forwards and Backwards

Having been hunched over a laptop for about 18 of the past 24 hours (and since a Sony Google TV is on route as a gift), I thought this image would be appropriate for my blog banner. What do you think?

Feel free to use it in your next presentation. It’s adapted from the Darwin evolutionary image (source unknown), and I created the “sitting laptop man” based on some posture clip art. Then added a cell phone to primitive man, and a laptop to our ape ancestors.

Admit it… we’re just a few evolutionary moves away from being giant pieces of fat and flesh with tiny opposable thumbs for texting and remote controls.

The evolution and devolution lifecycle, illustrated

You Don’t Have to Be CableTV’s Bitch. Options Abound!

The poor television networks and cable. In one of the seminal points of the evolution of online-video-to-television and mobile, the networks are putting legitimate near-term business desires and needs above consumer demand and innovation. You could view recent moves — like blocking GoogleTV and Hulu’s paid app with ads — as strength and discipline. Avoiding threats to their lucrative cable TV partnerships. Or you could view all of this as a tragic flaw — not dissimilar to the music industry’s early failures in the dawn of digital distribution.

CableTV and networks are preserving their cash cows. But not for long.

It’s the perilous curse of any comfy industries that is reticent to let high-potential new revenue streams and consumer demand cannibalize their cash cows … and it’s the cart blanche for startups that produce new models to meet consumer needs.

But guess what? You have a choice (see options below). Ironically, I have Verizon FIOS servicing my home as I write this blog entry, and the company is updating its offering to provide more for less (less expensive additions, faster broadband and soon web-via-TV). Still, the cable-TV box is quickly dying (see WSJ). The FTC is making it harder for CableTV companies to force its own boxes on people, yet most of the “unwashed masses” don’t know they have other options. It amazes me that most people are oblivious to the fact that the CableTV box and the DVD player are the least interesting things that can feed their HDTV.

Meanwhile, Hulu is also slipping: yesterday I was about to download the Hulu app on my iPad, until I saw that it had one of the worst ratings I’ve yet seen on iPhone/iPad apps! Apparently the “Generation I” isn’t keen on the subscription charge plus commercials, and Hulu is missing the opportunity to develop an ad-supported wide “anytime, anywhere” distribution of network content without intermediaries. In a similar flub, Google TV is being blocked by networks and Hulu, because they’re no doubt rooting for a network-friendly cable alternative that will take forever and suck. But they’re counting on it stopping a “great migration” away from monthly cable.

You can’t blame the networks for wanting to charge for content, which is the very basis of a very fair $99 AppleTV model (where consumers pay “ala cart” to rent specific television shows, and it’s commercial free HD content without a subscription). But the “one to watch,” in my opinion and others, is Netflix’s evolving model, a fixed-price (as low as $8) “all you can eat” movie rental service which is becoming much more generous and easy, as viewing options rapidly expand from DVDs by mail to desktop, Roku, AppleTV, Netflix, some DVR and DVD players, and iPhone. We don’t even bother with those red Netflix envelopes by mail, and our days of visiting Blockbuster are completely over. Sometimes we accidentally pay $5 for Verizon’s “on demand” movies, only to discover they’re part of the free Netflix library to which we subscribe!

Hulu’s bi-polar approach, driven surely by networks and not by Jason Kilar, the company’s smart, flexible and customer-oriented CEO. Kilar has created a site designed first for viewers, and offers advertisers novel ad options (like allowing viewers to view one trailer instead of multiple in-stream ads, or giving consumers the choice of what ad they view). But Hulu also has to protect its content partners, who aren’t keen on anything that threatens the addictive income they fetch from cable providers.

Just like smart phones exploded in the past 18 months, the online-video & television merger is just entering “the tipping point.” It appears the emergence of GoogleTV has everyone innovating in desperation. So what should you do?

Like the boys from Prison Break, set yourself free. You have options to escape the restrictions of your cableTV provider.
  1. Join Netflix for if you watch more than 2-3 movies a month. It’s the most cost-efficient and easiest way to watch movies because it’s “all you can eat” on a fairly decent library. To enjoy it beyond the laptop, you’ll want a $99 AppleTV or $80 Roku. The quality is fantastic, and it’s easy to use.
  2. Google TV has folks scared. And scared industries innovate.
  3. Unless you don’t mind the horribly slow and counter-intuitive cable boxes, you may still want a TiVo. It’s frustrating to pay TiVo a monthly subscription (around $15)  and still pay your cable provider maybe $5 for a card allowing TiVo to read the signal. But TiVo is the gold-standard for easy interface, and sells refurbished boxes. Even better, there’s one you can rent, which helps you avoid the one-two pain punch of a purchased unit plus subscription. TiVo, like most new Blueray DVDs and retail DVRs, also offers Netflix and other services (like Amazon and Blockbuster, for when Netflix doesn’t stock the latest movies).
  4. Keep your eye on CableTV box alternatives: AppleTV, GoogleTV and all of the new BlueRay DVDs with advanced options. You’ll find there’s far more for your HDTV to enjoy when it’s not plugged into that archaic cable box, but most of us accept these dumb boxes without question. As I learned recently from Cluetrain Manifesto author Doc Sears, the manufacturers of these boxes will attest the fact that the cable providers “dumb them down” for various reasons, not the least of which is preservation of a dying business model.
  5. Finally, if you hate watching television via a hot laptop, you may be a candidate for an iPad. It’s small, it streams Netflix well, and it’s a good bed/couch option if your spouse is watching Nancy Grace and you want to avoid getting a TV lobotomy.
My wife watches Nancy Grace, and I'd rather hear our pet pig squeal (or watch something smart and funny on my iPad with scream-canceling headphones)

Phone-Driven Television Arrives

Ladies and gentlemen I present the future of The Boob Tube: we shift from our cable boxes and laptops to…

HDTV viewing driven by words you search via your exo-brain (you need to stop calling it a phone, or else it’s going to get a complex). Yes your phone is your remote, and your television is your monitor. It’s going to happen just a bit slower I’d like, but *BAM* before you know it… you’ll forget I predicted it today because it will be as common as your toaster and microwave (note the lack of a hybrid toasterwave). I’ll thank you, dear WVFF back-rower, for reminding me of my psychic abilities next year.

Mac had a shot with the omni-present iPhone and the affordable AppleTV, but kinda blew it. The AppleTV wasn’t poised as a companion device to the phone, and that was its tragic flaw. Likewise it’s all so damned exclusive. Now the Android plus GoogleTV? That’s a game changer, friends. Let those green little robots march into my heart.

Before we examine some bold interim solutions, let me be “authentic” and “transparent” and disclose my biases. We have a home full of Macs. Two desktops, three laptops, two iPhones, three iTouches, one iPad, two old-style AppleTVs and one new one. And that’s not counting the Mac Mini and older desktops that are taking up closet space. As my debt can attest, the Apple bastards have never given me a thing for free (so I try to conceal these toys in my videos where possible). But I theoretically want to see Mac win, and I’m not seeing it. Similarly I’m biased in favor of Google since I do make a non-trivial amount of income from YouTube advertising around the 4-6 million views I get monthly. But I’ll try to be impartial.

On the road to smartphone-driven television viewing:

  • Roku, TiVo, AppleTV… they got us partially there. But none of these devices harness the power of man’s best friend (after dogs): the “phone.”
  • Today one of the first Google Television products will be announced by Logitech. Junien Labrousse, Logitech’s Executive VP of Products, is holding an invite-only media event in NYC at 3:oo p.m., presumably to launch the highly anticipated Revue. Perhaps it will invite people to use their phones as a remote, but I doubt it.
  • Anything’s got to be better than Sony’s remote-controlled television. Ian Douglas, Gadget Guru for the UK’s Telegraph, aptly suggested it was designed blindfold, in the 1980s (screen shot below courtesy of Engadget). The gamer in your family may love this, but it’s no flying automobile.
The 1980s called. It wants its remote back.

You may be surprised that I’ve written precious little about Google TV… simply because until now it’s all been hype and imagination. But three things changed in the past weeks:

  1. Dean Gilbert, who worked on GoogleTV, is now heading YouTube’s content partnerships. He’s joined by Robert Kyncl, former VP of content acquisitions from Netflix. That, to me, suggests that Google is poising to position YouTube on the new platform.
  2. We mean no harm to your planet.

    Newsweek ran a Grisham-like story about how Android is leapfrogging iPhone on the “next big screen” we call smart phones. It’s an interesting article to read, even if you didn’t just watch the fascinatingly depressing “The Social Network” movie. Where there are lawsuits, there’s game-changing innovation… and Newsweek documents the mad rush of lawyers chasing this disruptive market changer.

  3. Finally, we’re getting a taste of the toys. Sony will certainly claim its role, and Logitech may sell a mess of boxes… like Roku or TiVo. Of course the toys aren’t nearly as important as the BIG change.

Friends, GoogleTV plus Android equals comfortable viewing of searchable content, not from overpriced remotes, but… the smart phone you wear like a wrist watch in the 1970s.

Take the brief GoogleTV tour and imagine how your television interface will change, where you’re no longer a prisoner of the horrendously archaic cable-TV boxes brought to you by lazy monopolies like Verizon Fios and Comcast. Man I just want to give a crotch shot to the entire cable industry separating studios/networks and my television set. You’ll see that the Dish Network will have a distinct advantage as this model spreads, and our relationship with the television will fundamentally change.

Have a look at Logitech’s non-viral, viral video, featuring a television set with an eye, two feet, and a desperation to be relevant again. Video consumption will shift back to the biggest monitor in the house (that $2000 HDTV collecting dust), and the device powering it won’t be a laptop… they’re too clunky and hot, even if they’re far harder to lose than the chewed-up remote control.

I knew my “future of online video” chapter of Beyond Viral (Wiley) would have a limited shelf life. Here’s what you can expect in the next 6-18 months.

  1. Short-Term Adoption Minimal: Near-term purchases of GoogleTV devices will be minimal, as the “unwashed masses” would use a TRS-80 with their televisions if their cable provider told them that’s what they get. I’d like to say THIS is the Christmas season where web-TV becomes mainstream like those magical moments of precious technology adoption… CD players, DVD players, GPS devices. But I’m tired of being over zealous on that prediction like I did in 2007, 2008 and 2009.
  2. I proclaim 2011 the “Year of Smart Phones Marrying TV Sets.” Later in 2011 we’ll cross the… oh I hate using the term… “tipping point,” where consumers will want to drive their giant monitors (television sets) using their “exo-brains” (Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams), also called “smart phones.” Since the cable providers will sleep through this era like Blackberry snoozed the “smart phone” alarm clock, this will favor pairs of devices: iPad and AppleTV, Android phone and GoogleTV. I’m betting on the latter, and we’ll see Mac getting Microsofted and Microsoft buying anything that offers it a shortcut back to relevance. This TV/smart phone revolution should be especially interesting when we see “dueling banjos of remote controls” — between teenagers and their parents. Sure some will prefer to enjoy the tablet as a giant remote, but the kids have it occupied playing Angry Birds and Zombies versus Plants. Besides, it’s all covered with jam and peanut butter.
  3. Search will drive views… people won’t passively roam stations, getting stuck on “forebrain freezing” infomercials. Instead they’ll type the names of shows, actors, and even obscure strings of words like “knife, annoying, orange.” Where we once surfed stations, we’ll now search shows, actors and words… and remain mostly indifferent to where, when and how they appear. Sit with that thought for a moment… it’s kinda revolutionary.
  4. Even while search drives views, screen real estate will continue to influence us. Just as those “related videos” cause us to wonder into an online-video binge on YouTube…  what GoogleTV does to serve related content will, in effect, possess us with a stronger hold than any television show or network. We may start our “television binge” with one intent, but the surrounding real estate will suck us into that comma-induced trance we love about today’s television.
  5. So… the more things change, the more they will stay the same. Still I’m going to bet that search-enabled consumers will democratize television. This gives independent content creators (especially those with existing audiences) a distinct advantage… at least until the big guys adapt to the medium.

Note: Added Oct. 7, 2010. Bobjenz predicted tablet/television combo on a guest post last year (see his post). When he pointed that out, I playfully edited his comment, which he didn’t find funny. Sorry, Bob. Note that Bobjenz also points out in that guest post the importance of regular uploads, which is perhaps my biggest and most tragic lapse over the past year.