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The State of Media and Entertainment 2017

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Where will streaming media and entertainment go now that we have the skinny bundle? 2016 will be remembered as the year the skinny bundle finally took off. For years, we’d been looking forward to the day when we could ditch our overpriced pay TV service and choose a low-cost skinny bundle instead.

Now that skinny bundles are a reality—thanks to Sling TV, DirecTV Now, and Sony PlayStation Vue— consumers find that their bloated pay TV packages aren’t so bad, after all. For one thing, they have all the channels people want. Skinny bundles are great, but only if viewers can get the programs they love. Many consumers find they don’t like limits when it comes to TV content.

So far, no skinny bundle offers a la carte channel selection, and none of them offer cloud DVRs, either. Since they make money serving targeted ads, they don’t let subscribers skip commercials.

If 2016 was the year skinny bundles became a reality, 2017 will be the year they become truly useful. Sling TV began beta testing a cloud DVR late in 2016, and it should be part of the bundle sometime this year. Tablo, which makes over-the-air antennas, is also testing a cloud DVR.

Skinny bundle options are limited, but that will also change in 2017. Companies were just dipping their toes in the water last year. DirecTV launched DirecTV Now in November, making the choice to cannibalize its own business before someone else did. The number of cord-cutters increased steadily in 2016 and pay TV subscriber losses mounted, but the major cable and satellite companies aren’t going anywhere just yet.

More streaming options in 2017 will convince more people to cut the cord. While skinny bundles got a lot of attention in 2016, over-the-top (OTT) subscription services got a lot of action. Viewers flocked to them and revenue surged; Digital TV Research Ltd. forecast that global OTT revenues will grow to $64.8 billion by 2021. Last year saw high-profile debuts such as NBCUniversal’s Seeso, Legendary’s Alpha, and an on-demand service from Fullscreen.

It’s no surprise that Netflix continued to dominate in the SVOD market in 2016. The company started the year with a bang when it announced a 130-country rollout at CES, making it available in nearly every country in the world. Netflix has found a winning formula in creating its own original series and movies, which helps it avoid licensing fees while keeping subscribers happy with a steady stream of buzzy releases. People couldn’t stop talking about surprise hit Stranger Things in 2016, although Luke Cage, Orange Is the New Black, and The Crown all had successful releases. 

Hulu ran a distant second during 2016, but that just means it’s trying harder. Hulu released its own original shows, including The Path and 11.22.63. It also announced an ad-free tier in August that let subscribers pay $4 more per month for the pleasure of never sitting through ads. While company CEO Mike Hopkins downplayed the popularity of the tier, fan reaction seems to be strong.

Hulu spent much of 2016 putting together its own skinny bundle, expected to launch this year and cost around $40 per month. So far, Disney and Twenty-First Century Fox have signed on. Expect Hulu’s bundle to be a major story this year.

One area that finally found its niche in 2016 was TV Everywhere (TVE). While TVE has been around since 2010, it was choked by limited offerings and difficult authentication requirements. This year, comScore and Nielsen finally started measuring views on connected TVs and set-top boxes, giving networks a way to monetize their connected living room views. With that financial incentive, the networks finally started creating living room apps and stocking them with catch-up programs and full seasons. Viewers quickly latched on, making network apps popular on set-top boxes. TVE authentication requirements didn’t get any simpler (despite Adobe announcing support for Apple TV single sign-on APIs in June), but with more premium content freely available, viewers figured out how to input their passwords.

One topic that was everywhere in 2016 was virtual reality (VR) video, as well as 360° video and augmented reality (AR) video. While the actual number of people watching VR video is still low and largely limited to gaming, that didn’t stop it from being one of the hottest areas of the year. Tech companies are rushing to create VR headsets, hoping to cash in on the growing sales (companies sold around 300,000 VR headsets over the 2016 holiday season).

VR has more than a few skeptics—people who think the devices are too expensive and too cumbersome— but even more die-hard believers. VR is absolutely not going to be another 3D TV, they said all year. This is not a fad, they insist. They’re probably right, but if we learned one thing about VR in 2016, it’s that this is just the beginning of a long period of research and development. VR won’t truly go mainstream for 5 to 10 years. By that time, headsets will be much smaller and more comfortable, and their price tags will have shrunk. That hasn’t stopped publishers and brands from jumping in now, however, hoping to get an early lead in the hot new area.

Finally, no discussion of streaming media and entertainment in 2016 would be complete without mentioning the Summer Olympics in Rio. NBC once again had the U.S. rights to the games, and it partnered with Akamai and its own Playmaker Media to bring more streamed content than ever to American viewers. It streamed live every minute of every event.

By the end of the games, Akamai announced it streamed 3.3 billion minutes from Rio, with 2.7 billion of that live. NBC’s Olympics coverage reached 100 million unique viewers. With the Summer Games being bigger and more popular that its Winter Games counterparts, that’s a record that should stand for about 4 years. In a year that saw tremendous growth in live video events, there was nothing bigger than the Rio Games.

That’s the year we left behind, but what about the year to come? To predict how the streaming video world will change in 2017, we called in a few experts.

Predicting 2017

Our professional prognosticators include Greg Ireland, research director with IDC, and Joel Espelien, senior advisor with The Diffusion Group (TDG). Americans will see some major skinny bundles launch this year, including entrants from Hulu and YouTube. The area faces challenges in 2017, Ireland believes, and part of that is because the entrenched pay TV services treat skinny bundles as simply a new lower tier of service. They’re a lifeline to keep customers who might otherwise drift away, and a way to maintain subscriber numbers, but they’re not attractive offerings on their own. The limited nature of these bundles makes them unacceptable to many.

“The saying goes everyone only watches about 15 channels but everyone’s 15 is different from everyone else’s,” Ireland says. “There may be an attractively priced skinny bundle that has 80% of what you want or 70% of what you want but if it doesn’t have those three or four or five other channels are essential then the skinny bundle becomes a nonstarter or it forces you to shift your viewing behavior.”

What skinny bundles promise consumers are lower-priced options, but what consumers really want are more choices and more content. There’s a way to provide both, and it involves creating strong user experiences and discovery options so that subscribers can find shows and movies that interest them while paying for a small bundle of channels.

“The way really to unlock the value of content subscriptions are great user experiences that have elegant and robust content discovery mechanisms whether it’s search, whether it’s recommendations, whether it’s other ways in which consumers can fully exploit all of the content that they subscribe to,” Ireland says. “I think consumers want content choice. They want access to lots of content, but that content can’t be valued if it’s not discoverable. I think the efforts around user experience and content discovery have to go hand-in-hand with thinking about adding skinny bundles to the existing portfolio of other larger bundle services.”

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