There’s a conference call this morning at Bernstein Research to further discuss why Wall Street analysts aren’t buying the argument by NBC, Fox, Disney and others that they’re staying ahead of the digital curve by putting primetime shows up for free and with few ads on Web sites such as Hulu. I’ve seen 3 deep-dive reports just this month about studio-produced entertainment going online. And the consensus is that Big Media could destroy what all three reports call the entertainment “eco-system” especially if they train consumers to think that they’re entitled to see professionally produced stuff for free online.
That prospect makes Laura Martin at Media Metrics apoplectic: Sites such as Hulu, she writes, are “anti-consumer, anti-media employees, and even anti-America” — and put “at risk” more than $300 billion worth of market value (that’s the combined price for the 30 stocks in the Bloomberg US Media Index). The reason? Media companies will lose a lot more revenue by giving shows away for free online than they will from pirates. Even worse, portfolio managers may decide to dump all of their entertainment stocks when they see what low regard studios and networks have for their best products. Less investment cash means fewer and crappier productions… and then you just kiss the business goodbye.
Credit Suisse’s Spencer Wang shares her concern, without the hysteria. He notes how a broadcast show makes at least 64% less online than it does on TV and a cable show about 36% less. So why not run more ads online, charge consumers a fee, or make them buy a subscription? Too late. More ads will drive viewers away, he warns. And consumers “are not trained to directly ascribe monetary value to TV shows.”
Or maybe not. Bernstein’s Michael Nathanson says that while this subject is “perhaps the single largest investment controversy in the media sector,” it’s been overhyped: The average person only watches 2 minutes of Web video a day vs. 309 minutes of live TV. Still, he sees “potential problems on the horizon.” Fox, he estimates, generates just 18 cents in ad sales for each viewer who watches The Simpsons on Hulu vs. 54 cents for each person who watches it on the TV network. The bottom line: the networks will have no choice but to pack in more ads or charge a fee.
No doubt, conclusions like that are why News Corp’s newly installed chief digital officer Jonathan Miller recently said he envisions a future where at least some of the TV shows and movies on Hulu are available only to subscribers. “I don’t see why over time that shouldn’t happen… It seems to me that over time that could be a logical thing.” And, remember, Miller is in charge of coordinating News Corp’s efforts to find new ways to get consumers to pay for digital content.