Verizon banks on Disney for SVOD credibility

US operator Verizon has done a deal with Disney to offer its new Disney+ subscription video to its customers.

Rival AT&T has gone all in on video through its acquisition of Time Warner, which enables it to offer things like HBO Max to its loyal customers. Verizon has no offsetting video assets of its own and its digital content efforts in general seem to be struggling, so it’s compelled to look for partnerships if it wants to remain competitive.

So today we have the news that Verizon is the exclusive wireless carrier partner of Disney+ and will offer all 4G and 5G customers a year’s access to all those lovely cartoons and super hero movies, which includes Fios Home Internet and 5G Home Internet subscribers. Assuming Verizon customers attach some value to Disney+, this is effectively an $84 discount on their phone bill for a year.

“Giving Verizon customers an unprecedented offer and access to Disney+ on the platform of their choice is yet another example of our commitment to provide the best premium content available through key partnerships on behalf of our customers,” said Verizon Chairman and CEO Hans Vestberg. “Our work with Disney extends beyond Disney+ as we bring the power of 5G Ultra Wideband technology to the entertainment industry through exciting initiatives with Disney Innovation Studios and in the parks.”

Vestberg may have been making a nod towards a few minor 5G announcements it had drip-fed over the past few days. You can read an excellent summary of them on Light Reading here, which is testament to the conscientiousness of its writers. Verizon also seems to be focusing its efforts on densely populated environments such as sports arenas.

While it remains highly debatable that operators will ever make significant profit from content, it does at lease serve as a good sweetener to current and prospective customers. Verizon couldn’t afford to lose too much ground to AT&T in this area after its Time Warner acquisition, so partnering with Disney makes sense. But Verizon’s negotiating position will have been weak so it has probably paid a heavy price to retain SVOD credibility.

Apple and Disney belatedly sever corporate ties

Disney CEO Bob Iger has been on the Apple board for eight years but, with the two companies now competing directly in the SVOD market, he has resigned.

Last week Apple officially launched its Apple TV+ subscription video on demand service last week, thus placing it in direct competition with Disney, which is also set to get into the SVOD game with, you guessed it, Disney+. For some reason the two companies left it until the very last minute for Iger to clear off, despite the two competing service having been in development for months.

“On September 10, 2019, Bob Iger resigned from the Board of Directors of Apple Inc,” said the abrupt, unsentimental Apple SEC filing. The Hollywood Reporter got a bit more comment on the matter, with Iger saying how great Apple is and Apple returning the compliment, which is nice. Whether relations will remain so cordial when they’re trying to steal SVOD market share from each other remains to be seen. For some reason Iger is still isted as a board member on the Apple site.

While Iger has been on the Apple board, links between the two companies go a lot further back than that. Apple founder Steve jobs was also the founder of Pixar Animation and thus become one of the largest Disney shareholder when it bought Pixar in 2006. Jobs also joined the Disney board at that time and stayed until his death in 2011.

As companies Apple and Disney have a lot in common. They both position themselves as premium consumer brands and invest heavily in their brand image. They also have a reputation for wanting to control everything around their product offering and image, so it’s not at all surprising that they would want to have their own SVOD services offering only their own stuff rather than rely on third parties for distribution or content.

One other big thing they have in common is a desire to be viewed as wholesome, family companies, which creates the possibility that they will end up producing fairly similar content. Right now Disney is mainly about feature-length movies while Apple seems to be focusing more in TV-style stuff. But that distinction could easily change over the years and, if it does, these two American icons will be fighting for the same wholesome dollar.

Apple finally gets the memo on sacrificing margin for market share

By making its entry-level new phone cheaper than last year’s one and only charging a fiver for its new video service, Apple is further compromising its premium image.

The roman numerals experiment is over, which means no more X in the iPhone nomenclature. Now we have the entry-level iPhone 11, the iPhone 11 Pro that has additional wide-angle and telephoto cameras on top of the regular one, and the iPhone 11 Pro Max, which is the same as the Pro but bigger. The most significant change, however, is the pricing of the 11, which is $50 less than the XR was last year at $699, which is also $100 less than the Google Pixel 3. The price of the other two phone remains the same.

On top of that the pricing of the new Apple TV+ SVOD service, which will launch on 1 November, has been announced at $5 per month, a lot cheaper than the standard Netflix package that costs $13 per month. The latter is a sensible acknowledgement that Apple TV+, which will only have original content, won’t have a fraction of the amount of stuff you can get from Netflix, while the phone pricing must surely be in response to increasing competitive pressure from the sub-premium market.

“With the tight integration between hardware, software and services, the advancements in iPhone 11 bring an unparalleled user experience at an affordable price to even more customers,” said Apple marketing boss Phil Schiller. “Apple TV+ is an unprecedented global video service with an all-original slate,” said Jamie Erlicht, Apple’s head of Worldwide Video. “We look forward to giving audiences everywhere the opportunity to enjoy these compelling stories within a rich, personalised experience on all the screens they love.”

The pricing angle has caught the attention of the commentariat. Bloomberg notes that not only is the iPhone 11 price cut significant, but the XR has had $150 knocked off it. “We view this as an admission that Apple stretched too far with the price points at last year’s launch,” Chris Caso, an Analyst at Raymond James & Associates, is quoted as saying in the Bloomberg piece.

On top of the aggressive price point for Apple TV+, anyone who buys a new iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Mac or iPod gets a year’s subscription for free, which is not just a great way for Apple to seed TV+ into its existing customer base, but provide a strong incentive for new sales too, so this is a smart move. Having said that it’s further evidence of Apple’s sudden willingness to sacrifice margin at the altar of market share.

We spoke to Ed Barton of analyst firm Ovum to get his take on the TV+ move. “The price point and a free year of access for new Apple device buyers are aggressive moves which will help drive early growth and usage,” said Barton. “But it’s still, by volume of content, a very limited video service with no catalogue content wholly reliant on new, untested intellectual properties.

“The strength of the Apple hardware and services ecosystem means that it practically can’t fail and a lot depends on how effectively and frequently Apple drops new shows to maintain viewers’ interest levels. Apple’s $6 billion production investment and its ability to surface and promote Apple Video content to a global audience of hundreds of millions throughout its tightly integrated hardware and software ecosystem give the service huge potential.”

On top of the phone and telly stuff Apple also unveiled the latest versions of its Watch and iPad in a mega-launch that it would previously have scattered throughout the year. Just as with the phones the new devices are largely spec upgrades, but we were reminded what a relative bargain the iPad is at just $329 (Apple is still charging $130 for a modem, for some reason, and it’s hard to see why anyone would pay that when they can just tether).

One other announcement was Apple Arcade, a gaming subscription service that Apple has been banging on about for a while. Just like TV+ it costs a fiver a month (although there’s no free subscription offer) and offers a smallish selection of exclusive games. People are less impressed with the games service though.

“It’s difficult to get excited about the games subscription, it does include some exclusive, new titles which didn’t appear particularly noteworthy from a gaming perspective,” said Barton. “Most of the games included didn’t sell well on a standalone basis so it’s difficult to see who this will appeal to. Perhaps there is a casual gamer segment which appreciates the simplicity of a subscription for a heavily curated selection of mobile games, but I won’t hold my breath.”

Since smartphone innovation has been stagnant for the best part of a decade, Apple decided to seek revenue and margin growth from flogging services to its installed base. Apple TV+ is a major step further in that direction, but the decision to be more aggressive on pricing is also a sensible strategy when it comes to expanding that installed base and thus the addressable market for its services.

As Nielsen reports shift away from cable TV Netflix announces biggest price hike

A recent Nielsen report on the evolution of US TV viewing habits reveals a 48% increase in the number of households switching entirely to over the air access.

16 million US homes – 14% of households – are now OTA-only, up from just 9% of households 8 years ago. This constituency is split into older viewers (6.6m) looking to save a few bucks by settling for the good, old broadcast antenna option, and younger SVOD (subscription video on demand) subscribers (9.4m), who get everything they need from services like Netflix and therefore see no need to pay for cable.

A significant characteristic of this latter category is a move away from the traditional TV to viewing on mobile devices. These smaller screens tend to lend themselves to solitary viewing rather than the more communal TV experience, something that is greatly facilitated by the on-demand nature of these services.

Nielsen OTA chart

Coinciding with the publication of this report is the announcement from Netflix of its biggest ever price rise in the US. The SVOD giant has been investing more than ever on original programming and has such a massive installed base that it seems to have decided it’s time to start thinking about justifying its massive valuation.

“We change pricing from time to time as we continue investing in great entertainment and improving the overall Netflix experience for the benefit of our members,” a Netflix spokesperson said in a somewhat redundant statement to Light Reading.

“For many users, Netflix is an indispensable video services,” said Tech, Media & Telco Analyst Paolo Pescatore. “There will not be much backlash (for now). This is certainly one way to increase revenue significantly. It needs to focus on financials as well as subscriber growth. Netflix is following the traditional pay TV model of increasing prices annually. Expect other countries to increase prices over coming months.”

Anecdotally linear TV viewing seems to be a dying phenomenon. Even when families congregate around the living room TV they’re just as likely to watch a DVD or streamed box set and, if this correspondent’s experience is anything to go by, people prefer to do their own thing on tablets. Netflix is currently the boss of that sector so it’s probably free to keep raising prices for a while yet.