One Cord Cutter Effect: A Level Playing Field

First a bit of good news: Despite a spate of pre-wedding worry, the Internet didn’t collapse under the weight of Friday’s royal wedding.

But the mega-ballyhooed nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton did draw an impressive online viewing audience, with live streams available from most of the major media organizations, Livestream, Hulu and many other sites. The Royal Channel on YouTube, the official channel of the British Monarchy, was an enormously popular choice for online viewers, for both live and rebroadcast streams.

Exact stream numbers are difficult to pinpoint given the number of outlets that made the wedding available, but Akamai Technologies, which delivered streams to 25 different broadcasters, saw a peak of 2.9 million simultaneous streams across its network, topping last year’s World Cup as the most viewed live event in Akamai’s history. Livestream and Yahoo both experienced their largest traffic numbers for a live video event—a fact made even more impressive when considering that the wedding occurred at a time when most Americans were not yet at work, when online viewing is sometimes a necessity. Same for the U.K. where the day was declared a national holiday. “It’s just the latest sign that the Internet has become a broadcast medium” in its own rite, Akamai spokesperson Jeff Young told reporters.

True, but let’s put these numbers into proper perspective. While certainly an enormous audience for streaming video, it nonetheless represented only a very small fraction of the overall royal wedding television audience, estimated in excess of 2 billion worldwide.

Still, as increasing amounts of video news, entertainment and information become available online, so grows the number of people turning to their non-television devices for video information and entertainment. And as that online viewing habit matures, it brings with it a unique, moment-in-time opportunity: The chance for online video creators of any size to compete with major entertainment studios and networks on a playing field that will likely never be this level again.

The Cord Cutters Find Their Voice

There is a growing flock of viewers who have decided to walk away or cut back from their monthly cable bills and take their viewing online. The cord cutters, as this group is frequently referred, have found their voice of late and are using various mediums to advocate their pioneer-style approach to entertainment. Opting out of their comfortable (and they would argue unnecessarily expensive) cable lifestyle, the cord cutters are choosing instead the untamed frontier of online video–Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and other online channels viewable through laptops, gaming consoles, smart phones and on over-the-air TV with the help of old-school rooftop antennas.

The cord cutter movement has spawned a legion of supportive websites offering advice on how to make the switch, such as lifehacker.com, clicker.com, GigaOM.com, and others.  Om Malik of GigaOM.com is perhaps the most vocal advocate for cord-cutters, with his NewTeeVee blog team stepping up last week to launch National Cord Cutters Day, featuring a series of Cord Cutter meetups in San Francisco; Los Angeles; Austin; and Toronto, with supporters from 18 other cities stepping up to organize their own gatherings.

Said Malik in his blog post entitled All Hail the Cord Cutters, “To me, it is clear as day that we are at the cusp of another major shift in the world of online video. If the first phase of online video was about user-generated content and enthusiasm for new, fresh voices, the future looks to reinvent the past and old TV…Whether it is the onslaught of new services (HuluPlus), Netflix embedded in televisions and DVD players, briskly selling $99 AppleTV or growing interest in Roku and Boxee, these days cord cutters are a whole new demographic.”

So How Big is the Movement?

Several recent studies have provided somewhat differing perspectives on the cord cutter issue. In a study released last month by Fitch Ratings, it was projected that the emergence of over-the-top (OTT) television platforms will not result in widespread cable subscription cancellations, with Fitch estimating that only 10-20% of the overall U.S. population is at risk of cutting the cord in favor of alternative platforms. “The large, well-capitalized content providers are crucial to the industry and will remain so,” said Fitch Director Melissa Link-Cohen.

On the other hand, as part of a study by In-Stat, market researchers suggest a full 30% of current pay TV customers are “at risk” for following the cord-cutting trend. But as In-Stat’s Keith Nissen explained, there is a caveat:

The frequency of viewing online video will probably not increase until ‘must-see’ original online programming takes hold.

Further confusing the issue, a separate Nielsen study last summer declared stories of cord-cutting traction “a myth,” pointing out that the practice has so far been limited to small pockets of the population, in particular young, emerging households displaying atypical viewing habits—surely a message that the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing (CTAM), which commissioned the Nielsen study, was more than happy to report.

The Shift and The Opportunity

What’s hidden in the debate about whether cord-cutting is a real or exaggerated threat is the fact that the marketplace is undeniably shifting and expanding under our feet. Regardless of whether they are cutting off or cutting back, there’s no debating that more people are watching more online video on their computers, mobile phones, and on their TV using Roku, Boxee, Apple TV and other devices than ever before in history.

It’s also true that trends move slowly, but steadily. In this case, it’s no surprise that all the studies show that younger audiences have been the first to embrace new entertainment delivery options. It stands to reason that other demographics will follow as relevant content continues to migrate online and habits continue to evolve.

Evidence of the shift is everywhere:

  • Netflix announced during its earnings call last week that its subscriber base now exceeds that of Comcast’s, and the movie rental and streaming service now intends to invest in original programming for its streaming service
  • Online video providers are increasingly incorporating traditional TV tactics, like bringing appointment viewing to the Web, as discussed in my last post
  • Sporting events, like the Masters golf tournament, World Cup soccer, and the NCAA March Madness Basketball tournament, have dramatically increased their online viewership year-over-year
  • YouTube stars are parlaying their previous five minutes of fame into real revenue opportunities, creating a new level of reality star (I’m talking about you, Antoine Dodson)

And inside this period of transition lies an opportunity. Ultimately it is the content, not the technology that will drive the shift. Because the barriers to entry for online video are shrinking, while the number of viewers tuning in to the Internet as a primary entertainment source are growing, there has never been a better chance for your content to be judged equally alongside more established providers.

“Must-see original online programming,” as In-Stat’s Nissen referred to it, is relative to the niche audience you are trying to communicate with. As the long-tail of the Internet grows longer and more micro-targeted, so does the opportunity to reach your very specific audience with interesting and clever programming that matters to them. And with the targeted audience, that’s where niche broadcasters have a chance against the bigger players. Must-see doesn’t mean millions of people watching Seinfeld anymore. Online, the term can serve a much more targeted group—your customers and followers, in other words. Call it, “must-see for me.” Couple that the with the growth numbers of online video, and it’s easy to see why it has become increasingly important for your fans and followers to become viewers, as well.

And with the playing field open to all, anyone who knows and understands their audience has at least a chance—a chance to create must-see video, a chance to connect with your online audience and a chance to become an iconic video provider to your niche viewer in the future.

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