The New TV App Economy: The Buzz Meets the Bottom Line
Consumers may be app-crazy, but programmers are still in search of how to turn downloads into dollars
Consumers may be app-crazy, but programmers are still in search of how to turn downloads into dollars
RELATED: View Along the TV App Landscape
Ask Erik Flannigan, executive VP of digital media for the
MTV Networks Entertainment Group, about the importance of
apps, and he comes back with a quip that could easily become
a Comedy Central routine.
“We joke about our researchers going
the homes of young men and finding
iPads loaded with apps, but no spoons in
kitchen,” he says with a laugh. “But
it really shows how important these
things have become to their lives. The
tablet has been in the market less than a
year and a half, but for our audiences it
already has the importance of the Xbox
PlayStation—devices that these guys
were basically weaned on—and apps
are an enormous part of that.”
So important that some of the numbers
surrounding the app craze are
simply mind-boggling. With Forrester
Research predicting that 26 million
Americans will own a tablet by the end
of 2011 and SNL Kagan estimating
that another 122.2 million will own
smartphone by year’s end, tech research
company Gartner expects that
there will be some 17.7 billion app
downloads worldwide by the end of
this year, more than double the 8.2
billion cumulative downloads at the end of 2010.
By 2015, Gartner is predicting some 185 billion
app downloads, or about 26 apps for every one of
the planet’s 7 billion residents.
Unfortunately, however, dollars haven't proliferated
as rapidly as downloads. “People love apps
and are using them like crazy but the revenue
hasn’t quite followed,” says John Fletcher, the
lead analyst on SNL Kagan’s 2011 edition of the
Economics of Mobile Programming report, which
details mobile video revenue for approximately 30
TV companies and content owners. “This is a very
promising area, but we are still in the early days.”
Gartner is predicting global mobile app revenue
in downloads and advertising will hit $15 billion
in 2011. But SNL Kagan’s data shows that U.S. TV
players are likely to get only a tiny fraction of that
cash and uncertainty over the industry’s development
can be seen in the fact that other researchers
are serving up much lower numbers.
The Yankee Group believes the U.S. app sector
only brought in $1.6 billion in 2010, a figure
that will grow to $11 billion in 2014. IHS Screen
Digest predicts that the four major app stores that account for most of the business will produce only $3.8 billion in global
revenue in 2011, growing to $8.3 billion in 2014.
Mobile advertising, which is particularly important for TV-related apps,
also remains small. PricewaterhouseCoopers puts the U.S. mobile TV ad
spend at $532 million in 2011, expanding to nearly $1.4 billion in 2015;
considerable growth, but still a rounding error in the total U.S. TV business.
Among the 25-plus analysts, programmers, researchers, producers,
broadcasters and top media executives interviewed by B&C on the
emerging app economy, some players like ESPN, Disney/ABC Television
Group, CNN and the Weather Channel are already producing
significant revenue from their mobile efforts, and even those who are
just getting started see apps as an essential part of their future.
“We see a tremendous opportunity in sports both with the browser
experience for mobile Websites and with the explosion of apps,” says
John Kosner, senior VP/general manager, ESPN Digital and Print Media,
which has about 40 people working in the mobile area.
SNL Kagan ranks ESPN at the top of its list of mobile video programmers
and projects that ESPN’s mobile revenue will hit $53.6 million in
2011, up from $36.7 million in 2008.
But even the most successful companies also stress that they face significant challenges, not least of which is the fact that the TV app economy—
which only really began to take off when Apple launched
its App Store in July, 2008—is changing at lightning speed.
“You can have an innovative app in the marketplace and
six months later it can feel completely out of date,” says
Flannigan at MTVN, which has released 168 apps.
One example of the rapid change is the proliferation
of devices. Most programmers are still concentrating on
Apple’s platform, which dominates the app business and
will account for about 76% of the app store revenue in
2011, according to IHS Screen Digest estimates.
But Google’s Android has now surpassed the iPhone as
the dominant operating smartphone system with 36% of
the U.S. market in the February-April, 2011 period, the
most recent data available, versus 26% for Apple’s iOS
and 23% for RIM, according to Nielsen.
Meanwhile, more than 75 new tablets were announced
at CES this year and a new study from Strategy Analytics
indicates that Android tablets grabbed 30% of the tablet
marketplace in the second quarter of 2011.
While this proliferation reflects the huge demand for
video-centric tablets and mobile devices, many of these
machines use incompatible operating systems, which can
signi! cantly add to app development costs.
The Weather Channel, for example, has more
than 500 devices running in its labs at any one
time to make sure all the different devices and
operating systems work well with its apps, which
have been downloaded some 53 million times.
Costs also vary widely but can be considerable.
“To do a complete app at our scale that
is designed to handle 20 million to 40 million
uniques a month, you are talking about seven-figure development costs at least,” says Cameron Clayton, executive VP
of digital product, the Weather Channel Companies. “You can go to a
third-party developer and from $30,000 to $60,000 get a starter iPhone
app that is very good for a single show. But if you are trying to do a large
app for a whole series of TV shows or a network or cable channel app,
you are de! nitely talking six figures.”
Big upfront investments make sense for companies like the Weather
Channel, which racks up some 100,000 app downloads a day. But they
can be a significant barrier for smaller producers or station groups that are
trying to compete with national brands in the weather and news space.
Business models are also fluid. At the moment, most companies are
offering a mix of free ad-supported apps and paid apps, with paid apps
tending to involve games or premium content.
Nickelodeon, for example, has released more than 40 games that have
been downloaded some 25 million times. “Our primary focus has been
on games, which are paid, but as we expand our content apps, the focus
will be more on free and ad supported,” says Steve Youngwood, executive
VP and general manager, digital, Nickelodeon Kids and Family Group.
Likewise, History channel went the paid route for its Civil War Today iPad app, which was launched on the 150th anniversary of the conflict, says Dan
Surratt, executive VP of digital media at A+E Networks, who says they are
looking at a mix of free, paid and subscription apps going forward.
Generally, broadcasters, cable programmers and producers have free,
ad-supported products for apps that are tied to programming in the hopes
of reaching the widest possible audience for sponsors or promotions.
The ABC Player app and the ABC app for Grey’s Anatomy, for example,
were both ad-supported, says Albert Cheng, executive VP of
digital media, Disney/ABC Television Group.
But Cheng also sees opportunities for a mix of ad-supported and
paid apps, a route the company
took with its Oscars’ app, which
had free elements and a pay wall for
additional premium content.
Others have switched from pay to
free. After experimenting with paid
apps, CNN moved last year to free
apps, which has dramatically expanded
the reach, with downloads
passing the 10-million mark this July.
“Ultimately we came to the conclusion
that CNN is a brand that people expect
to be everywhere and our strategy
has been to get it in as many people’s
hands as possible,” says KC Estenson,
general manager of CNN Digital.
Many of these free apps are likely
to be expanded in the 2011-12
season, as they play an increasingly
important role in the promotion of
the new fall slates, note executives
at ABC, CBS and NBC.
“You are only going to see our investment in social and tablet mobile
oriented apps increase,” says Zander Lurie, senior VP of strategic development
at CBS, which launched the Star Trek PADD app in July that
reached the No. 1 paid spot in the entertainment category of the App
Store in 11 countries worldwide. “There is no doubt that apps have
become a fundamental ingredient in engaging with fans of our shows.”
But measurement of mobile usage is still in its infancy and solutions to
the problem seem at least a year or more away. “We have to be able
to better measure usage,” CBS’s Lurie says, if the mobile sector wants
to move beyond ad app experiments into a more mature business.
Another major issue is windowing. Lurie and others note that
they need to be careful in terms of how they make content available
so that it doesn’t hurt their much larger TV businesses.
“We have to construct a business model around apps that keeps
the existing ecosystem healthy but provides a driver of new revenue,”
he says, comparing their decisions making content available
on apps to some of the decisions they’ve made about other digital
distribution platforms. “Licensing current content to Netflix didn’t
work for us, so you’ve seen us license a single-digit percentage of
our library content to them for what we think is a good price.”
One potential solution to the shaky business models of the current
app economy is TV Everywhere products.
These apps require users to log in and
prove that they are subscribers of a multichannel
provider who has agreement for
multi-platform distribution. Currently, Comcast’s
TV Everywhere online product has 8
million authenticated users who have access
to about 185,000 pieces of content from 100
networks, says Matt Strauss, senior VP/general
manager of Comcast Interactive Media.
Migrating that scale to the app world will
take time. Comcast’s Apple and Android apps
for tablets and smart phones boast a much
more limited number, with about 7,000
pieces of content, but Strauss notes that the amount of content continues
to grow rapidly and that the app has been downloaded about 2.5 million
times. “We think customers should be able to watch more content on these
devices and authenticated apps are a great way to do that,” Strauss says.
These apps are attractive for programmers because they can be bundled
into existing agreements with multichannel operators, preserving
or perhaps even increasing their license fees and ad revenue because
Nielsen is now providing combined TV, online, DVR and VOD ratings.
Among programmers, early examples of TV Everywhere apps include
ESPN Watch, offering four live network feeds that includes most of the
networks’ programming; and HBO Go, which has been downloaded
nearly 4 million times since it was launched in February, and is now offered
by operators that serve about 80% of HBO subscribers. Time Warner
Cable and Cablevision are the only two major operators not to offer
the option, which carries all of the pay services’ current programming.
In July, CNN also upgraded its free app to an authenticated version
that provides live feeds of CNN and HLN to subscribers of multichannel
providers reaching about 50 million homes, a number that should
grow to around 70 million in upcoming months.
Turner is also planning authenticated apps for its entertainment nets that
will feature extensive offerings of long-form on-demand content, reports
Jeremy Legg, VP of business development of Turner Broadcasting.
“We are basically migrating our app strategy from a focus on shortform
content to authenticated long-form content,” Legg says.
Window Into Strategy
These apps also raise a number of windowing issues. To promote
both its programming and the HBO Go app, HBO recently made the
second episode of True Blood available on HBO Go the day after the
second season premiere, which meant the app users didn’t have to wait
until the following week for the linear TV airing.
Generally, however, programmers seem to be following the pattern set by VOD windows, offering new episodes within 24 hours after the linear
schedule. Now that Nielsen is offering bundled C3 ratings of TV, online,
VOD and DVRs, they have an even greater incentive to make new episodes
available online or via a TV Everywhere app as soon as possible.
Over time, the new TV Everywhere apps could, however, have a significant impact on windowing of free online content. On Aug. 15, Fox will
change the way viewers can access its new episodes online. Episodes that
had previously been available the following day for free on Hulu.com and
Fox.com will become available all of eight days after their airing—unless
the viewer is a subscriber to one of the multichannel providers that has
inked TV Everywhere deals with the programmer, or a subscriber to the
Hulu Plus premium service.
Dish Network is the first to have
signed up for the new window and
Fox is currently negotiating with others.
If these talks end up producing
additional revenue, other companies
may consider changing the windowing
of online content.
Beyond TV Everywhere apps, programmers
are also increasingly looking
at second-screen or coviewing
apps as a potential way to offer interactive
services and advertising. These
apps allow a viewer to use a second
screen—a tablet or a smart phone—
that could access interactive features,
chat, social media, additional information
and other enhancements to
the TV programming.
MTV Networks, NBC, ESPN, the
Weather Channel and Disney/ABC are among the programmers that are
experimenting with such apps. Two of these apps—ABC’s Oscar Backstage
Pass app (which was part of the Oscar Digital Experience) and the Grey’s
Anatomy Sync App for iPad—were recently nominated for Emmys in the
outstanding creative achievement in interactive media category.
ABC’s Cheng argues that “the iPad could very well transform the way
we think about interactivity and could finally provide interactive TV
with a platform that works for consumers.”
But he adds a note of caution that these apps, when done right, require a
great deal of work, which adds costs. The sentiment can be applied to the
app industry as a whole, as it searches for the right way to make it all work.
“The big question is really scale,” Cheng says. “We really are in the
process of ! guring out a business model that will allow us to scale this
and build an interactive platform for advertisers.”
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