• Forrester’s New Report on Paid Downloads: Right on TV Shows, Wrong on Movies

    Forrester released a new report last week entitled, “Paid Video Downloads Give Way To Ad Models”. Since I’ve had some requests to comment on it (and the paid video market as a whole), I’m weighing in here.
    I was able to read the full report, but if you can’t, then their press release is here. It provides the gist. In short, I think Forrester’s conclusion that “The paid download market is, however, ultimately a dead end” is mostly right regarding TV shows, but completely wrong for movies. Lately broadcast and cable TV networks have ramped up deals with many aggregators to distribute streaming versions of their programs. And with advertisers falling all over themselves to support these, it is certainly likely that the concept of paying to download and own a TV program is heading for a decline.
    However, when it comes to movies, it’s a different story altogether. First off, at a minimum, today’s $15+ billion/year home video market (DVD sell through only) more than demonstrates that people want to own certain content (i.e. mainly movies). This provides a pretty rich pot of revenues for paid downloads to tap for growth. Paid downloads (or “electronic sell-through” as some call this activity), hold the potential to be a far more efficient and flexible way to get content into the hands of those willing to pay for it. Granted there are some current usability issues (namely broadband-to-TV connectivity) to overcome, but these will certainly be resolved in the near future. Ignoring this dynamic (as Forrester does by neglecting to mention, even once, how it expects home video market to evolve in the digital era) is a significant omission.
    It leaves me wondering how Forrester thinks this vital revenue stream fits into its conclusions. Piggy-backing on this omission, the report also concludes (absent an explanation that I can find) that “Movie studios whose content only makes up a fraction of today’s paid downloads, will put their weight behind subscription models that imitate premium cable channel services." I think this conclusion is way off base. Studios love home video revenues. For many movies, home video revenues ARE the business model, long since displacing theatrical revenues as the main source of profitability. It’s inconceivable to me that, in the digital age, studios are going to move away from emphasizing a la carte purchases to instead take a share of a 3rd party’s monthly subscription revenues, as Forrester believes.
    That’s not to say there won’t be a place for subscription services (e.g. Netflix). But studios have rich e-commerce-based business opportunities ahead (fueled by all the merchandising tricks folks like Amazon have mastered in other product categories). These have been limited to date by lack of instantaneous product fulfillment (i.e. broadband-delivered downloads). On the cusp of pursuing these opportunities, to suggest that, instead, studios will forsake them for subscriptions, just doesn’t make sense.
    Finally, Forrester’s prediction that because “only 9% of online users have ever paid to download a movie or TV show”, there is unlikely to be a mass market for paid downloads, is very tenuous, given that broadband video delivery itself has only burst into the public’s conscious in the last year or two. Scant adoption of any new technology in its early days is a pretty unreliable indicator of future potential. For example, consider how few people owned a cell phone in the early days when they were expensive and brick-like. Now cheap and sleek, they are ubiquitous.
    Paid downloads are not a “dead end” as Forrester asserts. Rather, they are an early-stage business opportunity evolving from an existing business model -- namely home video. While key catalysts are still needed to fuel paid downloads’ growth, these will inevitably come. Digital strategists at studios who dismiss paid downloads’ potential for movies in particular at this early juncture do so at their peril.
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