Chasing cord-nevers

Considering their general disinclination to pay for media Millennials are driving a lot of media deals these days.

In just the last few months, Amazon purchased Twitch for $1.1 billion, Facebook acquired Oculus Rift for $2 billion, and now Microsoft is scooping up Mojang, maker of the highly popular video game Minecraft, for $2.5 billion.

In just the past week, Viacom announced it has finalized a deal with Sony to make 22 of its pay-TV networks, including MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central, available on a planned Sony web-TV service aimed at PlayStation game consoles and Sony’s Bravia line of connected TVs, while Disney and 21st Century Fox were reportedly weighing  similar deals with Sony. Dish said it will launch its planned web-TV service aimed at non-pay-TV households by the end of this year, and Verizon said it will launch a mobile version of the web-TV platform it acquired from Intel by the middle of 2015.

Although the deals obviously differ in their particulars, all reflect an effort to target a critical but elusive audience: so-called Millennials who increasingly view video content on mobile devices instead of traditional fixed platforms, are not developing the habit of paying for TV service at levels close to previous generations and who regard video games and gaming videos as essential programming categories on par with movies and TV and spend nearly as much time playing the former as watching the latter. It’s an audience that is highly coveted by both marketers and content creators, but is increasingly hard to reach via traditional channels.

The most telling deal in that regard is Viacom’s licensing agreement with Sony to make its 22 cable networks available over-the-top on PlayStation game consoles and connected Sony TVs. Until recently, network owners have been reluctant to make their linear feeds available over-the-top except as part of a traditional pay-TV subscription, as Intel and Apple discovered in their unsuccessful bids to launch subscription streaming services that would compete directly with cable and satellite services.

While that reluctance has helped preserve the traditional pay-TV ecosystem and the lucrative carriage fees it provides the networks, a growing share of the TV audience does not participate in that ecosystem, especially the audience for youth-oriented channels like MTV, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon. If Viacom wants those networks to remain relevant to that audience in the future it needs to meet those viewers where they gather.

One place they still reliably show up is on game consoles. With Sony again dominating console sales thanks to the success of the PlayStation 4 it brings more to the table for Viacom than Intel or anyone else that has tried to launch a standalone OTT service.

While Intel was never able to get its ambitious OnCue OTT service off the ground, Verizon, which acquired the OnCue assets in January, may be closer to succeeding by refocusing the service on mobile devices, where Millennials also watch a lot of video.

Speaking at an investor conference last week, Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam said the wireless company expects to launch a web-based subscription TV service by mid-2015 featuring a smaller bundle of channels than traditional pay-TV packages and targeted specifically at mobile users.

“No one wants to have 300 channels on your wireless. Everyone understands it will go to a la carte,” McAdam said. “The question is what does that transition look like.” Content owners and traditional distributors who fail to adapt are “the ones who’ll be left behind,” he added. “Millennials really do want to look at this content on their iPads and other devices.” 

McAdam said the service will include the major broadcast networks as well as “some of the digital media out of the West Coast” such as DreamWorks Animation’s AwesomenessTV “that really goes after the millenials.”

Perhaps the most ambitious and opportunistic bid for the attention of Millennials was Amazon’s acquisition of Twitch. With more than 50 million unique visitors a month and peak-hour usage that rivals many networks’ primetime audiences Twitch may have the largest audience of Millennials of any platform. While advertising on Twitch so far has largely consisted of native ads from game makers Amazon’s growing advertising ambitions, along with its vast trove of data on its users’ purchase histories, is likely to make Twitch fertile ground for a broad spectrum of marketers who currently are spending money on traditional TV advertising.

More critical, Twitch is a live broadcasting platform, albeit over-the-top rather than over-the-air. The acquisition gives Amazon a foundation from which to launch (or license) additional programming channels aimed at the Twitch audience in direct competition with traditional TV channels and distributors.

The most intriguing move of the lot, however, may be Microsoft’s acquisition of Minecraft-maker Mojang. The immensely popular game has become something of an outlier in the non-console gaming world by hewing to a pay-to-play business model. At a time when online and mobile game developers are increasingly adopting the free-to-play model, seeking to make their money off in-game sales of virtual goods, additional levels and other add-ons, Minecraft is one of the few high-charting games that has stuck to the paid download model.

Anecdotally, at least, many Minecraft fans have ponied up more than once, in fact, in order to play the game on all of their devices. It’s a rare example of a highly sticky piece of paid content for which elusive, freemium-loving Millennials have been willing to put old-fashion cash on the barrelhead. If Microsoft can decipher Minecraft’s secret it may be able to hold onto at least a piece of the old paid-content model even amid a sea of free-to-play content.

The investments carry risks, however. Despite claims by Viacom execs and others that their online moves are not meant to be disruptive to the traditional TV ecosystem they can’t help but be corrosive to it, if only because the money being spent in the recent spate of deals is money not being spent within the traditional business model. Yet there’s no guarantee the likes of Viacom, Amazon, Microsoft and Sony will be to hold onto the maverick audience their spending so much to reach.

The only greater risk might be doing nothing.