The 5 Boldest Media-Tech Companies of 2020 (Guest Column)

Peter Csathy
·9 min read

Welcome to my fifth annual “Fearless Five”: the five companies that made the boldest and most audacious entertainment-media-tech moves of the year.

This doesn’t mean these companies ultimately will be the most successful. What it does mean is that they were the most fearless and made the biggest, boldest bets in 2020. Each can be defined by its own signature Wow! moment. I name them in order of “audacity” in this unprecedented and bizarre year that bombarded us with multiple crises, some of which were downright existential.

No. 1: Apple

Apple steals “The Crown” from Netflix (last year’s No. 1) to take the first spot. Yes, Apple launched its new iPhone 12 with both a new mini and maxi model. But new design isn’t the reason I applaud Apple’s bravado this time. It was Apple’s less “sexy” moves that reaffirm its boldness and point the way.

Most important, and perhaps most stealthily, Apple continues to expand its services revenues, with particular focus on its Apple One subscription bundle — Apple’s new Trojan Horse. Inspired by fellow giant Amazon and its transformational success with Amazon Prime annual memberships, Apple signaled to the world that it too sees its future driven by recurring revenues. With Apple One, Apple continuously captures our hearts and minds, not to mention our cash, in an ongoing and predictable manner. And that is something that Wall Street loves.

Apple One now includes Arcade (Apple’s games portal), Apple Music and underperforming Apple TV Plus. And you know all those rumors about Apple getting into search to compete against Google? Well, they’ll soon be true. Apple placed unsexy privacy and security front and center in recent Apple events for a reason. Coming soon, the Apple One bundle will feature a new Apple ad-free search engine. Some of us will also begin to “rent” our iPhones and other Apple wares via pricier Apple One tiered bundles.

And Cupertino wasn’t finished there. As the year ended, Apple pulled off yet another gangster move when it proactively slashed its iTunes commissions for smaller app developers — cutting its much-maligned 30% to a far less threatening 15%. CEO Tim Cook offered this “gift” to the world as a peace offering to the feds in the hope of reducing overall antitrust scrutiny in 2021. And you know what? That may just work. At least in the short term, the new Biden administration has even more reason to first take a bite out of other FAANG companies — notably Facebook, Google and Amazon.

2020 “Wow!” Moment: Apple gives unsexy privacy and “security” star treatment at its iPhone launch event, paving the way for significant transformation of modest Apple One into top dog business model status.

No. 2: Disney

Disney retains its second-place spot this year for reasons similar to Apple’s. It too signaled the beginnings of a fundamental transformation away from its transactional business model to subscription recurring revenue bundling via its new streaming service, Disney Plus. Yes, Disney Plus far surpassed even the most bullish industry projections, counting over 73 million paying subs worldwide as of early October (nearly triple the number of subs it forecast at launch that it would attain by 2023). Day One in-home releases of mega-budget previously theatrical-first films like “Mulan” and “Hamilton” fueled this success (and more of those big budget family films will reach us in our living rooms first from this point forward, because this “Aladdin”-esque genie is out of the bottle). But Disney Plus, like Apple One, signals so much more than what it is today, and that is the big story here.

Expect significantly higher priced subscription tiers in the years ahead that will bundle in keys to other rooms in its Magic Kingdom. These will include special passes and discounts to theme parks and, yes, even to Disney Cruises. Those too will sail back into the hearts and minds of parents around the world at some point. And, expect the Mouse to toss in some Disney plush toys into the Disney Plus subscription bundle. Soon your kids will be continuously delighted as they receive monthly “gifts” (translation: insidiously clever ongoing marketing and engagement with you and your family). That will delight Wall Street — an institution that always likes a never-ending, recurring revenue story.

Disney’s bold moves didn’t end there. Early in the year, former CEO Bob Iger shocked the entertainment industry first by stepping down well ahead of his planned succession and next by handing the keys to Disney’s Magic Kingdom to another Bob — Chapek, that is, who had overseen the theme park division. Virtually all industry handicappers had bet that Disney Plus champion Kevin Mayer would be “the chosen one.” And then, as the pandemic decimated Chapek’s theme park and cruise businesses — and Wall Street pummeled its stock because of it — Chapek cleverly completely reorganized Disney’s corporate structure and placed its Disney Plus home entertainment division front and center. This confirmed its intentions with Disney Plus (notably, the preeminence of recurring revenue bundling), and adeptly shifted Wall Street’s focus away from the Mouse House’s decimated out-of-home entertainment divisions and to its in-home entertainment streaming triumphs. Just as with Netflix, the global pandemic accelerated Disney Plus success.

2020 “Wow!” Moment: Disney Plus closes its first year with over 73 million paying subscribers, nearly three times that it had originally hoped to sign up by 2023.

No. 3: Quibi

And then there’s Quibi. Yes, Quibi — now an industry cautionary tale. After massive industry fascination and anticipation, Quibi finally launched in April 2020 — only to announce its demise just six months later. So why is failure rewarded here? Precisely because media mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg and tech titan Meg Whitman bet their reputations by swinging for the fences. They audaciously raised $1.75 billion to experiment on a completely new form of mobile-first entertainment — creating a premium video service with Hollywood production values and with the Hollywood economics that go with them. Few thought it would work.

Yet, at the time, I applauded Quibi for its fearlessness. I still do. They certainly lived Nike’s motto “Just do it.” Sometimes that works. Most times, it doesn’t. “Fail fast” is the entrepreneur’s mantra, after all, and Quibi certainly did that. Remember, a likelihood of success is not a prerequisite for inclusion on this list. At this point, Quibi’s business model for a mobile-first world is dead. If Katzenberg and Whitman couldn’t make it work in this form, no one can.

2020 “Wow!” Moment: After massive fascination and anticipation within both the Hollywood and Silicon Valley communities, Quibi finally launches in April 2020 — and then announces its shut down just six months later (as massive industry schadenfreude lives on).

No. 4: Ticketmaster

Ticketmaster, long the punching bag of consumers for perceived exorbitant ticketing fees, may just be the sleeper hit of the season. The Live Nation-owned company has the chance to become the savior to the beleaguered live music, sports, theater and event industry crushed by COVID-19. As the year ended, the giant announced move after move to fuel the return of the decimated out-of-home entertainment industry. Ticketmaster, in effect, is creating the industry’s potential coronavirus survival kit.

How? With several new tech-driven partnerships, most notably with health pass companies CLEAR and IBM to establish a revolutionary new protocol to ensure guest and worker safety of at live events. Using their smartphones, attendees will need to verify that they have tested negative for the coronavirus within 24 to 72 hours prior to the event. If “yes,” they can enter. If “no,” then they do not pass go! To support this safety protocol, Ticketmaster also unveiled a new digital ticketing system tied to each guest’s identity that eliminates their ability to resell or transfer their tickets.

But Ticketmaster wasn’t done yet. The company also announced a major partnership with VenueNext to enable contactless payments and mobile orders at venues. And then there’s Ticketmaster’s new SmartEvent system which is touted to actively mitigate crowd risk and coronavirus spread by actively promoting social distancing and facilitating staggered entry into venues. All in all, the promise of these new technologies may be significant drivers to transform the live entertainment industry’s 2020’s hopelessness into pent up 2021 opportunity.

2020 “Wow!” Moment: Ticketmaster announces its coronavirus vaccination verification system, immediately bringing hope back to a decimated live event industry.

No. 5: TikTok (ByteDance)

Short-form video app TikTok, brought to you by China’s ByteDance, drops two spots to No. 5 this year, but not because of slowing down. In fact, this teen and twenty-something darling continued to accelerate like a rocket ship in 2020 to cement its place into seemingly every minute of those young lives. The app gave both young people, and now also their parents, much-needed whimsy, entertainment, and escapism in a year that otherwise bombarded us with more existential threats than our brains were meant to even remotely handle. It also demonstrated the power of authentic, cost-effective user-generated content over Quibi’s high-end high-priced Hollywood content (at least in the mobile-first setting).

But TikTok’s sheer pervasiveness in our lives is not the primary reason it makes this list that celebrates audacity. Rather, TikTok makes the list primarily for mega-forces largely out of its control. This seemingly innocuous app found itself directly in the crosshairs of the White House and geopolitics due to its Chinese roots and fears of algorithmic data collection and privacy invasion. Disney’s former expected topper, Kevin Mayer, came and understandably went as TikTok’s new CEO in less than six weeks as a result. Simply too much drama. But TikTok persisted, and by year’s end, the feds seemed to have moved on.

What’s next for TikTok in 2021 with the new Joe Biden sheriff in town? Who knows. But we do know this — that artists and music labels will increasingly focus on harnessing its massive reach and influence.

2020 “Wow!” Moment: The Trump administration mandates that TikTok must either divest itself from ByteDance to U.S. companies or be barred from the U.S. market (which undoubtedly would lead to mass depression across our nation’s youth).

——–

So, there it is. Like last year, many “honorable mentions” almost made the cut, most notably Netflix (last year’s No. 1) and Amazon (an honorable mention last year as well). Neither Netflix nor Amazon was particularly fearless this year. They were simply dominant — more dominant than ever before — fortuitously drafting on the pandemic’s massive stay-at-home tailwinds.

Peter Csathy is founder and chairman of Creatv Media, a media, entertainment and technology business development, M&A, advisory and creative services firm.

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