Which digital media trends will make the grade in 2015?

Like the Chicago Cubs, every media visionary believes next year will be the year. In 2015, a number of trends incubated, tested, and—in some cases—overhyped from previous years are likely to arrive on the consumer scene in some fashion.

But unlike the Chicago Cubs, who—despite many losing seasons—maintain a healthy profit margin, media entrepreneurs are gambling finite personal fortunes and venture capital dollars to fund their dreams in hopes of wild public acceptance and the creation of the next Google, Amazon or Netflix.

In 2015, we expect these five media trends will make make their way into the marketplace with big aspirations. Examining them one by one, we can grade their likelihood for success.

1) The maturation of the webseries: A-

Over the course of the past two years, I have watched hundreds of webseries, ranging from bigger-budget shows from Amazon and Netflix to homemade comedies with weaker production values shot on smartphones. On balance, they are all getting better.

But the progress in the field is less about advanced skills in lighting, sound, and set design and more an understanding of the medium. The better webseries understand how to develop a narrative that works in a shorter time frame, and whether it’s Mozart in the Jungle or Feathers and Toast, audiences are recognizing an uptick in the quality of the writing and acting for multi-platform distribution. Those artists who tackle continuing series have been able to craft the right hook to keep viewers engaged across a weekly distribution timeframe, in a 10-episode binge bomb, and everything in between.

Despite making headway on the creative side of the webseries, few authors of these video programs have any idea how to make money in this new medium. When asked how they intend to earn a living producing webseries, the most common response is stone silence. There are a lot of “wait and see” answers and hopes that entering their works in Web festival will draw attention or money from sponsors and big-name aggregators like Netflix and Hulu.

In 2015, you can expect a slight shift in monetization with an increase in the number of webseries incubators, such as New Form Digital, that have access to commercial channels for those lucky digital talents in their fold. It is also likely that there will be an increase in webseries creators who move away from YouTube—which has had limited success in helping the overwhelming majority of digital auteurs—and toward such platforms as Vimeo. Vimeo offers far better revenue splits than its competitors (plus it recently added 4K playback).

For Netflix and, to a lesser degree, Hulu, 2015 brings great opportunity, given the wealth of new content from a number of new pipelines. At issue for Netflix is its reliance on algorithms to make programming decisions. Yes, it has led to such successes as Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards, but to scale, it will need to incorporate personal judgement in its decision making. The same goes for Amazon, which may rely a bit too heavily on audience opinion to greenlight its shows; talk about letting the inmates run the asylum.

2) The return of the podcast: B

One of 2014’s overnight sensations was Serial, a podcast produced by the Chicago PBS affiliate WBEZ. Considered a spinoff of the This American Life series, the series captivated millions of listeners with its investigation into the case surrounding the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee. Told in a manner that fused investigative journalism with theater of the mind, Serial represented a renewed interest in this audio medium for the many digital natives who considered podcasts an artifact of the first-gen Web.

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While YouTube videos, Instagram pictures, and vines have been capturing our imaginations for years, the podcast is finally coming of age. It didn’t start with Serial, though: Freakonomics, the podcast version of the New York Times bestseller, has recorded as many as 5 million downloads in one month. WTF With Marc Maron, a well-known wise-ass comedic, has garnered more than 53 million downloads in its lifespan, at a rate of 400,000 per week. The Washington Post reported that an average of 1.5 million people per month have downloaded a podcast called 99% Invisible about the world of design.

Over the past five years, the podcast has grown to resemble the best of radio drama with great production and the ability to distribute to the masses through iTunes (to the tune of 1 billion subscribers per year) and websites such as Stitcher. Despite all that splendor, here’s the rub: Like their webseries brethren, podcasters have yet to crack the code to financial sustainability.

Podcasts have become a means of promoting content or personalities from other channels: Comedians and musicians use podcasts to tell audiences about upcoming gigs; radio/TV personalities such as Dave Ramsey and Dan Patrick use podcasts as part of a touch-all-the-bases, multi-channel distribution strategy. Some amazing works from PBS stations around the U.S. have been created on a shoestring, relying only on subscriber donations. And when it comes to advertising… well, we’re still waiting.

3) Cloud TV: C+

Sony kicked off 2014 with an announcement at the Consumer Electronics Show that it would be delivering a new TV service to compete with cable and satellite; subscribers would have access to channels they customarily would get via traditional video distributors such as Comcast and Time Warner.

Some 10 months after the big reveal, Sony launched—albeit limited to a test of PlayStation 4 users—a service that offers live TV (save for ABC-owned Disney) packaged with a variety of content normally available via cable or satellite. The service is expected to go wide, as they say in Hollywood, in early 2015.

The Sony salvo was followed by an announced by Colorado-based satellite provider  Dish Network that it would launch a similar service. Expected to go live by the end of 2014, the service now has little chance to launch before the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31, with its parent network having gone somewhat dark.

Sony and Dish’s services are but one form of cloud TV. In the case of these two hopefuls, the cloud becomes the content delivery mechanism by which television can be streamed to any consumer on any device with wireless access. Both Dish and Sony want to offer a service that appeals to cord-cutters who primarily fall in younger demographics and have little or no interest in any form of traditional TV viewing.

Another class of cloud TV comes in the form of content owners—think HBO, Showtime, ESPN, Starz, and even channels such as CBS—that want to offer their programming to cord-cutters. The world has asked for the unbundling of services (i.e., the option to select content à la carte) from a menu of choices, avoiding those channels outside an individual’s interest.

The complication arises in how individual channels reach their intended targets. Offering their content via the aforementioned cloud TV providers is one option; over-the-top delivery mechanisms like Roku, Amazon Fire, and Chromecast are another. These distribution scenarios illustrate that HBO and others are trading one mass market partner for another. It also raises the issue of HBO having to take on the costs for marketing and collecting fees (not to mention customer service) for its online channel.

By the end of 2015, consumers will have voted whether cloud TV has a place in the digital media marketplace. In its favor is freedom of choice; against its success will be a need to educate consumers and some sticker shock when the monthly bill comes with a large tally of individual subscriptions in which the sum of the parts far exceeds previous bundled options.

4) The battle over musical rights: D

There’s nothing like a scorned musical superstar.

In November, Taylor Swift pulled her songs from streaming music service Spotify after claiming she was not adequately compensated for the rights to her music. A discrepancy between a report that Swift’s label received $2 million for the rights and the label’s claim it got $500,000 was made public, sparking a debate over payment for music rights.

A month later, Global Music Rights, a licensing agency, threatened Google with a $1 billion lawsuit if it refused to take down more than 20,000 videos from artists represented by the agency. Google, which has licensing deals in place with ASCAP and BMI has refused to take down the songs, as they are essential ingredients to its new streaming music service, Music Key.

Here’s the issue: Streaming services pay out using a complex formula that is based on the percentage of times a song is streamed as a part of the entire service. By those calculations, Time reports artists earn between $0.006 and $0.0084 each time a stream is played. For example, for Swift’s song “Shake It Off,” which was played 46.3 million times, she would earn between $280,000 and $390,000. Swift makes considerably more from her record deals and through distributors of her works like iTunes, Google Play, and other digital storefronts.

For Swift and her fellow artists, this is a bit of a no-win situation. Music has become a declining part of Apple’s iTunes service as an increasing number of consumers move toward subscription streaming services, some of which even allow short-term storage of music on mobile devices. Of even greater significance is Global Music Rights’ claim that its artists should get more compensation from Google. Taylor Swift’s music video for “Shake It Off” has been viewed more than 408 million times on a page which includes an ad as well as a pre-roll ad in the video. Neither Swift nor her label see one dime from either of those revenue sources.

For the masses who consider the sort of money artists such as Swift earn to be inconsequential to their lives, the fact that high-profile musicians make $280,000 instead of $1 million is of no concern… that is, until Spotify, Pandora, Music Key, and other competitors are forced to up the ante in the form of increased payouts for their streams. Streaming services are unlikely to eat that additional cost, so services that are now $9.99 will quickly become $12.99 or more.

Music rights are a mystical enigma that require a blend of accounting acumen and a degree in copyright law to understand. For that reason, even if 2015 becomes a watershed year in which recording artists prevail over online services, digital consumers have no voice in the matter. This mess needs to be cleaned up, or we will be left with streaming services who offer only the likes of Aerosmith and Nickelback, which would be punishment enough.

5) Virtual reality media experiences: Incomplete

In March, Facebook handed a $2 billion check over to Oculus Rift to bring its virtual reality technology into the social network’s fold. The promise for what VR can do to enhance many industries is high (as demonstrated by YouVisit, a company which provides online college tours), but the timetable and application in areas such as media seem a bit hazy.

A key partnership that points to the future of VR in media is Oculus Rift’s relationship with Samsung. Early in December, Samsung announced the availability of a software development kit called Gear VR Innovator Edition. The South Korean giant also is working on some of the optics technology in the Oculus Rift, along with its tackling and display functionality.  

Cool stuff, but as Samsung admits it’s still in the early days of evolving VR for use in such areas as media. Samsung’s approach will be to incorporate its Galaxy Note line into the experience, putting the mobile device in a shell that would be viewed through the Oculus Rift headset. In a picture of its demo store, Samsung illustrates what it sees as the possibilities for VR and media—VR cinema, room experiences, 360-degree pictures and games.

Sony has also been active in the VR space with its Project Morpheus, which layers a virtual experience on its PS4 gaming system. Playing things close to the vest, Sony has said it may release a beta version of its headset next summer with a wide range of applications. A loose translation of that statement from Sony—which reflects the promise for VR in the media space—is that it has no idea what area of media is suited for this new technology.

Despite what is likely to be shown at the upcoming CES, consumers are unlikely to see any sort of mass market VR product at an affordable price with a killer app in 2015. The most likely outcome for VR in the media space? Great technology in search of a market need.

Illustration by Max Fleishman

Allen Weiner

Allen Weiner

Allen Weiner has been a market research analyst in the area of new media and technology since 1994. He’s worked as writer, publisher and newspaper executive. He is the co-founder and publisher of Kombucha Network and the former managing vice president of Gartner.