The Coming Cable Shift

I got into a discussion with someone about the major shift that’s taking place in the cable industry. Specifically, we were discussing all of the ala carte services that are becoming available. Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Video are just the start. You’ve heard that major networks – CBS, NBC, ESPN, and others – are going to provide a streaming service via broadband. I wrote about that a couple of weeks ago so I won’t repeat myself . However, in a time when 13.5% of broadband households with an adult under 35 have no pay-TV subscriptions and 8.6 million US households have broadband Internet but no pay-TV subscription with millions more likely to cut the cable cord in the next year, the times are a changin’.

The person with whom I was discussing this didn’t think it was a big deal. First, the cable guys are also ISPs so they make their money (at higher margins) there. Second, people will find that paying a lot more for fewer networks isn’t so great after all. I told him he was missing a point.

When you pay the cable bill each month, much of that payment gets divided up among dozens of program providers. ESPN takes the biggest chunk, around $6 or $7 according to reports as does sports programming in general. Other networks get fees ranging from $1.50 down to a dime. That’s per household per month. You do the math.

The point he was missing is demonstrated by HBO. HBO is never a basic network, meaning it’s never just included. You pay $10 a month or so for it. HBO uses that money to fund a lot of spectacular programming. Now, so does Netflix.

When the model changes the cable guys are no longer distributing the pot to programmers as they see fit. Consumers are paying for what they watch.

Even if the out-of-pocket doesn’t change, the money goes to a much more limited set of content providers. They, in turn, will have the ability to invest in better content. Yes, I realize that 10 cents a month from 50 million homes is better than $2 from 2 million homes. The difference is that payment from the larger audience will never get bigger unless your network is moved to a bigger, more basic tier or you can negotiate your way to a bigger fee. Providing the network directly doesn’t cap your growth and developing a hit can provide a big growth in revenues. Think of your friends who will subscribe to HBO or Showtime just to watch a favorite series.

I would not want to be a minor network in all of this. I suspect we will see some bundling of like networks that don’t share ownership. I also think we’ll see many networks go dark or end up as free, ad-supported channels on some service – Apple TV, YouTube, whatever. One thing for sure – five years from now the business I grew up in won’t resemble the one we’ll be living with.


1 Comment

Filed under Consulting, Thinking Aloud

One response to “The Coming Cable Shift

  1. Seems to me the current bundling options (Sling) are a hedge against all-out a la carte, which will come eventually. I think you’re right. Small networks surviving on pennies per month with no viewership will go away, and overall quality of content will increase. Sports are the giant wildcard of course, since they’re DVR proof to an extent. Cord-cutting is still not an option for most serious sports fans. I could get ESPN from Sling, and out-of-market NHL/MLB/NBA from the leagues, but can’t get me local RSN or specialty nets like BTN and SEC. So I continue to fork over an absurd amount of money to Directv for hundreds of channels I don’t watch. I think eventually all those providers will have to go direct-to-consumer a-la-carte, but the key will be to have a delivery mechanism that makes the experience as easy as flipping channels on digital cable is today. Right now it’s all way too disjointed.

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