57 Channels

Anyone with whom I speak these days has a lot to say about competition. Every business seems to have many more players going head to head for customers, and I suspect that nowhere is that more true than in the media business. The Boss wrote about “57 Channels And Nothing On” a couple of decades ago. He characterized it as having been “Shot back in the quaint days of only 57 channels and no flat screen TVs”, and 25 years later the average home can receive nearly 206 channels, according to Nielsen. What is instructive to anyone is business, however, is that they watch fewer than 20, or under 10% (19.8 channels, to be precise).

Obviously, consumers are spending just as much, if not more, time with video content. It’s not a matter of the video business being imperiled. What is a problem, however, is the manner in which the traditional business model operates. Video providers have bundled together dozens (hundreds!) of channels and sold them to consumers who really had very limited choices in breaking the bundle of channels apart. You’re beginning to see “skinny bundles” which focus on a few popular channels. Although I’m not aware of any “roll your own” packages in which a consumer can choose any channels and create their own bundles, they aren’t far off. Rest assured that if the cable and satellite guys don’t offer them, someone will.

Consumers aren’t rejecting TV – they’re rejecting a business model which forces them to pay for TV they don’t watch. That’s something that isn’t unique to cable and satellite. Fast food does it. You might end up paying more for something if you don’t want the fries or soda and, therefore, buy ala carte. Software companies do it. The music business did it (an album was always cheaper than buying the best songs on that album as singles). 5 years ago, researchers found that consumers might actually value a bundle less than they would value the individual component products. There was a “negative synergy” associated with the bundle. The key to successful bundling it seems is to provide an option to buy the individual components or the bundle. When that option isn’t there, sales actually declined significantly.

We can’t sit on existing business models anymore no matter what business we’re in. We certainly can’t force consumers to pay for things they don’t really want to get those things they do want. I’m watching the changes in the video business with great curiosity (and some degree of thanks that I’m no longer in it!). You?

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