Programmers Have the Power

huluIt was announced late last month that Time Warner is negotiating to buy a 25% share in Hulu. This would make them equal partners with Comcast, Disney, and Fox in ownership of the OTT service. I think this potential transaction highlights the very complicated dynamics in the industry between programmers and OTT companies.

It’s obvious that the programmers love Netflix, the largest OTT provider, but they also fear them to some extent. On the plus side, from the programmers’ perspective, the four companies (include Time Warner) currently get about $650 million per year just from Netflix to pay for selling rights to various programming, mostly older TV series, to Netflix. This is obviously a significant source of revenue.

But there is also a lot of unease in the industry since OTT providers, and Netflix in particular, are influencing people to demand alternate programming. And while the programmers have lost some money from cord cutters, the real threat to them is skinny bundles. While the revenue the programmers get from Netflix is good money, it is dwarfed by the revenues that come from traditional cable packages. I have never seen that exact number, but by looking at my clients I am going to guess that the average paid by cable companies per customer for programming is probably around $45 per month, not including premium movie channels. That would equate to more than $50 billion per year paid for programming.

The big threat from skinny bundles is that the cable companies will sell small packages of only the most popular programming. The owners of the most popular channels will do okay, but today the real money for a programmer comes from forcing cable companies to carry their entire large suite of channels. If skinny bundles get popular enough they are going to whack the revenue streams from the less popular channels in each programmer’s portfolio. And that means huge potential losses in revenue, far greater than what they will collect from OTT and skinny bundle providers.

There is talk in the industry that the major programmers might start withholding their best content from Netflix. Reed Hamilton from Netflix has voiced this concern many times and this is probably the reason that Netflix is spending so much money to create its own content.

The four programmers could instead funnel all of their own content to Hulu, and in effect pay themselves by hopefully drawing more paying customers to Hulu. The surveys I have seen have shown that a large percentage of viewers are becoming loyal to shows and not to networks, and so giving Hulu exclusive rights to content certainly sounds like a plausible strategy.

The above discussion makes me realize how much power the programmers still have in the industry. While these four programmers couldn’t destroy Netflix, they could probably hobble them. As Bill Gates said, content is king, and that certainly applies in this arm-wrestling match between programmers and service providers. Since there are only a handful of programmers, they collectively have the ability to pick winners and losers in the industry.

Since content is king one has to wonder how long a small group of programmers can keep their current power? Not only is Netflix creating popular content, but there other new content creators like YouTube and Amazon entering the fray and joining companies like HBO and AMC that are becoming mini-powerhouses on their own.

I find it unlikely that the programmers would just cut Netflix or anybody else dead from all of the content, which would seem to be an open invitation to an antitrust investigation. But they can withhold some content, raise the rates on other content and make it harder for companies like Netflix to continue to eat away at their revenue streams.

I have no idea where any of this is going to go. But my guess is that if we could look forward a decade from now that there will be major shifts in the industry. There are going to be some current programmers that wane and other new ones who will enter the market. But as a whole, no matter who the programmers are, they are still going to be in the driver’s seat.

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