Can a Small Cable Company Succeed?

Today I ask the question of whether anybody small can really succeed with a cable TV product. This was prompted by the news that Cable One, one of the mid-sized cable companies, is bleeding cable customers. For those not familiar with the company they are headquartered in Phoenix, AZ and operate cable systems in 19 states with the biggest pockets of customers in Idaho, Mississippi and Texas.

The company just reported that for the 12 months ending on March 31 that they had lost 12.7% of their cable customers and dropped below 300,000 total cable customers. Most of my clients would consider anybody of this size to be a large cable company. But their struggles beg the question of anybody smaller than the really giant cable companies can seriously maintain a profitable and viable cable product in today’s environment.

The drop in their cable customers was precipitated by a number of factors. One that is very familiar to small cable operators is that Cable One decided in 2015 to drop the Viacom suite of channels from their system. We all remember that in that year Viacom announced huge and unprecedented rate increases of over 60% for the suite of channels that include MTV, Comedy Central, BET and a number of other channels. A number of my clients also decided to drop Viacom rather than pay for the huge increases in programming.

Cable One also shares another characteristic with smaller companies in that they are too small to unilaterally negotiate alternate piles of programming to sell as skinny bundles. So they and other small companies are likely to see customers abandoning them for smaller line-ups from Sling TV and other purveyors of smaller on-line line-ups – including Hulu which just announced entry into this quickly growing market.

And finally, Cable One and most other cable companies are now starting to feel the impact of cord cutting. While only a fraction of their customer losses can be blamed on cord cutting, it is now a real phenomenon and all cable companies can expect to lose a few percent of customers every year to Netflix and others.

The really large cable companies are not immune to these same market influences. The giants like Comcast and Charter / Spectrum are going to continue to see big increases in programming costs. Recent Comcast financials show that the company saw a 13% increase in programming cost over the last year (although some of that increase was paid to their own subsidiaries of programmers).

But the handful of giant cable companies are so big that they look like they are going to be able to offset losses in cable revenues in margins with new sources of revenues. For example, Comcast and Charter announced recently that they will be launching a jointly-provisioned cellular business that will help them grow revenues significantly instead of just treading water like smaller cable revenues. And I’ve recently written in here of all of the other ways that Comcast is still growing their business, which smaller companies are unable to duplicate.

The biggest dilemma for small cable companies is that the TV product still drives positive margin for them. While every small cable provider I know moans that they lose money on the cable product, the revenues generated from cable TV are still in excess of programming costs and almost every company I know would suffer at the bottom line if they kill the TV product line.

It has to be troubling for programmers to see cable companies struggling this hard. If somebody the size of Cable One is in crisis then the market for the programmers is quickly shrinking to only serving the handful of giant cable companies. The consolidation of cable providers might mean that the huge cable companies might finally be able to band together to fight back against the big rate increases. Just last week Charter announced that they were demoting a number of Viacom channels to higher tiers (meaning that the channels would not automatically be included in the packages that all customers get).

It’s hard to think of another industry that is trying so hard to collectively drive away their customer base. But all of the big companies – cable providers and programmers – are all publicly traded companies that have huge pressure to keep increasing earnings. As customers continue to drop the programmers raise rates higher, which then further drives more customers to drop out of the cable market. It doesn’t take sophisticated trending to foresee a day within the next decade where cable products could become too expensive for most homes. We are all watching a slow train wreck which the industry seems to have no will or ability to stop.

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