Walking Away from Cable

Several different events in the last week got me thinking about an interesting trend in the cable industry. First, in my community there is a Redbox outlet in a neighborhood grocery store. My wife and I were discussing how busy they seem to be in renting out movie DVDs. All of the Blockbuster and other movie rental outlets have closed. Until I moved to this neighborhood recently I hadn’t notice any video stores or related outlets in a long time. But this Redbox seemed to have a lot of business.

I also saw an article in FierceCable that noted that only 5% of US households have subscribed to a vMVPD – an online cable provider like Sling TV, DirecTV Now or Playstation Vue. My first thought is that a 5% market penetration seems pretty phenomenal for an industry that is barely two years old. But the article notes that while 5% of households are current subscribers to online programming, another 8% of the market has tried and dropped one of the services. Since only about 20% of the total households don’t have traditional cable service it makes you wonder what the real upper potential for this market might be – it might be a lot smaller than the vMVPDs are hoping for.

I also went to a Superbowl party. The half dozen families attending are from my neighborhood and it turns out all of the households are cord cutters and don’t subscribe to traditional cable service. I was the only one that used a vMVPD and I currently have a subscription to Playstation Vue. None of them had tried a vMVPD and they seemed to have no interest in doing so. (I only use Playstation Vue because it’s the cheapest way to get Big10 sports and Fox Sportsnet so I can watch Maryland sports teams – I rarely watch the other linear programming).

National broadband penetration rates are now at 84% of all households. I’ve seen many of the opponents of spending money to build rural broadband say that households just want broadband to watch video. Netflix has made a huge dent in the market and served nearly 55 million US homes at the end of 2017. Add to that some percentage of the 90 million homes that subscribe to Amazon Prime, and it seems like there might be some truth in that.

But if households are cutting the cord, why aren’t more of them buying one of the on-line cable alternatives? Those services have packages that carry only the most popular cable channels at half the price of buying traditional cable.

I think the answer is a combination of two factors. One of the predominant factors is price. Every family at the neighborhood party has kids and they dropped traditional cable because it was too expensive. That has to be the factor that explains why the Redbox outlet is doing so well. Most of the movies available from Redbox are also available online. But getting online means also having an Internet-enabled TV or else buying a Roku or other web interface. And even then, watching many of these newer movies means subscribing to yet a different online service. I think there is a cost barrier, or perhaps a technology barrier that is keeping households using a traditional DVD player and Redbox.

Two different households at the party told me that they were satisfied with just watching Netflix and the free programming available on YouTube. And that is the second important trend. Households are getting used to watching just a subset of the programming that is available to them. When somebody drops cable TV and doesn’t buy a vMVPD service it means they have walked away from all of the content that is available only in those two media.

Most of my neighbors still watch the major networks using rabbit ears (something I don’t do). So they are still watching whatever is available on local CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX. But the families on my street are learning to live without the Game of Thrones, or the Walking Dead. They are no longer watching ESPN, Discovery, Comedy Central, the Food Network and the hundreds of channels that make up traditional cable TV.

This means their kids are not growing up watching traditional cable networks, and thus are not developing any brand loyalty to those networks or their programming. If you don’t learn to love a network when you are a teenager, will you decide to watch it when you are older?

I don’t have any answers to these questions, and obviously I can’t define a trend just from talking with some of my neighbors. But I found it intriguing that they all had dropped traditional cable and had not replaced that programming with something online. This tells me that there must be a lot of people who are not enamored with linear programming whether it’s on cable or online. And a lot of people are convincing themselves that it’s okay to walk completely away from the big pile of programming that is offered by the cable TV networks.

This is potentially a watershed phenomenon, because somebody that walks away from traditional programming is probably not coming back. These folks are cord cutters who are literally walking away from most of the programming available on traditional cable. Those networks and their programming are going to become irrelevant to them. But interestingly they are still going to consume a lot of video content – just not that created by the traditional cable networks. In my mind these households are looking a lot like Generation Z in that they are foregoing traditional programming and watching something else.

The vMVPDs are banking that people will transition down to their smaller packages when they leave a cable TV provider. But will they? This is a phenomenon that you can’t determine from industry-wide statistics, other than perhaps by seeing the dropping number of paid subscriptions to the various cable networks. People like my neighbors are dropping cable due to the expense, but they are quickly learning to live without traditional cable programming and aren’t chasing the online alternatives.

9 thoughts on “Walking Away from Cable

  1. Doug,
    Maybe a lot of this is mental fatigue associated with keeping up with all the options — and then learning to actually program/set up/use the ones you buy.

    I’m not just talking Boomers — Millennials, too. Millennials may _in theory_ have sharper minds and tech skills than older Boomers, but so many have kids and nothing dulls the mind faster for extraneous stuff than the fatigue and mental distraction of raising children.

    Sling TV, DirecTV Now and Playstation Vu; Netflix, Hulu, YouTube; cable, DSL, satellite; Apple TV vs Roku — where’s it stop?

    Your Redbox is the absolutely lowest tech option — and yet it’s your neighbors’ default, not something more sophisticated. Everybody needs groceries, it’s there and it’s simple. Everybody’s got a DVD player with a play button (even if most folks don’t know how to work the other buttons).

    I speculate folks are going to take some combination of the path of least resistance/pain/cost and what their friends tell them about.

    I stopped at the grocery store on the way to work. It’s not a chain I use often. The cashier asked me for my store card which I didn’t have, then my phone number which is in their system but not tied to my password and email and so doesn’t work. She offered to sign me up. I asked her not to. I confessed I was overwhelmed – I have something like 300 passwords already in my password manager. Could I just buy the stuff and get the discount anyway?

    Very sympathetically, she said, “sure” and then proudly told me she was a “tech-no” and a “dot-not”: no computer, no cell phone – just an old-timey answering machine at home.

    I left wondering which of us was really better off.

    So your post today hit a sympathetic spot when I saw it 15 minutes later.

  2. Doug,

    What I see is quite different. There is a “sharing” mentality among many groups – more so the tech savvy younger folks generally. They talk of Plex servers with content downloaded via BitTorrent. I heard about Kodi severs as well as the typical sharing of Netflix passwords and TVanywhere log in’s. So you aren’t seeing the entire environment.

    • Password sharing is a huge trend and I’ve seen estimates that 20% of Netflix viewing is through somebody else’s passwords. But households that use somebody else’s password are still just regular Netflix viewers like the rest of us and just aren’t paying Netflix for the privilege. The point I was making is that people are watching alternate programming like Netflix, but they are waling away from linear TV embedded with commercials from all of the networks on cable like Discovery, MTV, Comedy Central, etc. That’s probably more true from the tech savvy than from the rest of us. Linear TV is no longer a cool thing to watch.

      • I agree with many of your points. Traditional, appointment TV is dead as perhaps is network loyalty. But, traditional network video content still has tremendous value and is being sought out probably as strongly as ever. I disagree with the statement that people are walking (entirely) away from ESPN, Discovery, etc.

        A small, but growing group is getting their fix in a shared way that doesn’t show up in Nielsen data or MSO sub counts. Many of these methods, such as Kodi violate copyright laws, and are likely a transitional technology until the market catches up.

        Reminds me of when people had backyard C-Band dishes and were getting all of sorts of programming for free. Eventually, the marketplace caught up (Echostar, etc) and offered Ku and other legal means. Local stations were losing viewership, but video viewership grew

        We are in an evolutionary stage for video content delivery. People want Kodi-like options and will pay for it. It will take a number of years.

        If our politicians really want a hot re-election topic, they would consider laws to unbundle video programmers’ forced bundling and carriage requirements for MSO’s and vMPVDs. This would allow a true build-your-own channel line up and make a lot of consumers very happy.

      • You’ll be seeing a blog soon about a stepped up response from ISPs about copyright infringements. While there has always been a community that shares content illegally, I think we are going to start seeing ISPs who cut off broadband access to repeat violators – a move that is going to put a big chill into people sharing content that way.

    • Regarding ISP’s and copyright infringement, I’d be curious to know the source of your thoughts that more repeat offenders will be cut off. Most of the large ISP’s have undertaken a Copyright Alert System (CAS) and regularly deliver notices to offenders. So my thinking is I wouldn’t expect an increased effort, just more of the same.

      DMCA regulations were written primarily to prevent content hosting. ISP’s relay content not host it. So basically ISP’s are exempt as long as they act in good faith to help in the process. Regarding BitTorrent, the typical duty of the ISP to relay the take-down notice from the content holder to the holder of the IP address that is sharing. The ISP knows who has which IP address.

      Some small content holders work with companies such BMG Rights Management, RightsCorp or MarkMonitor to deliver mass quantities of complaints to ISP’s (See the Cox vs RightsCorp lawsuit).

      It’s a fascinating dance – content holders put ISP’s in the middle and attempt to hold them responsible for customers’ actions. This dance is made possible only because of the high cost of programming to MSO’s and vMPVDs.

      Customers are willing to break the law regarding content sharing because they love movies and the content and hate paying outrageous prices. Again, my point– if a member of congress wants an quick win in the next election, take on bundling contracts and create open market for individual cable channels.

  3. As an older millennial who has always never owned my own tv or had cable service, I have a few thoughts. I agree with the earlier comment about password sharing; that’s a popular strategy for accessing specific content. Also, communal watching is popular for certain HBO shows and sporting events that folks want to see on an actual tv.

    I think the biggest trend for single millennial people is not prioritizing a physical tv at all. If you’re not watching with others, there’s little benefit to the big screen. And if you do want a bigger viewing experience for an occasional communal gathering, all content is available without the services your article discusses if you have a laptop and a large monitor, which unlike a “tv” can do everything I’m used to a device doing (browsing the internet, movies, music, productivity apps).

    I am certainly brand loyal to comedy central (among other content providers) and subscribe to many of their shows on youtube. As we put off marriage (we have roommates) and home buying (we rent) there’s less pressure and fewer resources for us to make a big investment in a television set. I don’t think we are walking away from the content available on what used to be “cable networks.” TVs haven’t evolved fast enough to do everything we want and we are walking away from the device.

    (Love your blog!)

    • Your comment shows why it’s always tricky to try to look at trends using nationwide data. Within that mass of data are a ton of different stories of how people deal with video content today. And that perhaps is the big story – we now each have the freedom to pick and choose among content and devices as suits us. It wasn’t very many years ago when the only choices were traditional cable, rabbit ears only or walking away from it all.

    • What CHR describes is very true. Content is viewed on many screen and device types – computer monitors, handheld units doubling as gaming, phones, etc. This has changed the TV viewing in many ways.

      Communal watching for certain shows has evolved with the addition of live tweeting — you can be watching live sports and create a virtual shout when your team scores that pops up on your friends . It has taken Marshall McLuhan’s global village concept to an extreme.

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