Windstream announced earlier this year that it is now offering YouTube TV to customers as an alternative to its traditional cable TV offering. The company has not yet fully ditched its traditional Kinetic TV offering, but this is a first step towards doing so. As more small cable operators look at the math of staying in the TV business, I’m expecting we’ll see a lot more ISPs considering the same transition. There are a lot of implications for converting traditional cable TV to a streaming service.
Regulatory. While regulation of traditional cable TV isn’t a massive burden, all regulatory requirements disappear with a conversion to a streaming service like YouTube TV. There are a several annual FCC filings required by cable operators that would disappear. If a cable operator is paying local franchise fees, they can avoid the monthly reporting of customers and revenues to local tax authorities.
Taxation. The biggest external change from such a conversion would be that the cable operator no longer has to collect and remit local franchise fees assessed on cable service which vary across the country between 3% and 6%. The cost of collecting taxes and fees and of dealing with tax authorities disappears for the cable operator.
The biggest implication of this change is that local communities could see franchise fees dry up overnight. I would expect a cable provider like Windstream to withdraw and cancel their franchise agreements if they fully adopt YouTube TV. If the primary cable provider in a town makes this conversion, then franchise fee payments dry up immediately. Franchise fees are an important part of balancing local government budgets, particularly in smaller towns.
Cancelling franchise agreements also means that all of the local obligations that come with a cable franchise disappear. The cable provider would no longer provide a PEG channel to show local government meetings and other local content. Any subsidies for local government iNets for bringing connectivity to city halls and schools would disappear.
Operational. There are huge operational savings for ISPs that make this conversion. Most of my clients that offer cable TV tell me that 60% or more of calls to customer service are about the cable product. Eliminating traditional cable means reducing customer service calls and reducing truck rolls.
Getting out of the traditional cable business also means getting out of the settop box business. There is a huge operational savings from not having to keep a settop box inventory and keeping boxes operational. Installations get much easier when there is no settop box to connect.
Broadcast Fees. There are also implications for the larger cable market. Online services like YouTube TV are not required to comply with FCC channel lineups and they can offer whatever packages they negotiate with programmers. This means many networks will no longer be carried and will lose the revenue for every customer that makes this conversion. This becomes cord cutting at the corporate level and as 200-channel lineups get shrunk to 70 channels, a lot of monthly fees to programmers evaporate.
If you look at the YouTube TV line-up, you’ll see the most popular networks. For example, the service includes the primary Discovery channel, but not all of the ancillary Discovery channels that come with a traditional TV subscription. This is true throughout the line-up as the service concentrates on the most-popular channels only.
Profitability. The biggest change is to profitability. I expect that if Windstream fully calculated the cost of being in the cable business that they would show no margin or a negative margin. All of the ancillary costs of extra truck rolls, dealing with settop boxes, tracking and reporting franchise fees and taxes, etc. can add up.
I don’t know what YouTube TV will pay to a cable provider like Windstream, but it can’t be much – no more than a few pennies on the dollar. Nobody would make this transition to get rich from the commission fees, but rather to avoid the costs and the hassles of remaining in the traditional cable business.