Do People Really Want a la Carte TV?

We just got a glimpse of a la carte TV and it makes me wonder if this is what people really want. Poll after poll over the years have shown that people would like to pick their own channels. I’m not sure that many people really want a la carte channels once they see the market reality of the product.

Sling TV just started offering a number of a la carte channels and they are available to anybody. Subscribers don’t need to buy another Sling TV package and can buy just one channel. The company says they are planning on offering more a la carte channels.

For now the a la carte line-up is small. It includes Showtime for $10 per month, which is also available elsewhere on line. The other channels available now include:

  • Dove Channel for $5 per month. This channel is not carried on any cable systems and is marketed direct to consumers. It carries a library of Christian-based programming.
  • CuriosityStream for $6 per month. This is an ad-free network that delivers documentaries and shows about science, technology, technology and nature.
  • Stingray Karaoke for $7 per month. This network carries a big library of karaoke songs that streams both the music and lyrics.
  • Outside TV Features for $5 per month. This network carries a big library of outdoor adventure sports films. This is the network that carries the dramatic footage of surfing, skiing, skydiving and numerous adventure sports.
  • UP Faith & Family for $5 per month. This carries original content and movies that are family-based and faith-friendly.
  • Pantaya for $6 per month. This network carries Spanish movies.
  • NBA League Pass for $28.99 per month. This network carries all NBA games and related content.

Sling TV is not the first one to offer a la carte channels and it’s a big part of Amazon Prime. Amazon carries many of these same networks, and over 100 others. However, you must subscribe to the Amazon Prime service for $119 per year in order to buy the a la carte channels. Amazon has taken the approach of being the biggest bundler of content and has become the portal to a huge array of content.

The only other service with any real a la carte characteristics is the new package offered by Charter, only to their own customers. They provide the local networks in a market and then let a subscriber choose 10 out of 65 networks. This is supposedly priced at $21.99, but the fine print shows there will be other fees, typical of a cable company, and I’m guessing this will cost around $30.

What strikes me most about the Sling TV offering is the monthly fee of between $5 and $7 per channel. How many people are willing to spend $60 to $84 per year for one channel? Surveys by Nielsen have shown that the average family regularly watches about a dozen networks. A price of $5 per channel would mean a price of $60 per month to get the networks a household wants. But local network channels, movie networks and sports networks would likely cost more than $5 and it wouldn’t be hard to see a bill of $75 to $100 to buy only the channels a family regularly watches.

I don’t think this is what households want. When people respond to surveys talking about buying channels individually they were not thinking of paying $5 each. I recall a Nielsen survey from a few years ago where people suggested they would be willing to pay less than $2 per channel if they could buy them individually.

I saw a Google article that said that the Dove Channel had over 100,000 customers. Even if they now have twice that, at $5 per month per subscriber the network would have a monthly income of $1 million. That might sound like a lot, but it’s not enough to support a staff, buy the needed content and also try to fund original programming.

Contrast this with a network that sits today on the traditional line-ups on cable systems. At the current nationwide cable TV penetration rate of 69%, a network that charges only a nickel to the cable companies would make $4.4 million per month. A network like the Dove Channel would need to get nearly 900,000 subscribers at $5 per month to perform as well as traditional cable network that charges only a nickel. You can see why most cable networks are scared of the a la carte model because there are very few of them could survive as online providers.

Amazon as an ISP?

Amazon EchoI mentioned in a blog last week that there is a rumor that Amazon is considering becoming an ISP. This information came from The Information, which says it got this by somebody inside Amazon management.

It’s an intriguing idea. Amazon has shown throughout its history that it loves to own its supply chain. If you recall, Amazon started out as a web reseller of books. But over time the company has built what must certainly be the largest and most efficient bricks and mortar fulfillment infrastructure in the world.

And the company hasn’t stopped there. The company has been building a fleet of semi-trailers used to haul its inventory, thus bypassing UPS and the Post Office. The company uses third-party tractors today but their goal is to build a fleet in anticipation of self-driving trucks within the coming decade. The company is also experimenting with drones, wheeled robots and other ways to bypass local delivery services.

The company has done the same with its successful data center business. They have built massive data centers and assembled a dark-fiber network to connect them together and to connect to major customers. And it is that fiber network that could create the backbone of an ISP network.

You have to think that Amazon learned a lesson from Google Fiber’s foray into FTTP, and so it seems unlikely that they would leap into a massive infrastructure build in that same mold. The article says Amazon might consider using the open access networks in Europe as a way to avoid building fiber. But they don’t have to go the whole way to Europe to try this. For example, just across the mountains from Seattle are a number of Public Utility Districts (county-wide municipal electric companies) that have built open access fiber networks that pass over 100,000 homes – an easy way for Amazon to test the ISP idea.

And around the country are a number of other open access networks. All of the municipal networks in states like Colorado, Utah and Virginia are required by law to be open access. We have the example of Huntsville, AL that built a FTTP network for Google that will become open access after a few years. There are numerous communities around the country that would gladly build fiber networks if they were guaranteed to get companies like Amazon and Google as major ISP tenants. It’s been my experience that almost no city wants to be an ISP unless it has no other option – but there are many who want fiber badly and would welcome Amazon with open arms.

I would think that Amazon will also keep their eye on the developments with wireless last mile. There might come a time when they might be able to leap into the ISP business with a reasonable cost per customer – at least in selected markets.

Amazon would be an interesting ISP. It was just a few years ago that it was clear that an ISP needed a traditional cable TV product to be successful. Google tried to launch without cable TV in Kansas City and hit a brick wall in selling to residential customers. But the tide is turning and I’m not sure that TV is mandatory any longer.

Amazon already has an impressive content platform with Amazon Prime and they have said that they are going to spend billions to create their own content, following the lead of Netflix. It’s also becoming clear that customers are becoming willing to accept an abbreviated line-up of popular cable channels like what’s being sold by Sling TV and other OTT providers. Amazon could be competitive with an abbreviated cable line-up made up of local programming, popular cable channels and its own content.

But Amazon has some advantages that other ISPs don’t have. For now Amazon is leading the pack in the intelligent personal assistant market with its Amazon Echo. I’ve had an Echo for about six months and I already can tell that it is improving. The company is working towards introducing cloud-based AI to the platform and within a few years the Alexa assistant should become a true computer assistant like has been envisioned for decades in science fiction.

My gut tells me that bundles which focus on smart computer services like Alexa will soon be more popular than the traditional triple-play bundles from Comcast and AT&T. Amazon has one huge advantage as a start-up ISP in that customers like using them – something they have fostered by delivering packages regularly on time to a huge percentage of households in the country. They are at the opposite end of the customer service scale from Comcast and the other big ISPs.

I have no idea if this rumor is true. But the idea is so intriguing that I hope Amazon is considering it. One of the major complaints about broadband in this country is the lack of competition and choice. Companies like Amazon can bring fresh competitive bundles that break away from the traditional triple play and that can redefine the ISP of the future.

Update: This rumor persisted and in February 2017 I posted an update about this rumor. https://potsandpansbyccg.com/2017/02/21/amazon-as-an-isp-2/