What Customers Want

The Onslaught of New Content

As if cord cutting isn’t bad enough, online OTT programming is exploding with numerous new options. One has to think that these many options will lure a lot more homes to ditch traditional cable TV.

Disney+. This service is hitting the streets with huge fanfare. It’s priced at $6.99 per month or $5.83 per month with an annual subscription. Disney+ will contain the content provided by Disney, Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar, and National Geographic. Disney owns the Star Wars franchise and is planning a lot of new Star Wars content. There will be new content created only for the Disney+ service like a series produced by the Jim Henson Company. Disney also owns most of Hulu and will be offering a bundled package of Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+ for $12.99 per month.

Apple TV+. The service launched November 1 with a monthly fee of $4.99. It’s being offered for free to customers that buy an expensive Apple product like an iPhone, iPad, Mac, or Apple TV.  The company has set a goal of having 100 million customers within 3-4 years and will launch in over 100 countries. Apple is also offering new content created just for the service. They have announced partnerships for content from Oprah Winfrey, from Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine production company, and from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin TV. While not yet announced, Wall Street expects Apple to accumulate a library of older content. For now, the service doesn’t work on Amazon Fire and Roku devices, but should in the future.

HBO Max.  This is being offered by AT&T and slated for launch sometime in the spring of 2020. The company is offering this at $14.99 per month, the same price as HBO Now – which is the current online HBO offering that only carries the library of HBO content. Customers subscribing to HBO on a cable system might get the new service for free. The company will likely migrate HBO Plus customers to the new service. HBO Max brings in the vast library of content owned by Warner Media. There will be a curated revolving list of classic movies. They’ve also bought the rights to shows like Friends. The company hopes to have 50 million paying customers by 2025. This is the only online service that doesn’t care if customers buy their prime HBO content online or from a cable company.

Peacock. This is owned by Comcast and is scheduled to launch in April 2020. The service is named for the NBC peacock logo. The service will provide new content including shows from Alec Baldwin and Demi Moore. It will carry the vast library of NBC’s programming. The new offering will also tie into Olympic coverage. For now, Comcast is thinking of giving this free to every Comcast customer and may make it free to everybody.

Quibi. This is a new service created by Jeffery Katzenberg of DreamWorks. It will launch in early 2020 and contains a lot of new content. The unique thing about the service is that it will consist of short-duration content and will only be available on smartphones. The company is working with over 30 partners to create content that is aimed at younger views. The typical content will be 7-10 minutes in length. It’s attracted big names like Steven Spielberg, Kevin Hart, Tyra Banks, and Jennifer Lopez. There are plans for vignettes from traditional series like Punk’d, Varsity Blues, Vikings, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.

Bloomberg. Just to show that all new content isn’t entertainment related, Bloomberg is also planning a new online offering. It will be subscription-based and will offer all of Bloomberg’s current business content plus new content. For example, there are plans for a series, Moon Shot that looks at major scientific breakthroughs. Accelerate will look at test-driving cars of the future. Prognosis will look at cutting edge medicine.

The question faced by customers of traditional cable TV is if they want to continue to pay the big monthly bills for traditional TV and also subscribe to some of this new content. There are a lot of households that are going to want to watch the Disney catalog of programming or see the new content on Apple TV+ or HBO Max. It seems likely that this flood of new content is going to convince more homes to cut the cord.

The Industry

The Non-boom of OTT Programming

I recently looked back at research I did a year ago, and at that time there was a lot of press talking about how over-the-top video offerings were going to soon flood the market, leading to a boom in cord cutters. But in looking at the OTT offerings on the market today it’s easy to see that the flood of new OTT entrants didn’t materialize.

My look backwards was prompted by an article citing the CEO of CBS who said that his network had gotten requests from Facebook, Apple, and Netflix seeking the right for both TV shows and live broadcasts. Those are certainly some powerful companies, and other than Netflix, a company one would expect to be making such requests, it might portend some new OTT offerings. Many pundits in the industry have been predicting an Apple OTT offering for a number of years to go along with the Apple TV product.

I’m a cord cutter myself and so I’m always interested in new OTT offerings. But for various reasons, mostly associated with price, I am not very interested in most of what is out there today. We subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime, and I’ve tried Sling TV twice. But I have not seen any compelling reason to try the other OTT offerings. The list of pay OTT content that’s available is still pretty short, as follows:

  • Showtime: $11 per month with an Apple TV device (which I don’t have).
  • HBO Now: $15 per month with an Apple TV device, and coming soon to Google Play and through Cablevision.
  • CBS All Access: $6 per month but blocks sports content like the NFL.
  • Nickelodeon Noggin: $6 per month.
  • Sling TV: $20 per month. Mix of sports and popular cable networks.
  • PlayStation Vue: Starts at $50 per month. Includes both broadcast and cable networks. This seems like an abbreviated cable line-up, but at cable TV prices.
  • Comcast Stream: $15 per month, only for non-TV devices and must have a Comcast data product. A dozen broadcast networks plus HBO and Streampix.
  • Netflix: $8 per month.
  • Amazon Prime: $99 per year. Includes free or reduced shipping on Amazon purchases and free borrowing of books and music.
  • Hulu Plus: $8 per month with commercials and $12 without commercials. Mostly network TV series.
  • Verizon Go90: Free to certain Verizon wireless customers.

So why hasn’t there been an explosion of other OTT offerings? I think there are several reasons:

  • The standalone networks like CBS and Nickelodeon are basically market tests to see if there is any interest from the public to buy one channel at a time. These channels are being sold at a premium price at $6 per month and it’s hard to think that many households are willing to pay that much for one channel. Most networks want to be very cautious about moving their line-up online and are probably watching these trials closely. One doesn’t have to multiply out the $6 rate very far to see that any household trying to put together a line-up one channel at a time is going to quickly spend more than a traditional expanded basic cable line-up for a lot fewer channels.
  • HBO and Showtime have nothing to lose. The Game of Thrones has been reported as the most pirated show ever and so HBO is probably going to snag some of the cord cutters who have been pirating the show. The prices for these networks are just about the same as what you’d pay for them as part of a cable subscription. But there aren’t many other premium networks out there that can sell this way.
  • One has to think that the major hurdle to anybody putting together a good OTT line-up is getting the programmers to sell them the channels they want at a decent price. The programmers don’t have a major incentive today to help OTT programmers steal away traditional cable subscriptions. Whereas somebody like Sling TV might buy a few channels from a given programmer, that programmer makes more money when cable companies buy their whole lineup. So it’s likely that the programmers are making this hard and expensive for OTT companies. I’ve not seen any rumors about what companies like Sling TV are paying for content, but Sling isn’t like most OTT companies in that it is owned by Dish Networks who is already buying a huge pile of programming. It’s got to be harder for somebody else to put together the same line-up. The dynamics of this might change someday if there a true bleeding of traditional cable customers fleeing cable companies. But for now cord-cutting is only a trickle and most of these networks are still expanding like crazy overseas to make up for any US losses.
The Industry

Too Many Boxes

Programmers who want to put web video on wireless devices have a fairly easy task because they can capture almost all of the app market by working with either Android or iOS. But developing things for home TV is a lot more complicated due to the proliferation of different devices used in the home today to watch web video.

Viewers of web TV have a huge array of potential devices that act as the interface between the web and their televisions. First there are the streaming devices like Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Google Chromecast, and Google Nexus. Then there are the game consoles that support TV such as the Microsoft Xbox, the Sony Playstation, and even older consoles like the Wii. Finally, there is a huge array of smart TVs from every major TV manufacturer like Samsung, Vizio, VG, Sharp, and Sony.

The problem with this plethora of boxes is that there is no standard for the interface, so each one of them has come up with a different interface between the Internet and the big TV screen. There doesn’t seem to be any push in the industry for standardization, probably due to most of the manufacturers figuring they won’t be the big winner if all of the interfaces are made the same.

This is just as confusing for customers because there are nuances to each of these devices that are hard to understand before you buy and use them. Even comparative reviews aren’t helpful because they usually tell you very little about the day-to-day differences between each platform.

One might think that this is a simple issue and that there shouldn’t be much difference. After all, each ofttimes devices is just emulating the same role as the settop box in a traditional cable system. Each system contains what the industry calls ‘middleware’, which is the software that defines the viewer experience. In some of the devices the box plays the role of the tuner (channel changer), the channel guide that lets you decide what to watch, and the general navigation guide that lets you change settings and choose preferences.

There is a wide array of different software platforms for the various boxes, game consoles, and smart TVs. As you might expect, the Google boxes use Android and the Apple boxes use iOS. Samsung uses a Tizen platform that is based on Linux. Sony has developed a proprietary platform used for both their TVs and the Playstation. Panasonic uses Firefox OS. Amazon Fire uses a custom OS called Fire OS.

There has been some shakeout in the industry as boxes that were popular just a few years ago have fallen out of favor with the public. For instance, Boxee and Slingbox were the primary devices used just a few years ago (and many techies still love the Slingbox). But the proliferation of boxes and platforms is inviting a still larger shakeout.

The problem is that every one of these boxes sells enough units to make them profitable and to ensure that nobody controls a big enough slice of the industry to drive other companies to a common platform. The demand for watching web TV is exploding and all of these devices are selling a lot of units every year. Perhaps we are going to have to wait for the market to mature before we see any consolidation or shakeout.

While all these options can be confusing for consumers, the biggest issue with the plethora of boxes is with programmers. Developers of web-based TV packages have the issue of trying to make sure that they work with each of these different devices and operating systems. Once would think that web TV is standard, but it is not. The whole process is software driven and so a web programmer must customize the interface to each of these platforms. That sounds like a lot of lab time and a lot of integration, and worse, it’s never done because each programmer needs to then keep up with software changes on each of the various platforms.

Further, many of these boxes see major upgrades frequently and those upgrades are often not backwards compatible. For example, several CCG staff have Roku boxes, and these have undergone a major upgrade at least every six months, so programmers don’t just have to work on Roku, but they have to work on multiple generations of Roku.

This issue is not part of the investigation at the FCC on how to promote web television, and it probably shouldn’t be. But the issue is a real one and until the day comes when we have standards or until there are only a handful of market winners this is likely to stay a jumbled mess.

The Industry What Customers Want

Web TV Not Hitting the Mark

I am sure that the day will come when there will be OTT web programming packages that will be legitimate competitors to cable. But that day is not here yet. We are starting to see the beginning of web TV, but nothing out there is yet a game changer.

And that is not surprising. We still live in a world where content is under the very tight grasp of the programmers and they are not about to release products that cannibalize the cash cow they have from the cable providers. The early web products are being touted as attempts to lure in the cord cutters and cord nevers who no longer buy traditional cable.

Here is what we’ve seen so far:

  • Sling TV is certainly priced right, starting at only $20 per month. That price includes ESPN as well as a few other popular channels like the Food Network and the Travel Channel. They have a growing list of add-on bundles priced at $5 each. And they are just now launching HBO. But there are problems with the service. As I covered in a blog a few weeks ago, watching some NCAA first round basketball games on Sling TV was the most painful sports watching experience I’ve ever had. And it’s been widespread that they botched the NCAA finals. But there are drawbacks other than the quality. For example, you can only watch it on one device at a time, making it family unfriendly.
  • Sony Vue has two major limitations. First, right now it is only available through a Sony Playstation which costs between $200 and $400. And it’s not cheap. They have three packages set at $49.99, $59.99, and $69.99. Without even considering cable bundle discounts, these can cost as much or more than normal cable.
  • Apple’s TV product is not even on the market yet. Their biggest limiting factor is that it’s going to require the use of a $99 Apple TV box. That unit has been far less popular than the Roku. Apple says they will have ‘skinny’ pricing similar to Sling TV.

There are several major factors that will work against web TV for the foreseeable future:

  • Incumbent Bundle Discounts. All of the major incumbent providers sell bundles of products and they charge a premium price to drop the bundle and go to standalone broadband. That is, if they will sell naked broadband at all. For instance, Comcast has no option for standalone broadband faster than 25 Mbps. When people do the math for canceling traditional cable many of them are going to see very little net savings from the change.
  • Issues with Live Streaming. People have become used to a certain quality level of web viewing due to Netflix and Amazon Prime. But those services cache their product to viewers, meaning that when you first start watching they send a burst of data and they then stay about five minutes ahead of where you view. This eliminates problems due to variance in the Internet connections, making the viewing experience smooth and predictable. But there is a far different challenge when streaming live content, meaning shows that are broadcast at set times. Such shows are largely not cached, and thus are vulnerable to every little hiccup in a viewer’s local network (of which there are many which becomes apparent when watching live sports on the web).
  • Programmer Bundles. Programmers make a ton of money by bundling their content to the ISPs. Comcast, Verizon, and everybody else are not able to pick and choose the content they want. There are seven major program owners that control a big majority of cable channels, and when you want any of their content they generally insist that you take almost all of it. This lets the programmers force ISPs to take programs that they would likely never otherwise buy. Web TV is trying to differentiate itself by offering smaller bundles. But I am sure that programmers are making the web providers pay a premium price for choosing to take only a subset of their channels.

The FCC is currently looking at the issue of web TV and they might make it easier for web companies to obtain content. If they do so, one would hope that they also make it easier for wireline cable providers to do the same. Nielsen released statistics late last year that show that the average household largely watches around eleven channels out of the hundreds that are sent to them. Consumers and cable providers would all benefit greatly if the programming that is being forced upon us better matched what we actually want to buy.

The web TV companies are trying to do just that and put together packages of just the most popular content. But I laugh every time I see them talking about going after the cord cutters, who at this point are largely younger households, because the content they are choosing for the web so far is popular with people fifty and older (sometimes much older). I can’t see too many younger households being attracted to these first web TV packages. If the rules can be changed so that different providers can try different packages, then we might someday soon see a few killer web packages that can give traditional cable a run for the money. And perhaps what we are already seeing will be the wave of the future. Perhaps there will be numerous web TV offerings, each attracting its own group of followers, meaning no one killer package but dozens of small packages each with their loyal fans.

Current News

The Battle for the OTT Box

Amazon this week finally announced the fireTV, an OTT settop box. It’s been rumored for years that they would launch one, and considering how popular AmazonPrime is it’s surprising how long it took for them to do this. But this announcement highlights the giant battle going on in households for control of the OTT market.

And of course, boxes aren’t the only way for homes to get OTT content. In my house we don’t have a television and we watch our content on PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones. This works for us. And then there are smart TVs. There are decent smart TVs from LG, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, Philips and Panasonic. Each of these comes with a different system for giving access to web channels. The best of them offer a lot of customization to make your line-up what you want to watch. All come with some modest amount of web gaming.

But the big battle today is with the boxes, primarily between the new Amazon fireTV, Apple, Roku and the dongle from Google Chromecast. This wide array of options must have the average household scratching their head. Every box is different in look and feel, price and features. They vary widely in what you can watch and in the ease of using their interface. And they all are all hoping to control a large chunk of the market

The Amazon fireTV is an interesting platform. They have built in 2 GB of RAM and a dedicated graphics processor. With an add-on $40 game controller this is going to give them the ability for higher quality gaming than the other boxes, although not near the capability of the dedicated game platforms. For non-hardcore gamers who just want to play games on their big screen it should be a good alternative to buying an expensive gaming box

Many of the boxes now have voice activation. With smart TVs you normally have to shout across the room to the TV and this is widely reported to be clunky. The fireTV puts the voice control in the remote. Roku 3 has taken the path of making their remote motion controlled.

The real competition between boxes comes with the programming choices they have built in to the channel line-up. For example, the ROKU 3 line-up has grown to over 1,000 channels and apps. The Amazon fireTV is launching with only 165 and has some clear major omissions such as HBO Go. But one has to suspect those deals will all be made and that they will quickly catch up.

And perhaps the real winner will be the box and company that finally makes a deal for some regular programming to go along with the OTT content. The first one that can bring in the network channels, HBO without a landline subscription and popular programming like ESPN and Disney could be a major competitor to cable companies. Recently an email from Steve Jobs right before he died showed that Apple was hoping to add this kind of content when they release the next generation of Apple TV, and it might be the lack of such deals that has held off that release.

The Amazon fireTV is announced at a price of $99, the same as the Roku and the Apple TV, although both are widely available today for around $95. The Google Chromecast is available today for only $35. I have to be honest and say that if I buy a TV, which I am considering, that I will have a hard time making a choice between these options. I read a lot more about this stuff than the average household and it makes me wonder how people make such a choice. They probably just go with the brand that they feel the most comfortable with rather than making the hard side-by-side comparisons.

Current News Technology

The Battle of the Boxes

Image via CrunchBase

For years we’ve been told that the day was coming when we would be able to get rid of the settop boxes supplied by the cable company and instead use our own smart devices to receive cable TV. A number of years ago the FCC tried to promote this with its cable card order that said that customers must be allowed to bring their own devices and that the cable companies then had to give them a discount for doing so. But cable cards were a massive failure and only a very small percentage of customers went through the hassle of trying to use their own settop boxes.

And then we heard a lot of talk about how TVs were going to get smarter and that we would be able to plug our cable into the back of the TV and eliminate the settop box. And that actually worked for a few years. But then cable companies started converting their systems to all-digital to make more room for faster cable modems, and analog transmissions are quickly becoming a thing of the past.

So we are no closer today to being able to bring our own smart box to the game and almost every home still has a settop box or a DTA (Digital Television Adapter) for which the cable company charges them a fee of around $5 or more per month.

Meanwhile there are a host of new boxes in the world that are designed to help customers bring the Internet and its many programming options to the TV. Among these are Roku, Apple TV and Sony Playstation. There are a number of households that are using these boxes to replace the cable company altogether and are settling for the programming that can be found on the web. These boxes let people subscribe to things like NetFlix, Hulu or Amazon Prime, which are much cheaper than the typical cable subscription.

Time Warner is taking an interesting approach to the battle of the boxes. In March they announced a deal to allow people to use a Roku box in place of a Time Warner settop box. In June they announced a deal that allows customers to use high-end Samsung TVs without a settop box. And it was reported last week that they are making a deal for people to use Apple TV in place of their settop box.

Image via CrunchBase

Time Warner is doing this by developing a specific App that works on each device. A customer can download an app that will let the Roku box mimic the Time Warner settop box and save the monthly fee. It’s reported that the app is not as good as the real thing and the line-up and some reception is not as good as using a TV. But Time Warner sees some advantages to this arrangement. While they lose the typical $5 per month charge for the settop boxes, they also get out of all of the obligations that go with providing settop boxes. No cable provider likes being in the settop box business. They require truck rolls to install and sometimes to retrieve. They break and must be replaced. And a surprising number of people move, pack and take their boxes with them. Cable companies are probably a net winner by getting out of the settop box business.

But I see a few problems with Time Warner’s approach. First, Time Warner is headed down a path that is going to make their software life complicated over time. Soon they will have deals that require them to supply apps for three different boxes. But over time that number is going to mushroom. There will eventually be many generations of Roku and Apple TV and every other current box as they get updated and outdated. And over time there will be dozens, if not hundreds of devices that will be able to get TV signal onto a TV. Looking into the future five or ten years I see Time Warner’s strategy getting very complicated.

But the biggest danger I see is that Time Warner’s strategy is inviting the fox into the henhouse. Do they really want to promote customers to use boxes that bring Netflix and Hulu into the house and make it easier for customers to cancel or downgrade their Time Warner cable TV service? Obvious some people are going to be buying these boxes anyway, but should the cable company be promoting people to buy a box that makes it easier to bypass them? It seems like a risky bet to me.

Even if Time Warner is onto something, this solution is not for everybody. Certainly the handful of other large cable companies could follow suit, but it’s hard to see this working for smaller cable companies. And this solution won’t work at all for companies that deliver IPTV over DSL or fiber like Verizon, AT&T, municipalities and hundreds of independent telephone companies and small CLECs. The IPTV stream requires a proprietary device to descramble the signal (and  scrambling for IPTV is required in the contracts with the content owners), and so these providers cannot move customers to alternate boxes.

Time Warner’s approach is unique and we will have to see if any other cable companies follow them. This is a home run for the box makers, but I’m not so sure that Time Warner wins too.

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