Should You Carry OTT Programming?

Every cable provider today needs to consider carrying Over-the-Top (OTT) channels on their cable system. OTT programming is content that is available on the web and includes such things as Hulu and Netflix. There are a number of reasons to consider this:

  • I have discussed the phenomenon of cord-cutters in other blog posts. The large organizations that track cable customers report that a lot of customers are dropping traditional cable. Nielson reported that at least one million people dropped traditional cable last year and that number is expected to increase. The cable industry appears to be at the same place that the telephone industry was ten years ago and everybody expects more and more people to drop cable TV every year much as has happened to land line telephones. To the extent that you can give customers easy access to OTT programming on your cable system you may convince some of them not to leave your system.
  • There are a lot of customers buying OTT boxes, which are devices that let them watch OTT programming on their TVs and also on other devices using WiFi such as pads and smartphones. These are devices like Apple TV, Roku, Boxee and Playstation.  Once a customer has an alternative box in their home sitting next to your settop box they have mentally started the process of dropping you. If you can give customers easy access to the OTT programming they want you will have lowered their incentive to buy an alternate box.
  • You can use OTT programming to develop new products. Nobody makes much money today with cable TV. You can create a new bundle of programming by combining OTT, the basic network channels and local programming that can be more profitable than the large packages you sell of many channels. I will discuss this more below.

There are a number of ways to get OTT programming onto your cable system. You can gather the OTT program sources yourself and put them onto open channels on your system. There are devices available that will let you create a channel out of web content. For instance, you can create a channel that would have buttons for the most popular web content.

But an easier way is to use somebody who has already done that aggregation. There are several vendors who have packaged OTT channels together to make a ‘channel line-up’. Probably the best of these right now is a company called AIOTV (All-in-One TV). This is available on the web to anybody, but they also have a version of their programming that is designed to be used as a web channel.

AIOTV will supply the feed to you for free to get onto your cable system. They sell nationwide advertising and they insert ads at the beginning of each show that a customer watches. If you put them onto your cable system they will send you a small revenue sharing check each month for carrying their ads. It’s not a lot, and the revenue is not the primary reason to do this, but it’s still nice to get a check.

The other nice feature of AIOTV is that their platform gives you an easy way to create additional web channels of your own. There innumerable ways for you to use this capability and you could add additional web content to your line-up that is not already on AIOTV. However, the best use of this capability is to use it to create local programming. You can use AIOTV or other platforms to create a channel for every school, church, non-profit or other entity in your area. The programming would be up to the entities who have channels and they can use it to put items of interest to your community onto your cable system. For example, this is the easiest and lowest cost way to get things like little league games and high-school sports onto your network.

With AIOTV or some similar provider you can create some sense out of local programming. The platform gives you a way to create a traditional looking channel line-up so that people can find the local channels they want. Each local channel supplier also has the ability to operate their channel so that it is continuous feed or on-demand.

Local programming is a way to get and keep customers on your cable network. Other communities that broadcast a lot of local content say that this becomes one of the more popular things on their network. People want to watch local sports and graduation ceremonies and other local events. Most cable systems today carry local city-council meetings, but there is a lot more events of local interest in every community.

Finally, you can use OTT and local programming to create a new product. For example, every cable provider has a basic product that consists of the broadcast networks such as ABC and NBC along with a few other channels. You can create a pretty robust package that includes your basic line-up, OTT programming and local programming. Priced at something like $20 per month this would be the most profitable product on your cable system. Today most companies are lucky if they break even with the larger cable packages after paying for all of the programming.

This kind of line-up offers customers a ton of programming including web access to many of the most popular shows they watched on traditional cable. I have anecdotally spoken to several people who have dropped traditional cable for a Roku or Apple TV box and they say that they don’t feel like they have suffered any big drop-off in options. If you can add live network TV and local programming to this mix you have a robust line-up that many of your customers are going to see as an attractive alternative.

I think that cable systems are on the verge of pricing a lot of customers out of being able to afford their services. Expanded basic packages are now $60 to $70 per month in most markets and continue to increase in price every year. So consider a preemptive strike and give your customers a pre-packaged lower cost alternative rather than waiting on them to go find this on their own.

A Look into my Crystal Ball

Technology of the FutureI have spent quite a bit of time recently reading futurist books and articles that think about the most likely future. I’ve done this to the point where my wife asked me if I am unhappy with the present! After chuckling, I told her that I am happy now. But thinking about the future is a worthwhile effort when one is engaged in a technology-based industry. Everything I have read tells me that selling to residences is going to change a lot over the next few decades. And I believe that those who understand where the trends are taking us can begin preparing for that future today.

So what will the future residential customer want from a telecom company? Everything I have read tells me that traditional telephone service and cable TV service as we know it today will not be around. Voice will have become a total commodity. You will probably be able to put a phone in your house if you insist, but it will be an IP device and very few people will still have a traditional telephone.

Within twenty years voice will be a commodity for cellular service also and the cell phones we carry today will also be a thing of the past. There will be devices far smarter than our ‘smart’ phones. Many of these devices will be somehow integrated into our body and will be far more sophisticated than the first generation of Google glass. I am not enough of a futurist to predict the specific technology that will win the battle, but we will not be carrying around a device whose primary purpose is to talk to people.

Cable TV is headed down the same path and there will no longer be a subscription to hundreds of channels for a high price. Video will be available ubiquitously on any device you want to watch it on. People will subscribe to the programming they want and will not pay for what they don’t want.

But people will still want bandwidth at their homes – lots of bandwidth. As we move towards the Internet of Everything, where multitudes of devices will include cheap chips and will be networked together to make our lives easier, the average house will want a lot of bandwidth.

And there will be two kinds of bandwidth providers – dumb pipe providers and service providers. There are already dumb pipe providers today. I live in the country and I get my Internet access through a wireless link from a nearby tower. And that wireless link is all that my ISP sells. They don’t offer any other services over that link and I doubt I would buy them if they did. I have my smart phone to give me everything else.

Many of today’s networks will morph over time to become dumb pipe providers. They will raise the price of bandwidth until it is high enough to compensate them for their network. They will have much smaller staffs than today who will be needed just to install and maintain the network.

But there will be another kind of provider that I call a full-service provider. They will also deliver a bandwidth pipe to the house, but they will also provide a host of services. And mostly these services are going to look like a future version of today’s Geek Squad. These companies will send technicians into people’s houses to help them make everything work together. When there is an Internet of everything it is going to get complicated. People who are not very technological are going to want lots of help to customize the many options to get just what they want. And so when a technicians visits he might be asked to help a customer get a medical monitor working right, find some programming they had trouble locating, fiddle with the controls for the lighting, and put a different personality on the home AI. The service-oriented provider will build customer loyalty and will be perceived as something very different from the dumb pipe provider.

There is a lesson today from envisioning this future. Far too many service providers today sell products that they treat as commodities, and once they sell them they rarely talk to their customers unless there is a problem. Technology has already gotten complicated for the average household and I think there is already a market for sending technicians into homes to make things work together better. I have clients who do this and they say that changing to a service model is the best change they ever made. They generally sell something new every time a technician visits somebody’s home. But the vast majority of the telecom companies I know look a lot more like the dumb pipe provider. They may sell telephone and cable TV on their data pipes, but what are they going to be left with when those products turn into a commodities and then disappear into the cloud?

Cable TV Trends

There are a number of trends affecting the cable TV industry that all add up to an industry that is going to be seeing big changes over the next decade. These are what I see as the biggest trends affecting the industry:

  • Cord Cutters. The number of people who are completely dropping cable is growing and the speed of that drop is accelerating. I have seen several different recent estimate that 5 million households will have completely dropped all cable service by the end of 2013. And only the cable providers know how many other million households that have cut back on the size of the package they buy rather than drop service totally. I anecdotally know many people, myself included, who have gone from the big cable packages to something less – in my case I now have only the basic package of about 20 channels.
  • Higher Programming Costs. Programming costs have been rising steadily for the last decade and until the last few years were climbing between 6% and 7% per year. Costs have climbed even faster in recent years due to the high fees being demanded by local network channels in each market (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox). Local network programming was free for cable companies until a few years ago, but now they paying as much as $1 per month per customer for each major network channel. Many contracts between cable providers and programmers are for multiple years and those contracts show the price increases are going to continue to come.
  • Even Higher Rate Increases. The large cable companies have increased rates around 7% per year for many years. The programmers have usually blamed the size of the increases on increased programming costs, but until the recent increases in local network programming the increases were generally about twice what was needed to cover programming cost increases. If the rate increases continue at that level, then a $70 package today will cost $129 in ten years. Prices are already at a point that are forcing households off the network.
  • Very Solid Cable Modem Business. To a large degree the cable companies have won the war with DSL. However, they have stiff competition from Verizon and FiOS on fiber. There is limited competition outside the Verizon footprint, but with Google building fiber in Kansas City and having announced Austin and Provo there is going to be more competition for the residential business.

What do these trends add up to? I see them resulting in the following:

  • Ever decreasing cable customer base. The most dire trend for the industry is that young people are not interested in traditional cable, and as that demographic ages the percentage of households wanting cable is going to drop faster and faster. Add to this the households dropping due to never-ending price increases and most experts see cable subscribership going down the same path as landline telephones. Subscribers are dropping somewhat slowly now, but every prediction I have seen believes the rate of disconnects will accelerate over time.
  • Cable Providers Become Data Companies. As cable penetration decreases the cable companies will become more and more reliant on selling data. This is going to lead them over time to maximize their networks for providing bandwidth for data rather than cable TV. And I predict it also means that they will start raising data prices over time, something that we just started seeing in the last year. There is not much profit in selling cable packages and the cable companies could be more profitable selling data eventually (assuming they are in markets where they don’t have stiff competition).
  • Winnowing of Cable Networks. As the industry loses subscribers and as people downgrade from larger packages to smaller ones, the demand for some of the networks is going to diminish. One way for cable companies to control costs is going to be to whittle away at their line-up, and that is not that hard to do with 300+ channels on many cable systems. So some of the marginal networks are going to either die or greatly reduce the fees they charge if they want to stay in business.

There is one change that might affect the industry that could upset these trends, and that is a la carte programming.  There are a lot of barriers to make that happen, but cable companies might get new life if they are able to sell only those channels that people want to watch. It’s certainly possible that they could sell a package of 20 channels to a family at an affordable price and make more profit than they do today with the large expensive packages. But this is going to require a major change in an industry that is currently controlled by the programmers and not by the cable companies.