Prices are Driving Cord Cutting

It’s been general wisdom for several years that high cable TV prices are one of the predominant factors behind cord cutting. TiVo’s recently released Q4 2017 Online Video and Pay-TV Trends Report says that prices are even more important than we thought. TiVo talked to a number of cord cutters in 2017 and found that 86.7% of those who dropped TV in 2017 list high prices as the number one reason for abandoning traditional cable TV. This is up from 80.1% a year earlier.

It’s not hard to understand why price is becoming such a big factor. Over 50% of households now say that their monthly cable bill is more than $75 per month. And only 15% pay less than $50, down from 18% a year earlier. Annual rate increases that are far greater than the cost of general inflation are pushing cable prices out of the affordability zone for many households.

Interestingly we see this same trend manifesting in another way. In a recent survey Parks Associates report that a little over 20% of households now use digital antennas in their homes to receive over-the-air networks like ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and PBS. That’s up from 15% in 2015. That’s a huge swing and means that over 6 million homes have started using antennas in just the last two years.

Nationwide more than 3 million households (2.4% of all households) dropped cable in 2017 – as witnessed by the subscribers of the largest cable TV companies. Just about every one of my clients will tell you that they lost a larger percentage than the average. The nationwide numbers are bolstered by the fact that Comcast lost only 0.7% of its cable customers and Charter lost 1.4%. But telcos did far worse with AT&T losing 14.6% and Frontier losing 16.1%.

Higher prices are almost entirely due to increased programming costs. Small companies have seen programming costs grow over 10% per year, and the rate of annual growth is increasing. Some have reported annual increases to me as high as 15% in the most recent two years.

One of the biggest drivers of high programming costs are the retransmission charges that local affiliates of the major networks charge to cable companies to cover the over-the-air networks. In large cities a lot of the local TV stations are owned directly by the major networks like NBC or ABC, but in smaller markets these are generally owned by others. The independent local stations have no recourse but to raise retransmission rates each year since the networks increase the costs to them for remaining as an affiliate. In the end, all of the extra revenues from retransmission fees flows up to the major networks, which now see this as a major source of revenue growth.

It’s not just the major networks that are increasing rates. Practically every cable network is increasing rates at a faster pace than a decade ago. It’s a really odd economic phenomenon to see big price increases occurring in an industry that is losing customers at this pace. Any economics 101 book would suggest that the laws of supply and demand would drive prices for programming in the other direction.

But the cable industry is perverse due to regulations. The cable rules require stations to carry local networks that are within their range. I know a number of cable companies who would gladly provide rabbit ears to customers rather than continue to raise rates every year – but they are required by laws passed by Congress to carry these stations. The same laws also force cable companies to carry large lineups in the basic and expanded basic tiers that we are all familiar with.

These laws mean that cable providers have few options on what networks to carry. I don’t know any cable providers who wouldn’t like to try something different and perhaps offer smaller packages of the most-watched networks that people could afford to buy. But the legal requirements for cable lineups embolden the programmers to charge exorbitantly because cable operators have no power to push back. The most a cable provider can do is to take all of the networks from a given programmer off the air – and even this is impractical since each of the few major programmers own a lot of networks.

You can’t really fault the programmers since they are all publicly-traded companies which are responding to Wall Street demands that they increase profits quarter after quarter. The whole cable ecosystem is polluted by the need to increase profits. It’s sad, because without the price increases each year all of the companies involved could continue to make high margins and big profits.

Even with all of this turmoil in the industry I don’t hear of any discussion in Congress about tackling the issue and relaxing the current rules that are breaking the industry. Instead we see people fleeing traditional cable TV and buying smaller packages of the same programming online from Sling TV, DirecTV Now and Playstation Vue.

The rate of cord cutting is clearly accelerating and it’s not going to take many more years until these issues can’t be fixed – because by then the majority of households will be getting programming online rather than from cable companies.