The Myth of OTT Savings

One of the reasons touted in the press for the recent popularity of cord cutting is the desire of people to save money over a traditional cable TV subscription. But as I look at what’s popular on the web I wonder if the savings are really going to be there for people who like to watch a variety of the best content.

There has been an explosion of companies that are pursuing unique video content, and this means that great content can now be found at many different places on the web. Interestingly, most of this great content is not available on traditional TV, other than the content provided by the premium movie channels. But considering the following web platforms that are creating unique content:

  • Netflix. They are the obvious king of unique content and release new shows, specials, movies and documentaries seemingly weekly. And they seem to have a wide variety of content aimed at all demographics.
  • Hulu. They are a bit late to the game. But the newly released The Handmaid’s Tale is getting critical acclaim and will be part of a quickly growing portfolio of unique content.
  • HBO. HBO has always had a few highly popular series with Game of Thrones still drawing huge audiences.
  • CBS All-Access. CBS has made a bold move by offering the new series Star Trek: Discovery only online. It’s bound to draw a lot of customers to the online service.
  • Amazon Prime. The company says they are going to invest billions in unique programming and are aiming at overtaking Netflix. Their recent hit The Man in the High Castle is evidence of the quality programming they are pursuing.
  • Showtime. They have historically created limited amounts of unique content but are now also looking to create a lot more. Their new show Twin Peaks has come out with high reviews.
  • Starz. This network is also now chasing new content and has a hit series with American Gods.
  • Seeso. Even services that most people have never heard of, such as Seeso are creating popular content such as the comedy series My Brother, My Brother and Me.
  • YouTube Red. The industry leader of unique content is YouTube which has allowed anybody to create content. While most of this is still free, the platform is now putting a lot of great content such as the comedy Rhett and Link’s Buddy System behind a paywall.

Subscribing to the above online services with the minimum subscriptions costs $79 per month (and that’s without figuring in the annual cost of Amazon Prime, which most people buy because of the free shipping from Amazon). The above line-up doesn’t include any sports and you’d have to buy a $30 subscription from Sling TV to watch ESPN and a few other popular sports networks. ESPN recently announced that they still don’t have any plans to launch a standalone web product but are instead pursuing being included in the various skinny bundles.

Not considered, though, in the above list are numerous other less-known paid OTT subscriptions available on line. As listed in this recent blog there are dozens of other platforms for people who like specialized content like Japanese anime or British comedies.

Of course, one thing the above list shows is that there is a world of content these days that is not being created by the major networks or the traditional cable networks. There is likely more money pouring into the creation of content outside of the traditional networks.

So OTT doesn’t seem to save as much as hoped for people that wish to enjoy a variety of popular content across different providers.  But there are other benefits driving people to OTT programming.  One of the great benefits of OTT programming is the ability to subscribe and cancel services at will. I have been trying various OTT networks and it’s really tempting to subscribe to each for a month or two until you’ve seen what you want and then move on to something else. I’m starting to think that’s the way I will use these services as long as they continue to allow easy egress and exit.

And OTT programming allows for non-linear TV watching.  As long as somebody lives near to a metropolitan area a cord cutter can still view the traditional network channels using rabbit ears. But what a lot of cord cutters are finding is that they quickly lose their tolerance of linear programming. I know that when I travel and have TV available in the room that I only watch it if I want to catch a football or basketball game. I can no longer tolerate the commercial breaks or the inability to pause linear TV while I want to do something else. And that, perhaps more than anything, is what will bring down traditional cable TV. As much as cable companies tout TV Everywhere, their basic product is still showing content linearly at fixed times. There is such a huge volume of great OTT content available any time on any device that it’s not hard for somebody to walk away from the traditional networks and still always have something you want to watch.

OTT Latest – August 2016

tubitv_squareThe only way for cord cutting to become a true problem for the cable companies is for there to be so much content online that people feel comfortable walking away from the cable packages. If the last few months are any indication of where the OTT industry is heading, we soon ought to be seeing more people cut the cord. So far this year there has been an average of almost one new OTT roll-out every week and there are now over 130 subscription video services on the web. Here are just a few of the more interesting recent announcements in what is becoming a busy new industry:

Acorn TV. Priced at $4.99 per month (first month free) this service bundles the best shows from the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The service is starting with 60 exclusive titles that include a lot of drama, police who-dunnits and dry British comedy.

Sling TV. The service has grown from very simple to having a wide range of options. They have added a ton of new programming such as Fox Sports and other Fox Shows, They brought in the NBC suite including the live NBC feed, USA, Bravo, SyFy and BBC America. They beefed up the sports offering with some regional sports networks. The NBC live feed will be the first place that local NFL games will be broadcast on the web. They have added E! and Oxygen to their Lifestyle package. And they’ve added BBC World News, CNBC and MSNBC to their World News Package. Overall this is starting to become as large and confusing as looking at cable packages!

Hulu. The company has confirmed it will soon be launching a skinny bundle. Much of the content is going to come from the owners of Hulu including a suite of packages from ABC / Disney including ESPN, a package from NBC Universal, and a package from 21st Century Fox. Plus Hulu is making a deal with CBS. This would make Hulu the first to offer all of the major networks’ feeds live online, with ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox. The company has said that their base package will be around $35, and this makes it a true skinny bundle since it includes the networks plus other most-watched channels. As I was writing this blog Hulu announced they are ceasing all free / ad-based program and are now all-subscription.

Tubi TV. Tubi TV is taking a different approach from the other services and is free to customers and is ad-supported. The service carries a lot of content aimed at millennials, who supposedly are most interested in free content. The service includes Japanese anime 2-days after being aired in Japan as well as a lot of movies and various series of interest to millennials. The service has made deals with over 200 content provides including MGM, Lionsgate, Paramount Pictures and Starz!

Comcast brings in Netflix. In an attempt to keep viewers on their platform and under their channel guide Comcast has made a deal to bring Netflix into the fold. Netflix will appear in the lineup like any other network and customers can navigate using their remote control.

Speaking of remote controls, Comcast distributed a lot of new voice-controlled remotes in time for the Olympics in the hopes of keeping customers from cutting the cord. We’ll have to watch to see how customers like the new devices.

Networks go Directly Online. All of the major (and many not-so-major) networks are taking their content online, but with different business models. It will be interesting to see which of these approaches is the most popular.

Fox has announced that it is now online for customers using the Fox.com website or the Fox Now app. This is an authenticated service and customers have to be verified as a customer of a cable provider and already paying for the Fox programming.

ABC is re-launching its unauthenticated streaming service (free for anybody) and showing older series for free, supported with ads.

CBS has taken the premium subscription approach and is a monthly subscriptions for $5.99 it’s calling CBS All Access. The company is producing original content just for this platform including the next Star Trek Series.

NBC has chosen to produce OTT content through its Seeso platform. This is going to consist of a number of different types of programming, with the comedy platform launched late last year. The comedy channel costs $3.99 per month. It includes older NBC comedy series as well as twenty new comedy series produced only for the Seeso platform.

Even smaller networks like CW now have an unauthenticated ad-supported platform called CW Seed that is showing older shows such as MadTV, Constantine and the O.C.

The Non-boom of OTT Programming

Fatty_watching_himself_on_TVI 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.