The Greed of the Programmers

If you use social media you may have noticed a flurry of activity at the end of December warning that small cable TV providers across the country could lose the Fox channels on January 1. That includes Fox News, Fox Business, FX, National Geographic, FS1, FS2, and the Big Ten Network. The dispute was with NCTC, a cooperative that negotiates rates for most of the smaller cable companies in the country.

Fox was asking for what has been described as a 20% rate hike on programming. Fox was seeking a big rate increase to recognize that they have the number one network on cable TV with 1.5 million daily viewers. NCTC finally struck a deal with Fox on December 31 and the channels didn’t go dark – but the cost of buying the Fox networks went up substantially. Back in September, the Fox channels went dark for ten days on Dish Networks when the satellite company refused to accept the same big rate increase.

This is not the first big rate increase from Fox. ALLO Communications, a sizable fiber overbuilder, says that Fox has raised rates 800% since 2004, To put that into perspective, the cost of living in the US has increased by 36% since 2004.

The Fox rate increase is the perfect metaphor for the woes of the cable industry. Fox is not unique, and during the 2000s most cable programmers raised rates much faster than inflation. Cable companies have had little choice but to pass the rate increases along to customers. The programming cost increases have led to a steady annual rate increase for consumers. The soaring price of cable has led to the cord cutting trend and customers are bailing from traditional cable TV by the millions and at an increasing pace.

As a whole, traditional cable TV has probably now entered what economists call a death spiral. Most programming contracts are for 3 – 5 years and the cable TV companies already know of the big programming cost increases coming for the next few years. As cable companies keep raising rates they will lose more customers. The programmers will likely try to compensate by raising their rates even higher, and within a short number of years, cable TV will cost more than what most homes are willing to pay.

A company like Fox can weather the storm of disappearing cable subscribers since they know that all of the online alternative networks like Sling TV, YouTube TV, and others will carry their major networks like Fox News, Fox Business, and the sports networks. The chances are that the primary Fox channels will be solid and steady earners for the company far into the future. However, the same can’t be said for many cable networks.

The online cable products have far smaller channel lineups than traditional cable. There are more than 100 traditional cable channels that are losing subscribers from cable companies and not replacing them with online programming. It’s only a matter of time until many of these networks go dark, as programming revenues won’t cover the cost of operating the network.

It’s easy for people to hate cable companies since that’s who people pay every month. Cable providers like Comcast and AT&T share in the blame since they are both the two largest cable providers and also owners of content. All cable companies share some blame for not yelling bloody murder to the American public for the last decade – and for not fighting back. The cable companies instead started sliding the programming rate increases into hidden fees. However, the fault ultimately lies with the greed of the programmers. These are mostly big publicly traded companies raise rates every year to please stockholders.

It’s no longer good enough for corporations to make money, they are expected to increase bottom line quarter after quarter, year after year. We’ve only been talking about cord cutting for a few years, but the industry has been declining for over a decade. In 2010 there were nearly 105 million subscribers of traditional cable TV, and that number dropped to just over 83 million by the third quarter of 2019. It’s easy to think of cord cutting as a recent phenomenon, but the industry has been quietly bleeding customers for years. Sadly, the programmers are still denying the reality that they exist in a dying industry and are likely to continue to raise rates like Fox just did.

The supply and demand side of any sane industry would have gotten together years ago and figured out a way for the industry to be sustainable. However, the combined greed of the programmers and the big cable companies has resulted in the runaway rate increases that will doom traditional cable. It’s hard to know where the tipping point will be, but we’ll be there when cable networks start going dark – it’s just a matter of time.

Will Costly Alternatives Slow Cord Cutting?

The primary reason that households claim they cut the cord is due to price. Surveys have shown that most households regularly watch around a dozen cable channels, and cord cutters still want to see their favorite channels. Not all cord cutters are willing to go cold turkey on the traditional cable networks and so they seek out an online alternative that carries the networks they want to watch.

For the last few years, there have been online alternatives that carry the most popular cable networks for prices between $35 and $45 per month. However, during the last year, the cost of these alternatives has risen significantly. I doubt that the price increases will drive people back to the cable companies where they had to pay for hidden fees and a settop box, but the higher prices might make more households hesitate to make the switch. Following are the current prices of the major online alternatives to traditional cable TV:

Hulu Live TV. This service is owned 2/3 by Disney and 1/3 by Comcast. They recently announced a price increase effective December 18 to move the package from $44.99 to $54.99. Customers can also select an add-free version for $60.99. At the beginning of 2019, the service was priced at $39.99, so the price increased by 36% during the year.

AT&T TV Now (was called DirecTV Now) raised the price of the service earlier this year from $50 to $65. The company also raised the prices significantly for DirecTV over satellite and lost millions of customers between the two services.

YouTube TV raised prices in May from $40 to $50. This service is owned by Google. Along with the price increase, the service added the Discovery Channel.

Sling TV is owned by Dish Networks. They still have the lowest prices for somebody looking for a true skinny package. They offer two line-ups, called Blue or Orange that each cost $25 per month, or both for $40 per month. There are also add-ons packages for $5 per month for Kids (Nick channels, Disney Jr), Lifestyle (VH-1, BET, diy, Hallmark), Heartland (outdoor channels), Hollywood (TCM, Sundance, Reelz), along with News, Spanish and International packages. One of the big things missing from Sling TV is local network channels and they provide an HD antenna with a subscription. Sling TV has spread the most popular channels in such a way that customers can easily spend $50 to $60 monthly to get their favorite channels.

Fubo TV is independent and not associated with another big media company. They offer 179 channels, including local network channels for $54.99 per month. The network started with sports coverage including an emphasis on soccer.

TVision Home is owned by T-Mobile. This was formerly known as Layer3 TV. The company has never tried to make this a low-cost alternative and it’s the closest online service to mimic traditional cable TV. The service is only available today in a few major markets. Customers can get an introductory price of $90 per month (goes up to $100 after a year). They charge $10 per extra TV and also bill taxes that range from 4% to 20% depending upon the market. This is cable TV delivered over broadband.

Playstation Vue. The service is owned by Sony and has announced that it will cease service at the end of January 2020. The service is no longer taking new customers. The price of the core packages is $55 per month, which increased by $5 in July.  The service carries more sports channels than most of the other services.

The channels offered by each service differ, so customers need to shop carefully and compare lineups. For example, I’m a sports fan and Sling TV and Fubo TV don’t carry the BigTen Network. There are similar gaps throughout the lineups of all of the providers.

All of these alternatives, except perhaps TVision Home, are still less expensive than most traditional cable TV packages. However, it looks like all of these services are going to routinely increase rates to cover increased programming fees. Couple that with the fact that customers dropping cable TV probably lose their bunding discounts, and a lot of houses are probably still on the fence about cord cutting.

Cable Customers Continue to Plummet – 3Q 2019

The number of traditional cable TV subscribers continued to plummet in the third quarter of 2019. The numbers below come from Leichtman Research Group which compiles these numbers from reports made to investors, except for Cox which is estimated.

The numbers reported are for the largest cable providers and Leichtman estimates that these companies represent 93% of all cable customers in the country.

For the quarter, the large cable companies lost 2.1% of subscribers which would equate to a trend of losing 8.4% for the year. However, that number needs to be put into context. The biggest drop of customers came from AT&T / DirectTV which lost nearly 1.3 million customers in the quarter, and 2.6 million customers so far this year. Much of AT&T’s loss comes from the decision to end discount plans to customers and has been letting customers go who won’t agree to pay full price at the end of previously given discount plans. The company says they are glad to be rid of customers who were not contributing to the bottom line of the company. All of the other providers collectively lost 0.9% of market share for the quarter, or a pace of 3.8% annualized. It appears the many of the lost DirecTV customers didn’t reappear at another cable provider and are gone from the industry, and so AT&T seems to be pushing households to cut the cord perhaps earlier than they might have otherwise. The nearly 1.8 million customer loss for the quarter sets a new record for cord-cutting.

Following is a comparison of the second and third quarters of this year:

3Q 2019 2Q 2019 Change % Change
Comcast 21,403,000 21,641,000 (238,000) -1.1%
DirecTV 16,828,000 17,901,000 (1,073,000) -6.0%
Charter 16,245,000 16,320,000 (75,000) -0.5%
Dish TV 9,494,000 9,560,000 (66,000) -0.7%
Verizon 4,280,000 4,346,000 (66,000) -1.5%
Cox 3,900,000 3,940,000 (40,000) -1.0%
AT&T U-verse 3,600,000 3,704,000 (104,000) -2.8%
Altice 3,223,400 3,255,300 (31,900) -1.0%
Mediacom 729,000 747,000 (18,000) -2.4%
Frontier 698,000 738,000 (40,000) -5.4%
Atlantic Broadband 312,555 307,261 5,294 1.7%
Cable ONE 298,063 308,493 (10,430) -3.4%
Total 81,011,018 82,768,054 (1,757,036) -2.1%

Some other observations:

  • Frontier continues to bleed and lost 5.4% of its cable customers along with 71,000 broadband customers in the second quarter.
  • Several other companies – Mediacom, and Cable One lost more than 2% of their cable customer base in the quarter.
  • The rate of loss for Dish Networks continues to shrink, and this might be due to picking up customers that are leaving DirecTV.

I haven’t seen anybody tracking the quarterly performance of all of the online cable equivalent providers – the companies that carry a full line-up online. It seems unlikely from the numbers I have seen that these companies are picking up a lot of the customers leaving traditional cable TV. For example, Leichtman reports that Sling TV picked up 214,000 customers in the third quarter while DirecTV Now lost 195,000 customers.

I have to wonder at what point the cable industry will start to implode? Cord cutting is accelerating. The popular press and social media are full of advice telling people to cut the cord. There are major new online content platforms like Disney+, HBO Plus, and Apple + that are providing additional justification to cut the cord. Advertising revenues are starting to drop along with subscriber revenues.

There must be drastic changes in industry practices if the traditional cable business is to survive. Continued price increases are pushing cable TV out of the range of affordability for most homes. To survive, the cable companies and the programmers would have to get together to reform the industry with affordable products people are willing to buy. At least for now, that possibility seems remote.

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.

Is OTT Service Effective Competition for Cable TV?

The FCC made an interesting ruling recently that signals the end of regulation of basic cable TV. Charter Communications had petitioned the FCC for properties in Massachusetts claiming that the properties have ‘effective competition’ for cable TV due to competition from OTT providers – in this case, due to AT&T DirecTV Now, a service that offers a full range of local and traditional cable channels.

The term effective communications is a very specific regulatory term and once a market reaches that status a cable company can change rates at will for basic cable. – the tiers that include local network stations.

The FCC agreed with Charter and said that the markets are competitive and granted Charter the deregulated status. This designation in the past has been granted in markets that have a high concentration of satellite TV or else that have a lot of alternative TV offered by a fiber or DSL overbuilder that has gained a significant share of the market.

In making this ruling the FCC effectively deregulated cable everywhere since there is no market today that doesn’t have a substantial amount of OTT content competing with cable companies. Cable providers will still have to go through the process of asking to deregulate specific markets, but it’s hard to think that after this ruling that the FCC can say no to any other petition.

From a regulatory perspective, this is probably the right ruling. Traditional cable is getting clobbered and it looks like the industry as a whole might lose 5-6 full percentage of market share this year and end up under a 65% national penetration rate. While we are in only the third year where cord cutting became a measurable trend, the cable industry customer losses are nearly identical to the market losses for landline telephone at the peak of that market decline.

There are two consequences for consumers in a market that is declared to be effectively competitive. First, it frees cable companies from the last vestiges of basic cable rate regulation. This is not a huge benefit because cable companies have been free for years to raise rates in higher tiers of service. In a competitive market, a cable provider is also no longer required to carry local network channels in the basic tier – although very few cable systems have elected this option.

I’ve seen several articles discussing this ruling that assume that this will result in an instant rate increase in these markets – and they might be right. It’s a headscratcher watching cable companies raising rates lately when higher rates are driving households to become cord cutters. But cable executives don’t seem to be able to resist the ability to raise rates, and each time they do, the overall revenue of a cable system increases locally, even with customer defections.

It’s possible that this ruling represents nothing more than the current FCC’s desire to deregulate as many things as possible. One interesting aspect of this ruling is that the FCC has never declared OTT services like SlingTV or DirecTV Now to be MVDPs (multichannel video program distributors) – a ruling that would pull these services into the cable TV regulatory regime. From a purely regulatory viewpoint, it’s hard to see how a non-MVDP service can meet the technical requirements of effective competition. However, from a practical perspective, it’s not hard to perceive the competition.

Interestingly, customers are not leaving traditional cable TV and flocking to the OTT services that emulate regular cable TV service. Those services have recently grown to become expensive and most households seem to be happy cobbling together packages of content from OTT providers like Netflix and Amazon Prime that don’t carry a full range of traditional channels. From that market perspective, one has to wonder how much of a competitor DirecTV Now was in the specific markets, or even how Charter was able to quantify the level of competition from a specific OTT service.

Maine Legislates a la Carte Programming

The Maine legislature passed a law that would create a la carte cable TV programming in the state. Titled “An Act to Expand Options for Consumers of Cable Television in Purchasing Individual Channels and Programs”, the act would require cable companies to offer individual channels to consumers starting September 19.

Comcast, and many of the primary programmers like A&E, C-Span, CBS, Discovery, Disney, Fox, Viacom, and New England Sports Network recently went to court to try to stop implementation of the law.

Consumers have been asking for a la carte programming for decades. People don’t like the idea of having to pay for channels they don’t watch. The cost of a cable subscription is the number one issue mentioned by the majority of the several million cord cutters that are now dropping cable every year.

It’s hard to think that the law can stand up to a legal challenge. There is a question of jurisdiction since Congress has enacted numerous laws governing cable TV that are still on the books and still enforced by the FCC. Those laws require cable companies to offer several tiers of programming for cable companies that have enough capacity to carry a lot of channels. The courts will have to decide if the Maine legislature can override federal law.

Probably more salient are the contracts between programmers and cable companies. Those contracts are extremely specific about how the cable companies must carry their content. Any cable company that tries to enforce the law will be in direct conflict with those contracts. Laws often preempt contracts, but I find it likely that the programmers would yank programming from Maine cable companies rather than see a la carte programming go into effect. If this law is allowed to stand in Maine it would likely quickly appear in other states as well.

The next problem is technical. Cable companies would find it difficult to deliver only those channels a customer wants. Cable TV networks act like a big radio system and every channel on a cable system is broadcast to every home on the network. A cable company uses filters to block channels that a customer doesn’t subscribe to. This is fairly easily done today because channels are delivered in large blocks. If a customer doesn’t want to pay for a digital programming tier the cable company blocks that whole tier. From my understanding, the blocking software used today doesn’t provide the ability to establish a custom blocking screen for each customer. This could probably be made to work with some assistance from the manufacturers of headend and from Cable Labs, but nobody has ever created the software to allow for custom blocking down to the individual channel level – it’s never been needed.

Individual channels are more easily delivered by companies that deliver cable TV on an all-digital network like fiber or DSL. This technology for delivering cable TV on these technologies is IPTV, and with this technology the cable provider only broadcasts one channel at a time for whatever customers want to watch. But even IPTV providers would need to buy modified software to give each customer a custom choice of channels.

It’s worth noting that idea has been tried in a controlled way. Last year Charter offered what they call Spectrum TV Choice where customers can pick ten channels out of a list of 65 choices and bundle them with local channels. This package is priced at $25. Charter is able to provide this product because they step outside of their normal network topology and deliver the channels over the customer broadband connection using a Roku box at the customer end. Charter has not reported on the success of this package and I’ve not seen it advertised for a while.

The final issue to consider is the price. Even if a cable company unbundles channels, they would likely charge a lot per channel. Are consumers going to be better off if they buy a dozen unbundled channels priced at $5 each for $60 or get a 150-channel bundle of channels for that same price? I believe that the cable companies would make buying single channels a costly endeavor.

It’s easy to understand why Maine legislators crafted this law. Cable programming has been increasing in price for years and is growing out of the range of affordability for many homes. Many homes don’t have sufficient broadband to cut the cord and feel trapped by the expensive cable options available to them. Surveys have also shown that the average home watched a dozen or fewer channels. My bet is that the legislation won’t survive a legal challenge, but I guess that’s why they have lawsuits.

Cord Cutting Picking Up Steam

Cord cutting continued to pick up speed in the second quarter of this year. The numbers below come from Leichtman Research Group which compiles these numbers from reports made to investors.

The numbers reported are for the largest cable providers and Leichtman estimates that these companies represent 93% of all cable customers in the country.

The overall penetration rate of households buying traditional cable has dropped to 67.4% at the end of the second quarter of the year. The penetration rate had dropped just under 70% at the end of 2018.

For the quarter the cable companies lost 1.7% of subscribers which would equate to a trend of losing 6.7% for the year. However, that number needs to be put into context. The biggest drop of customers came from AT&T / DirectTV which lost over 1.3 million customers so far this year. The company decided to end discount plans to customers and has been letting customers go who won’t agree to pay full price after the end of discount plans. The company says they are glad to be rid of customers who are not contributing to the bottom line of the company. At some point soon that purge should end, and the company should return to a more normal trajectory. Normalizing for AT&T, the whole industry is probably still losing customer currently at a rate between 4% and 5% of total market share annually.

4Q 2018 2Q 2019 1Q Change 2Q Change 2Q
Comcast 21,986,000 21,641,000 (121,000) (224,000) -1.0%
AT&T / DirecTV 22,926,000 21,605,000 (543,000) (778,000) -3.5%
Charter 16,606,000 16,320,000 (145,000) (141,000) -0.9%
Dish TV 9,905,000 9,560,000 (266,000) (79,000) -0.8%
Verizon 4,451,000 4,346,000 (53,000) (52,000) -1.2%
Cox 4,015,000 3,940,000 (35,000) (40,000) -1.0%
Altice 3,307,500 3,276,500 (10,200) (20,800) -0.6%
Mediacom 776,000 747,000 (12,000) (17,000) -2.2%
Frontier 838,000 738,000 (54,000) (46,000) -5.9%
Cable ONE 326,423 308,493 (5,812) (12,118) -3.8%
Total 85,136,923 82,481,993 (1,245,012) (1,409,918) -1.7%

These same companies have lost over 5 million traditional cable subscribers since the end of the second quarter in 2018.

Some other observations:

  • This is the first time that Comcast has lost 1% of cable customers in a quarter. Until recently the company was holding steady with cable customer counts due to the fact that the company has continued to add new broadband customers, many who bought cable TV.
  • Frontier is bleeding both cable customers and broadband customers, and the company lost 71,000 broadband customers in the second quarter to go with the loss of 46,000 cable customers.
  • The only other companies that lost more than 2% of their cable customer base in the quarter are Mediacom and Cable ONE.
  • The loss of 79,000 customers is the smallest quarterly loss for Dish Networks since 2014.

The biggest losers in the industry are likely the programmers. They are losing millions of monthly subscriptions that were paying for their programming. A few networks are recovering some of these losses by selling programming to providers like SlingTV or PlayStation Now – but overall the programmers are losing a mountain of paying households.

The big question for the industry is if there is some predictable path for cord cutting. Will it continue to accelerate and kill the industry in a few years or will losses be slow and steady like happened with landline telephones?

How Smart are Promotional Rates?

I think the big ISPs are recognizing the impact that special promotion rates have on their bottom line. Promotional pricing is the low rates that cable companies offer to new customers to pry them away from the competition. Over the years promotional rates have also become the tool that cable companies use to retain customers. Most customers understand that they have to call the cable company periodically to renegotiate rates – and the big ISPs have routinely given customers a discount to keep them happy.

We’re finally seeing some changes with this practice. When Charter bought Time Warner Cable they found that Time Warner had over 90,000 ‘special’ pricing plans – they routinely negotiated separately with customers when they bought new service or renegotiated prices. Charter decided to end the practice and told most former Time Warner customers that they had to pay the full price at the end of their current contract period.

We’ve seen the same thing with AT&T and DirecTV. The company decided last year to eliminate the special discount on DirecTV and DirecTV Now. When the discount period ends for those products the company moves rates to the full list price and refuses to renegotiate. The practice cost AT&T almost a million customers just in the first quarter of this year. But AT&T says that they are glad to be rid of customers that are not contributing to the bottom line of the company. I’ve seen where the CEOs or other big ISPs like Comcast have said that they are considering changes in these practices.

At CCG we routinely examine customer bills from incumbent ISPs as part of the market research of helping ISPs entering new markets. While our examination of customer bills has never reached the level of equating to a statistically valid sample, I can report that the vast majority of bills we see have at least some level of discount. In some markets it’s rare to find a customer bill with no discount.

The discounts must accumulate to a huge loss of revenue for the big ISPs. The big ISPs all know that one of the only ways they are going to be profitable in the future is to raise broadband rates every year. The growth of broadband customers overall is slowing nationwide since most homes have broadband, although Charter and Comcast are still enjoying the migration of customers off DSL. The ISPs are continuing to lose revenues and margins as they lose cable and landline voice customers. Most US markets are seeing increased competition in broadband services for businesses and large MDUs. There’s not much left other than to raise residential broadband rates if the big ISPs want to satisfy the revenue growth expected by Wall Street.

If the big ISPs phased out promotional discounts it would probably equate to a 5% to 10% revenue increase. This is something that is becoming easier for a cable company to do. Many of them have already come to grips with cord cutting, and many are no longer fighting to keep cable customers. Cable companies are also less worried over time about customers leaving them to go back to DSL – a choice that is harder for consumers to make as the household need for broadband continues to climb.

Most ISPs won’t make a loud splash about killing discounts but will just quietly change policies. After a few years, I would expect customer expectations will reset after they realize that they can no longer extract discounts by threatening to drop service.

I’ve always advised my fiber overbuilder customers to not play this game. I ask clients if they really want to fight hard to win that slice of the market of customers that will change ISPs for a discount. Such customers flop back and forth between ISPs every two years, and in my opinion, companies are better off without such customers. Churn is expensive, and it’s even more expensive if an ISP provides a substantial discount to stop a customer from churning. Not all of my client agree with this philosophy, but if the big ISPs stop providing promotional discounts, then over time the need to do this for competitors will lessen.

This is certainly a practice I’d love to see slip into history. I’ve never liked it as a customer because I despise the idea of having to play the game of renegotiating with an ISP every few years. I’ve also hated this as a consultant. Too many times I’ve seen clients give away a huge amount of margin through these practices, giving away revenue that is needed to meet their forecasts and budgets. It’s dangerous to let marketing folks determine the bottom line because they’ve never met a discount they don’t like – particularly if they can make a bonus for selling or retaining customers.

The End of the Bundle?

There are a few signs in the industry that we are edging away from the traditional triple play bundle or telephone, cable TV and broadband. The bundle was instrumental in the cable company’s success. Back in the day when DSL and cable modems had essentially the same download speed the cable companies introduced bundles to entice customers to use their broadband. The lure of getting a discount for cable TV due to buying broadband was attractive and gave the cable companies an edge in the broadband marketing battle.

Over time the cable companies became secure in their market share and they created mandatory bundles, meaning they would not sell standalone broadband. Over time this spit the broadband market in cities – the cable company got customers who could afford bundles and the telco with DSL got everybody else. Many of the cable companies became so smug about their bundles that they forced customers to buy cable TV just to get their broadband. I’ve noticed over the last year that most of the mandatory bundles have died.

The bundle lost a little luster when the Julia Laulis, the CEO of CableOne, told her investors in February on the 4Q 2018 earnings call that the company no longer cares about the bundle. She said what I’m sure that many other cable companies are discussing internally, which is that the bundle doesn’t have any impact in attracting customers to buy broadband. On that call she said, “We don’t see bundling as the savior for churn. I know that we don’t put time and resources into pretty much anything having to do with video because of what it nets us and our shareholders in the long run. We pivoted to a data-centric model over five, six years ago, and we’ve seen nothing to derail us from that path.”

Her announcement raises two important issues that probably spell the eventual end of bundling. First, there is no real margin on cable TV. The fully loaded cost of the product has increased to the point where the bottom line of the company is not improved by selling cable. The only two big cable providers who might see some margin from cable TV are Comcast and AT&T since they own some of the programming but for everybody else the margins on cable TV have shrunk to nothing, or might even be negative.

I’ve had a number of clients take a stab at calculating the true cost of providing cable TV. The obvious big cost of the product is the programming fees. But my clients tell me that a huge percentage of their operational costs come from cable TV. They say most of the calls to customer service are about picture quality. They say that they do far more truck rolls due to cable issues than for any other product. By the time you account for those extra costs it’s likely that cable TV is a net loser for most small ISPs – as it obviously is for CableOne, the seventh largest cable company.

The other issue is cable rates. High programming rates keep forcing cable providers to raise the price of the TV product every year. We know that high cable prices are the number one issue cited by cord cutters. Perhaps more importantly, it’s the number one issue driving customer dissatisfaction with the cable company.

I have to wonder how many other big cable companies have come to the same conclusion but just aren’t talking about it. Interestingly, one of the metrics used by analysts to track the cable industry is average revenue per user (ARPU). If cable companies bail on the bundle and lose cable customers their ARPU will drop – yet margins might stay the same or even get a little better. If there is a new deemphasis on bundles and cable TV subscription the industry will need to drop the ARPU comparison.

It’s not going to be easy for a big cable company to back out of the cable TV business. Today there is still a penalty for customers who drop a bundle – dropping cable TV raises the price for the remaining products. We’ll know that the cable companies are serious about deemphasizing cable TV when that penalty disappears.

Cord Cutting is For Real

It’s obvious in looking at the performance of cable companies in 2018 that cord cutting is now for real. The fourth quarter count of cable customers for the largest providers was recently reported by the Leichtman Research Group. These companies represent roughly 95% of the national cable market.

4Q 2018 4Q 2017 Change
Comcast 21,986,000 22,357,000 (371,000) -1.7%
DirecTV 19,222,000 20,458,000 (1,236,000) -6.0%
Charter 16,606,000 16,850,000 (244,000) -1.4%
Dish 9,905,000 11,030,000 (1,125,000) -10.2%
Verizon 4,451,000 4,619,000 (168,000) -3.6%
Cox 4,015,000 4,130,000 (115,000) -2.8%
AT&T 3,704,000 3,657,000 47,000  1.3%
Altice 3,307,500 3,405,500 (98,000) -2.9%
Frontier 838,000    961,000 (123,000) -12.8%
Mediacom 776,000    821,000 (45,000) -5.5%
Cable ONE 326,423    363,888 (37,465) -10.3%
  Total 85,136,923 88,652,388 (3,515,465) -4.0%

I’m thinking back to 2017 when most analysts were predicting perhaps a 2% drop in 2018 in total market share due to cord cutting. Since 2018 is only the second year with real evidence of cord cutting, the 4% loss of total market share demonstrates big changes in customer sentiment.

The big losers are the satellite companies which lost 2,361,000 customers in 2018. These losses are offset a little bit since the satellite companies also have the largest online video services. Dish’s Sling TV added 205,000 customers in 2018 and AT&T’s DirecTV Now added 436,000 – but the net customer loss for these companies is still 1.7 million for the year.

In 2018 Comcast and Charter didn’t fare as poorly as the rest of the industry. However, their smaller loss of cable customers is probably due to the fact that both companies saw more than 5% growth of new broadband customers (2.6 million in total) in 2018, and those new customers undoubtedly are shielding cord cutting losses by older subscribers.

It’s still too early to make any real predictions about the future trajectory for cord cutting. We know that price is a large factor in cord cutting and cable providers are still facing huge price increases in buying programming. That will continue to drive cable prices higher. The big cable companies have done their best to disguise recent price increases by shoving rate increases into local programming or sports programming ‘fees’. However, the public is catching onto that scheme and also can still see that their overall monthly payments are increasing.

It’s starting to look like online programming might cost as much as traditional cable TV. For the last few years there have been alternatives like DirecTV Now, Playstation Vue and Sling TV that have offered the most-watched networks for bargain prices. But the recent big rate increase from DirecTV Now is probably signaling that the days of subsidized online programming are over.

Further, the online programming world continues to splinter as each owner of programming rolls out their own online products. The cost of replacing what people most want to watch online might soon be higher even than traditional cable TV if it requires separate subscriptions to Disney, CBS, NBC and the many other new standalone packages that a cord cutter must cobble together. A family that really wants to save money on TV has to settle for some subset of the online alternatives, and the big question will be if households are willing to do that.

But at least for now it looks like cord cutting is roaring ahead. The average loss of traditional cable customers in 2018 is almost 300,000 per month, and the rate of loss is accelerating. At least for now, the industry is seeing a rout, and that has to be scaring boards rooms everywhere.