The Resurgence of Rabbit Ears

rabbit earsThere is perhaps no better way to understand the cord cutting phenomenon than by looking at the booming sales of home TV antennas known as ‘rabbit ears’ used to receive local television off the airwaves. A study released by Park Associates shows that 15% of households now use rabbit ears, and that is a pretty amazing statistic. That is up from 8% of households from as recently as 2013. And I recall an earlier time when this had fallen below 5%.

For the longest time the TV-watching public was counted in three groups – those who had cable TV (including satellite), those that used rabbit ears to watch local TV only, and those with no TV. We now have a fourth category – those that only watch OTT programming such as Netflix.

I was once in the category of not watching TV at all. I remember twenty years ago I went to Circuit City (now gone) to consider buying a set of rabbit ears and the clerks there weren’t even sure if the store carried them. With some asking around they found that they had a few units of one brand that had been gathering dust.

But today there is a resurgence in rabbit ears and there are easily a dozen major brands. And there are new rabbit ear options coming on the market all of the time. For example, Sling TV just launched AirTV, a $99 box that integrates Sling TV, Netflix and high-quality rabbit ears together with a voice-activated remote control that makes it easy to cut the cord. This looks to be one of the better voice-activation systems around and lets you search programming options by using the name of shows, actors names or genres of types of programming.

Since most people have had cable TV for a long time many have no idea of what they can receive off air for free. The FCC has an interesting map that shows you the expected reception in your area. In my case the map shows that I can get a strong signal from every major network including CW and PBS along with signals from MyTV, Univision and a few independent local stations.

The Parks study also looks at other industry statistics. A few of the most interesting ones include:

  • Penetration of pay-TV was down to 81% in 2016 and has fallen every year since 2014. Parks cites the normal reasons for the decline including the growth of OTT programming, the increasing cost of a cable TV subscription and growing consumer awareness that there are viable alternatives to cable TV.
  • Satisfaction with pay-TV keeps dropping and only one-third of households now say that they are very satisfied with their pay-TV service.
  • OTT viewing continues to rise and 63% of US households now subscribe to at least one OTT offering like Netflix while 31% of households subscribe to more than one.
  • In 2016 12% of households downgraded their pay-TV service (meaning dropped it or went to a less expensive option). This was double the percentage (6%) who upgraded their pay-TV service in 2016.
  • Very few cord nevers (those who have never had cable TV) are deciding to buy pay-TV, with only 2% of them doing so in 2016. This is the statistic that scares the cable companies because cord nevers include new Millenial households. This generation is apparently not interested in being saddled with a pay-TV subscription. In past generations the percentage of new homes that bought pay-TV closely matched the overall penetration of the market – buying TV was something you automatically did when you moved to a new place.

These statistics show how much choice the OTT phenomenon has brought to the marketplace. Ten years ago there wouldn’t have been industry experts predicting the resurgence of rabbit ears. In fact, rabbit ears were associated with other obsolete technologies like buggy whips and were used as the butt of jokes to make fun of those who didn’t like the modern world. But this is no longer true and new rabbit ear homes are perhaps some of the most tech savvy, who know that they can craft an entertainment platform without sending a big check to a cable company.


Should You Have a Cord Cutter Package?

rabbit earsIf you are in the cable business is it time to consider a ‘cord-cutter’ product? Obviously Cablevision thinks it’s a good idea as they became the first cable TV company to offer a standalone version of HBO Now to its line-up.

Cablevision has also adding two specific cord-cutter products as well. For $34.90 per month they will provide a 5 Mbps download cable modem, a Mohu Leaf 50 digital antenna to watch network television without a cable subscription, and their Freewheel unlimited text and voice WiFi phone service (more on this below).

For a promotional price of $44.90 per month they will provide a 50 Mbps down/25 Mbps up cable modem and the same free digital antenna. There is no description of what the price will rise to at the end of the promotional period. Both products have an option to add HBO Now for $15 per month.

The Cablevision Freewheel WiFi phone is an interesting product also. It provides unlimited voice and text as long as the customer is on WiFi and inside of the Cablevision service footprint. As long as you buy another Cablevision product it’s priced at $9.95 per month and you have to buy a Motorola Moto G phone for $99.95. The phone does not work on traditional cellular, so it’s only going to be attractive to those who are always around WiFi.

Cablevision says these packages are meant to go after cord cutters or cord nevers and are to provide an alternative for those who don’t want to pay for a traditional cable programming package. This begs the question: should other providers consider the same sort of cord cutter packages? A few weeks ago, the FCC officially announced that cord cutting is real (a little late to the game) since I don’t know that I have any clients that are not losing cable customers in a given footprint.

The Cablevision options are somewhat odd, though. While Freewheel WiFi phones will be attractive to those who stay around WiFi all day, it’s a product that doesn’t work in moving vehicles and which doesn’t revert to traditional cellular when you are out of reach of WiFi. For around $15 per month you can buy a better version of this product from several cellular resellers that partner with traditional cellphone service so that the phone will work anywhere in the US. And the more expensive cord cutter package is basically a naked cable modem with a free digital antenna thrown in.

There are two questions to ask if you want to consider a cord cutting product. What do cord cutters really want? Can you put together such a package?

Cablevision seems to think that people want a naked standalone data product, but most of my clients have offered that for years. They have come to the conclusion that they should never turn away anybody willing to pay for their highest margin data product, especially since most small companies are losing money on cable TV anyway. You can often get standalone cable from the larger cable companies if you fight hard enough for it, but they will spend a lot of effort getting you to buy a bundle of some sort instead.

Companies like Sling TV seem to think that cord cutters want smaller packages of programming, and I am sure some of them do. But recent surveys show that customers are extremely loyal to the few networks they most want, and so a smaller package is only going to be attractive to that tiny sliver of your customers who only want exactly what is in the smaller package you offer. I think what people really want is a la carte programming and the ability to buy only what they want and nothing more. But that is not going to be on the table soon, if ever.

If Verizon is able to wade through the lawsuits and offer their smaller packages, I think they are going to get limited response as well, because their proposed pricing for smaller packages is not much cheaper than normal cable packages. And this highlights the second thing cord cutters want – they want to save money. Unfortunately, as many have warned, when you pull channels out of the bigger line-ups and sell them in smaller piles, the programmers are going to charge a lot more for you to carry them. They still want to be paid as if you are taking their larger line-ups.

I would be shocked if Cablevision sells very many of their smaller package – it’s just too quirky in forcing both a WiFi phone and a slow cable modem together. The number of households who are going to think that is the perfect product can’t be very large. But Cablevision might address this over time by offering a wide array of different cord cutter options. But then they will have violated something that cable companies have learned the hard way – which is to keep the options simple.

I’m not sure that there is any real cord cutter package that will be a killer product to keep your cord cutter customers happy. But perhaps there is a suite of different products that will be attractive to different segments of cord cutters and which will each get a little piece of the market.