Why the Big Programming Cost Increases?

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I recently talked to several clients who are expecting an increase in cable TV programming costs of between 8.5% and 9% for next year. They are able to forecast this because most of the contracts for programming cover at least three years of baked-in rate increases.

Every one of these clients is bleeding cable customers. We hear about how the big cable companies are experiencing impact from cord cutting. Last year the big companies altogether lost about 1.7 million customers, which is a little less than 2% of their customer base. But my small clients seem to be losing cable customers at a much faster pace. Cord cutting is obviously a real phenomenon and I’ve seen recent estimates that the big companies are expected to lose around 1.9 million customers this year. But while the big companies are losing customers at a steady pace, smaller cable operators are seeing a much bigger impact.

I think there are a number of reasons that small cable providers are suffering more.

  • Most of my small clients don’t pay the same billing games as the big cable companies. The big companies have created a number of ‘fees’ such as a local programming fee or a sports fee to disguise the real cost of cable. Many customers think these fees are taxes of some sort and they believe that the base price of cable shown on their bill is the actual price they are paying. That lower number is the one that they use when comparing to other alternatives.
  • The big companies are also far more aggressive with their bundling. They work hard to force customers into bundles and they penalize customers for leaving a bundle. Customers often don’t know what they pay for any specific product in a bundle and when they try to drop one product the full bundle savings are applied to that product. Even when small companies have bundles they don’t create a huge financial disincentive to leave the bundle.
  • Big companies are willing to give ‘special’ pricing to keep customers. They tend to give special pricing discounts aimed at new customers to anybody else who is willing to wade through the customer service minefield to ask for it. I think since smaller companies often don’t advertise ‘special’ prices they are far less likely to even be asked to reduce rates.
  • My smaller clients are generally more rural than the big companies, and as such they face far stiffer competition from the satellite companies. Both of the satellite providers now have a ‘skinny’ bundle that a lot of customers are finding attractive.

Why are the programmers raising rates so aggressively when it’s clear that the price of cable service is the number one driver of cord cutting? I have several ideas why they might be doing this:

  • These are all publicly traded companies and to some degree they don’t have a choice. Over 90% of cable channels are bleeding customers much faster than the rate of cord cutting. This shows that many customers are cord shaving and downgrading to smaller, less expensive packages. The programmers are compelled to increase profits, and with declining sales they can only compensate by raising programming rates. That sounds insane because it sounds like the beginning of a classic death spiral. But you must remember that any large publicly traded company that performs poorly is subject to being purchased by somebody else who will then force profits back up again. Our dreadful quarterly profit driven economy is forcing the programmers into a path that is not in anybody’s best interest.
  • They are all chasing hit shows. There are now a lot more companies like Netflix and Amazon creating unique programming, which adds to the pressure on the programmers. The financial rewards from producing even one hit show is gigantic, so they all keep spending money trying to find that next big hit, and raising rates to cover the cost of producing content.
  • Another theory is that the current rate increases are their last hurrah. They can see where the industry is headed. I saw an interview with the head of programming for FOX and he said that he expects that the company is going to have to ultimately collapse most of its many channels as they keep losing customers. And so perhaps these rate increases are the chance for making big profits for a few more years before the wheels come off. It seems that end is coming anyway, so maybe raising rates now is a way to milk every last penny out of a fading industry.

Programming content is certainly never going to go away. But companies like Netflix and Amazon are showing that there are reasonable alternatives to the huge TV bundles. I just wish I knew what to tell my clients. The most common question I seem to be getting these days is, “Should I even be in the cable business any longer?” I’m starting to think that the answer for many of these businesses is no – or it will be no within a few short years.

Why Isn’t Cord Cutting Going Faster?

If cord cutting is such a big deal, then why aren’t more people leaving traditional television? That’s a question I’ve been asked several times lately and it’s a good one.

Cord cutting is definitely real. Numerous articles make cord cutting seem like an imminent disaster for the cable industry. But industry estimates are that between 1.7 million and 2.5 million people walked away from traditional cable TV in 2016. The lower number is the net drop in national cable subscribers while the higher number takes into account the fact that there were over a million new housing units built in the country – and I think the higher number is closer to correct.

And while losses of that many customers hurts the cable industry, it’s hard to yet call it a flood. If annual losses stay at this level the cable industry will still have over 50 million customers twenty years from now. The real story might be that most people aren’t yet cutting the cord. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I think the most important ones are:

People Still Like Cable. Total pay television subscribers just fell to under 100 million sometime last year. There are a lot of households that still like the variety of channels that come with the big packages. While a lot customers are now time shifting by the use of DVRs and TV everywhere, they still like what they are buying.

Bundling Discount. It’s really easy to forget that the big cable companies have priced their bundles in such a way as to penalize customers for leaving just one service. Cord cutters generally want to retain their broadband while dropping cable – and when they go to do this they find that the savings is not as large as they thought. Interestingly, if you want to keep cable and drop broadband the same thing is true. The big cable companies apply the ‘bundling’ discount to whatever product you want to drop – meaning that you then revert to paying full market price for whatever product is kept. People that want to save $20 per month by switching to an OTT service like Sling TV quickly find out that they actually won’t save much.

Cord Shaving Instead. There is a whole lot of cord shaving going on – that is, people migrating to smaller cable packages. Cord shaving lets people who mostly like Netflix to keep local network stations and a few other things they like about traditional TV, without fully cutting the cord. This is best evidenced by looking at the subscriber numbers to the various cable networks, which are losing subscriptions at a much faster pace than total pay TV subscribership. For example, ESPN has lost around 12 million subscribers since their peak in 2013, and the majority of other cable networks are also seeing large subscriber losses. Since the total net subscribers to pay television are dropping more slowly, the only explanation is that customers are opting out of the big cable packages for smaller ones. The cable companies don’t release statistics on cord shaving, and so we can only guess at the magnitude of the changes by seeing what is happening to ESPN and other networks.

The Alternatives are not that Different. Over half of the homes in the country now subscribe to at least one of the OTT services like Netflix. But it appears that most homes are viewing this content as alternate content and not a straight replacement for traditional cable.

There are a lot of new alternatives to traditional cable such as Sling TV or Playstation Vue – but I don’t think most customers are seeing them as significantly different than traditional cable content. I’ve been trying some of these services and they honestly still feel like cable. The content is mostly streamed at fixed times and even with smaller line-ups I find I’m not interested in most of the channels they carry. While these alternatives can save money, they often don’t have the same reliability or quality of picture as a cable system. The bottom line, at least to me, is that services like Sling TV still feel like cable offerings to me.

It’s Not Easy for Some. It’s not easy for the technically unsophisticated to totally cut the cord. Unless you live in a major metropolitan market you’re going to want to somehow tie in your local network stations with other online programming, and that is still not that easy. You can get an antenna to pick up off-the-air content, but that is not easily integrated into any easy-to-use program guide or search engine.

It’s also not always easy to drop the cable company. People get tied up in contracts that are expensive to break. There is a whole gauntlet of steps needed to get away from the cable company from listening to retention specialists to returning settop boxes that make leaving a hassle – and the cable companies know that these tactics work.

We may get to a time when cord cutting accelerates more quickly, as happened with landline telephones. But before that happens there needs to be easier to use and more satisfying alternatives to draw most people away from traditional cable altogether. If there is any one issue that might push more households over the edge it’s the price of cable packages – but the big cable providers are now introducing skinny bundles to try to retain the budget minded customers. I’m looking at the numbers and thinking we are going to have traditional cable around a lot longer than many people predict.

Erosion of Cable Subscribers

Old TVA lot has been written about the impact of cord cutting and there are varying estimates about how significant the phenomenon has become. But there is a different way to examine the effects on the cable industry, which is to count the number of US homes that are paying to subscribe to each cable channel.

Below I am comparing the numbers of subscribers from August 2013 to the same subscriber counts today for some of the more popular channels. It’s easy to see that almost across the board networks have lost a lot of customers. I chose August 2013 because somewhere around that date was the peak of the cable industry in terms of customers. Since then total customers (and also customers for each network) have dropped.

These drops can’t all be attributed to cord cutting – cord shaving (where customers downsize their cable packages) is also a factor in these drops. Some cable systems are also working hard to cut back on the number of channels they carry. To put this chart into perspective, there are currently about 136 million housing units in the US.

In (000)
Network August 2013 Current Change
Weather Channel 99,926 84,683 (15,243)
ESPN 97,736 87,859 (9,877)
Travel Channel 94,418 84,862 (9,556)
MTV 97,654 88,137 (9,517)
Nickelodeon 98,799 89,663 (9,136)
VH1 96,786 88,085 (8,701)
TV Land 96,282 87,901 (8,381)
Comedy Central 97,838 89,857 (7,981)
A&E 98,302 90,478 (7,824)
SYFY 97,447 89,854 (7,593)
TNT 98,139 90,586 (7,553)
CNN 99,292 91,794 (7,498)
Discovery Channel 98,891 91,829 (7,062)
HGTV 98,229 91,169 (7,060)
AMC 97,699 90,767 (6,932)
FX 97,157 90,389 (6,768)
E! Entertainment 96,472 89,887 (6,585)
Disney Channel 98,142 91,611 (6,531)
Bravo 94,129 87,620 (6,509)
Food Network 99,283 93,062 (6,221)
MSNBC 94,519 89,764 (4,755)
Oxygen 78,208 75,651 (2,557)
NFL Network 70,910 71,252 342
Showtime 28,094 29,014 920
HBO 32,445 34,369 1,924
Hallmark Channel 85,897 88,885 2,988
National Geographic 84,446 89,865 5,419

These numbers tell a different story than articles about cord cutting. Industry estimates of cord cutting during this same time frame vary between 2.5 and 4 million homes that have dropped cable altogether. But these figures show that most major networks have lost between 6 and 10 million paying subscribers in a little under three and a half years.

Obviously not every network is experiencing the same changes. For example, the 15 million households lost by The Weather Channel are due to many cable systems changing to a cheaper alternative. And you can see at the bottom of the chart that there are still networks that are growing. These networks are gaining customers by attracting more subscriptions, like the premium movie channels, or by getting added to additional cable systems that didn’t carry them in 2013.

But overall this is a sobering chart, and one that all of the programmers are well aware of. The various factors of cord cutting, cord shaving, and of cable companies trying to cut back their channels are all steadily eroding the number of households that get to watch the various networks.

Wall Street and Programmers

wall-streetIn an intriguing development, analyst Michael Nathanson has downgraded Discovery Networks and Scripps Networks Interactive from ‘neutral’ to ‘sell’. His reason is that he sees a poor future for programmers that don’t carry live TV events like sports or news.

Discovery Networks produces the various Discovery channels along with Animal Planet, TLC, Science, Velocity, OWN and American Heroes Channel. Scripps produces HGTV, the Food Network, DIY Network, the Cooking Channel, the Great American Country, the Travel Channel and TVN.

Nathanson believes that advertising is starting to chase live content and is abandoning other content. There is a major trend in the country for people to skip traditional broadcast ads using DVRs and video on demand. He further recognizes that all cable channels are losing viewers to OTT alternatives like Netflix. This all will add up to a significant drop in advertising revenues for traditional cable networks that stream shows paid for by advertising.

These networks are also feeling pressure from cable subscriptions. We know, for example, that ESPN lost millions of customers since 2015 and one has to think that the same thing is happening to all of the other networks. The ESPN losses seem to be due in part to cord cutting, but even more to cord shaving where customers are downsizing their cable packages. I listen to a lot of radio and I constantly hear ads from DirecTV and others to buy their new skinny bundles. Each time somebody picks a skinny bundle or an alternative like Sling TV, a whole lot of channels lose a monthly subscription.

This might be the first crack in the programmers’ armor. For nearly two decades they have been able to raise rates to cable companies while also enjoying ever-increasing advertising revenues. And this ever-growing revenue made the programmers a favorite of Wall Street which rewards revenues that grow quarter after quarter. But we are starting to see advertising revenues abandoning cable and moving to online venues. This year is the first year when web advertising will eclipse TV advertising.

It seems for these networks we are seeing a perfect storm. Advertising in general is leaving cable – and within that shift, if Nathanson is right, it will leave traditional cable channels much faster than those offering live programming. We are also seeing traditional cable subscriptions shifting to skinny bindles and OTT. There is no doubt that all of this is going to add up to smaller revenues for these networks. And since contracts between programmers and cable companies are for 3 -5 years the programmers don’t have the ability to raise subscription rates quickly enough to make up for these losses. Even if they tried to maintain growth through rate increases it’s likely today that they would get a lot of pushback from cable companies.

It’s hard to feel any sympathy for the programmers because it is their greed that has made cable too expensive for many homes. Programming rates in recent years have increased nearly 10% per year – many multiples faster than general inflation. Those rate increases were clearly done to please Wall Street, but it didn’t take a crystal ball to see that the increases were not sustainable.

The way that we value large companies in the US is perverse. These networks make a lot of money. And even with all of these changes they are going to continue to make a lot of money for a long time to come. But companies that fall out favor with Wall Street generally have huge problems. These companies are going to be pressured to somehow fix the situation, but there doesn’t seem to be any way for them to do that. We are likely to see them start ditching unprofitable channels. The companies might be sold or split up into smaller companies. It’s unlikely once Wall Street abandons a company for it to just sit still.

The programmers have held almost all of the power in the industry for a long time – but maybe we are starting to see a change. That can only be a good thing for the industry.

Does Cable Still Need to be in the Bundle?

Fatty_watching_himself_on_TVI’ve read several things lately that make me wonder about the need to include cable TV in the bundle. I saw an article that blamed part of Google Fiber’s performance on the fact that Google’s cable TV is more expensive than the competition.

The first place to look for this answer is with nationwide surveys. There have been major surveys for the past five years that report that somewhere between 15% and 20% of homes say they are considering dropping cable in the next year. Yet they don’t do it. That demonstrates a lot of dissatisfaction among customers, but something about the cable product keeps people connected even though they are unhappy. We are probably on track to see about 1.5 million people drop cable this year. That may sound like a lot, but with the total number of cable homes just under 100 million, true cord-cutting is still a relatively minor phenomenon.

We also see clues that tell us that people are downgrading cable packages when they can. It’s been reported that ESPN has lost millions of customers more in the last few years than can be attributed to cord-cutting. The only way for that to happen is for a lot of households to be downgrading to packages that don’t include ESPN. And since ESPN is in the expanded basic package for most cable companies, that means that households must be downgrading to the smallest possible basic packages – that that have 20 channels or less. But cable companies don’t report these numbers, so we can only guess the extent of cord shaving.

There is also the issue of affordability. Certainly there are many homes that can no longer afford expensive cable TV packages. Affordability probably accounts for a significant portion of the 30% of households that don’t have a cable package. But since cable rates continue to increase faster than the rate of inflation there must be more homes each year that find they can no longer afford cable. We now know that affordability is the major factor that is capping broadband subscriptions nationwide in markets where broadband is available.

And my guess is that broadband is growing to become more valuable than cable to many households. There is enough entertainment available online that a household dropping cable is not isolated from video like they were just a few years ago. We certainly see a lot of homes subscribing to on-line video. A Nielsen survey from the first quarter of this year reported that more than half of all households are buying at least one online video service. Nielsen estimated that by June of this year that over 45 million homes will pay for Netflix. Hulu had over 12 million subscribers by the end of May of this year. We don’t know how many people watch Amazon Prime video, but the Prime shipping service has over 54 million customers.

Over the last year I know a half dozen smaller telcos that have dropped the cable product altogether and have directed their customers to one of the satellite services. Small companies all tell me that they are losing money on cable TV, and the numbers behind their decision are compelling. Larger companies can gain some economy of scale with cable TV, but only the largest dozen cable companies are actually making money with the product.

We know that when Google Fiber first launched service without a cable product they stumbled. They seem to have done a lot better after adding cable. But part of their problem also has to be the $70 gigabit product that a lot of homes can’t afford. I’m guessing that they’ll do better in Atlanta where they now offer a 100 Mbps product for a flat $50.

But still, even with those many trends acting against the cable product, somewhere around 70% of all homes in the country still buy cable from one of the cable providers – landline or satellite. It seems really hard to ignore a product that 70% of households are willing to buy. As a consultant I still have a difficult time telling companies to not offer cable TV in new markets.

One thing that is making it a bit easier is that the cable product is starting to finally move to the cloud. For example, Skitter TV now offers a cable product that can save a company from investing in a headend. And perhaps that is the long-term solution – for most cable providers to offer programming from the cloud to avoid the costs and issues of trying to go it alone.

What’s Up With ESPN?

Maryland TerrapinsI’ve been following ESPN for a few years in this blog for several reasons. First, I’m a sports fan and I generally like what they offer. But as an industry person they are also interesting because they are the most expensive network for cable operators other than premium movie channels. They also have the distinction of being one of the few domestic networks that has no appeal overseas – they are strictly an American channel showing American sports.

And it is the last two reasons that might make them the bellwether of what might happen to cable networks over time. ESPN peaked in 2011 with just over 100 million paid subscribers. But they have been losing subscribers since then and they are projected to be down to between 87 and 88 million customers by the end of 2016. They lost 1.5 million customers just between February and May alone.

This has to be very troubling to a network that gets about 60% of its revenues from subscription fees. Most of the rest of their revenues come from advertising which also depends upon the number of eyeballs watching content on the network.  I’ve found a few web sources that estimate that the full ESPN suite of channels now costs cable companies around $8 per month, meaning the 12 million lost subscribers represent a lost $1.1 billion per years in annual revenues.

What is probably most troubling for the network is a poll from January of this year that shows that 56% of households would drop ESPN if they could save $8 per month on their cable bill. The results surprisingly were not that different by sex with 49% of males and 60% of females saying they would ditch the network if they could.

You have to wonder how to account for all of the lost customers. The cable industry points out at every chance that cord cutting is as not a significant phenomenon, and they are right. Cord cutting has manifested by stopping the growth of total cable subscribers and overall cable subscribers are still currently around 100 million.

So if the cable industry is currently not shrinking much, why is ESPN losing so many customers? The only answer has to be cord shaving. This is something that none of the cable companies will talk about, but cord shaving is where customers are downsizing to smaller packages of channels. Since most of the cable companies include ESPN in their expanded basic line-up (the line-up that is usually between 50 and 80 channels), then there has to be a lot of people downsizing from that tier of service. And the only place for them to go from there is down to basic cable – the lineup of 15 to 20 channels that includes network TV, local government and a few other very inexpensive programs.

ESPN is looking for ways to get back some of the lost customers. They are now part of the online Sling TV line-up. But Sling has recently moved ESPN out of the $20 starting tier into the $30 tier. ESPN is also reported to be getting ready to launch a standalone ESPN product online. They reason that there are sports fans willing to pay for the network that don’t want other standard cable fare. They might be right because I would consider an online standalone ESPN product if it isn’t exorbitantly expensive.

The funny thing is that ESPN isn’t acting like a network in trouble. For example, they just recently bought new rights to Big 10 sports for $1.1 billion dollars over the next six years. They are actively engaged in discussions with other sports leagues, and are preparing to renew older sports content relationships.

So certainly ESPN is not yet in trouble, but they are starting to show us what can happen to networks in the future as customers cut the cord or downsize packages. ESPN is not the only network losing subscribers and cord cutting and cord shaving are going to impact a lot of them as those trends continue to grow. Cable networks with more generic content are making up for losses of American subscribers by booming sales of content overseas. But that is a luxury not available to sports networks, news programming and anything else that doesn’t have a worldwide appeal.

Trends in Cord Cutting

coaxial cableFor the last year I’ve been trying to track cord cutting and it can drive you crazy. Within the last month I have seen articles that say that cord cutting is growing rapidly and other articles denying that it’s a real phenomenon. Part of the reason for this is that the industry statistics are confusing. It seems like every quarter there are different companies gaining or losing cable customers. It’s impossible to predict the winners and losers from quarter to quarter or to predict the overall trend.

To some extent this makes sense because the industry tracks net customer gains or losses and there are a whole lot of things happening underneath that net number. Consider Comcast. For the latest quarter they only lost 4,000 customers, their best number in years. But that number is the net of a whole lot of different things going on. Recently Comcast launched their new OTT product Xfinity Stream which bundles HBO and the major networks for $15 per month online. While they don’t report the number of customers for this OTT product, they have said that it is doing well, and so it’s likely that they have gained new customers for a web-only product that are included in their overall numbers.

Another factor that affects the numbers are new households. In 2016 it looks like there will be more than 1.5 new homes and apartments added in the country. With the average cable subscription rate of 70%, this means that means that there ought to be over one million net new cable customers added if the industry was just standing still. One would expect Comcast to be seeing at least 100,000 new homes per quarter, so when customer counts don’t grow, I see them as actually having lost 100,000 customers.

There was an article in FierceCable a few days ago that predicts that the second quarter of this year will be worse overall than the second quarter of last year that sent cable stock prices tumbling. Last year the estimates were that the industry lost 625,000 customers in the second quarter, and that doesn’t include accounting for new housing units, which I think makes the real loss nearly one million cable customers.

Not everyone has reported second quarter results, but pay TV companies already have reported a loss of 375,000 customers for the quarter. Additionally, Dish TV alone lost 281,000 customers for the second quarter, even including the gains made by Sling TV.

But I think the press and Wall Street are concentrating on cord cutting but missing the bigger picture. As I discussed in a recent blog, there seems to be a large amount of cord shaving – or customer downsizing going on. For instance, it was reported that ESPN lost over 1.5 million customers just between February and May of this year. That loss is significantly greater than the net customer loss for the whole industry, and the difference can only come from people downsizing to packages that don’t include ESPN.

The cable companies don’t report customers by the size of package they buy and so there is no way to see the downsizing numbers other than by looking at the subscribers for networks like ESPN that are included in most expanded basic packages (the first tier of 50 – 80 channels in most systems).

What looks to be happening is that a lot of customers are cutting back the cable package to the lowest tier and buying the least expensive cable product possible. This is due in part to the fact that people want to still get the major TV networks. But it’s also due to pricing policies that punish customers if they want to drop cable and still keep broadband. Customers are often better off keeping a minimal TV package instead of dropping TV altogether. As I’ve reported, Comcast has told me repeatedly that they won’t even sell me the 100 Mbps connection I have without some TV tier.

The bottom line of all of this is that cord cutting is real but it’s not yet significantly large. The cable companies can weather a few million lost customers per year for many years, and if cord cutting continues at the today’s pace there will still be 80 million cable customers a decade from now. The more important shift looks to be that customers are downsizing to smaller packages. They are probably doing this to be able to afford the OTT options like Netflix or Amazon Prime. But it’s obvious that fewer and fewer people are interested in the gigantic cable packages any more.