Some Unexpected News

In an attempt to stop the massive bleeding of traditional cable TV customers AT&T has cut the prices for cable on both the DirecTV and U-verse platforms. The company lost almost 400,000 linear TV customers in the recent third quarter.

As an example, DirecTV’s ‘Select’ bundle of 150 channels will now be priced for a two-year contract at $35 for the first year and $76 for the second year, compared to the recent prices of $50 for the first and $90 for the second. All of the other packages have similar drops of $10 to $15 in the first year and lower second year prices.

I call this unexpected news because it goes against every trend in the rest of the industry. The average monthly revenue for the 2-year Select contract just fell from $70 per month to $55.50 per month – more than a 20% discount. From what I know about programming prices it’s hard to think that AT&T has any margin at the new prices and they are clearly under water for the first year, spending more for programming than what they will collect in revenue.

This price reduction brings a couple of different ideas to mind. First, it’s clear that AT&T still wants to have traditional linear cable TV customers. Even at little or no margin they see value in that, although I honestly can’t see what that benefit might be. Certainly, one benefit might be to prop up DirecTV through sheer volumes of customers. I think AT&T envisions the future of cable TV to be more in line with the smaller on-line packages being sold as DirecTV Now. But the general public largely is not yet ready to make the shirt to totally online and so perhaps AT&T wants to keep people using its products until that is a more likely shift.

But this price drop also talks about the market elasticity of cable TV. We’ve known for years that customers that cut the cord almost all say they are leaving traditional cable TV because of the cost. That was already happening before the plethora of new on-line alternatives like Sling TV and Playstation Vue. These new alternatives products have created what is called in economic terms as a substitute. Over 900,000 households changed to one of these online cable products in the most recent third quarter, and so it’s obvious that many people now view a skinny bundle like Sling TV to be a reasonable substitute for the big cable packages.

And this makes sense. We know that most households don’t watch many different channels even on a 200-channel cable offering, and so as long as a smaller lineup has channels a household is comfortable with then skinny bundles become economic substitutes for the traditional big cable bundle.

And of course, all of this is compounded by OTT providers like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon prime that provide a huge array of online content that is another competitor to cable TV. I can tell you personally that I am far happier with having one skinny bundle (currently Playstation Vue) and access to OTT content than I ever was with the big cable bundle. I remember channel surfing through the big cable packages at 3:00 in the morning (a time I am often awake) and finding nothing but bad programming and infomercials. The choice from online programming are far better for my tastes and style of watching TV.

This change makes me wonder if we aren’t seeing the end of the tolerance of the public towards costly cable TV products. If the idea that traditional cable TV packages are no longer worth the price we could be seeing a watershed moment in the industry – one where a huge cable provider makes a last stab to keep customers.

It will be interesting to see if any of the other cable providers react the same way. This is a bold move by AT&T and one would think that those seeking a cheaper alternative might be attracted to these new bundles. But of course, every customer that takes one of these packages will probably be bailing on a traditional package from one of the cable companies. This is going to be an interesting battle to watch.

The Rush to vMVPDs

To those of you not familiar with the industry lingo, a vMVPD is a virtual multichannel video programming distributor, or virtual cable company. This term is being used to describe OTT providers that offer a version of the same channels offered by cable companies. This sector includes Sling TV, DirecTV Now, Playstation Vue, Hulu Live, YouTube TV and a few others. These providers stream networks on the same linear schedule as is shown on cable TV. Providers of alternate programming like Netflix or Amazon Prime are not considered as vMVPDs.

Industry analysts say that the vMVPDs as a group gained over 900,000 customers in the recently ended third quarter. That is a startling number and represents almost one percent of the whole traditional cable TV market, all captured in just one quarter. We’ll have to wait a bit to see how the whole cable market performed. But we already know that Comcast lost over 150,000 cable customers for the quarter. Since they had been hanging onto cable customers better than the other cable companies I think we can expect a bloodbath.

This kind of explosive growth is perhaps the best harbinger for the slow death knell for traditional cable TV. This new industry is still less than three years old with Sling TV having launched in February 2015. The industry started slowly and had only a few hundred thousand customers at most by the end of 2015.

But it’s now obvious that a lot of people are deciding that they don’t want to pay the big monthly bill for the giant channel line-up. The analysis from Nielsen shows that most households only watch a handful of channels. While no vMVPD is probably going to give households exactly the channels they most want to watch, they are obviously providing enough channel choices to lure people away from the cable companies.

It’s an interesting transition to watch. To some degree the programmers are contributing to their own demise. When people leave a cable line-up of 200 channels to instead watch an vMVPD line-up of less than 50 channels there are obviously a lot of networks that are no longer collecting customer fees. Practically every network is bleeding customers and this shift to OTT viewing is going to kill off a lot of network channels. I read an interview a few months ago with the head of programming at Fox who believed that his company would shut down the majority of their cable networks within a few years.

Another thing I find interesting about this shift is that the vMVPDs are not particularly easy to use. I’ve now tried four of them – Sling TV, DirecTV Now, Playstation Vue and Fubo TV, and I will get around to trying them all eventually. None of them have the ease of use of a cable settop box. You can’t just surf through channels easily to see what’s on and you have to instead navigate through menus that take several steps compared to a simple ‘channel up’ command on a cable remote.

These four services also have channel guides of a sort, but they are also cumbersome to use. I’ve found that it can easily take three or four minutes to change between two shows, and that’s when you know what you want to watch. The guides on these services are not yet friendly for looking hours or days ahead to see what you might want to watch later. And at least one of the services, Playstation Vue, is so confusing that I often get lost in its menus.

And yet nearly a million people changed to one of these services in the last quarter. The biggest appeal for these services is price along with a total ease to subscribe or unsubscribe. After years of dealing with big cable companies I was apprehensive the first time I tried to unsubscribe to Sling TV – but it took less than a minute to do on-line and was not a hassle. The services differ in features like the number of people who can watch different programming at the same time on an account, but they are all becoming more people friendly over time.

At this point AT&T might be the only company that is getting this right. The company lost 385,000 customers in the third quarter between DirecTV satellite service and U-verse. But they gained 296,000 DirecTV Now customers to make up for a lot of those losses. At this point nobody is talking about the margins on vMVPD service, but it can’t be a whole lot worse than the shrinking margins on traditional cable TV.

I believe we are seeing the future of TV in the vMVPD product. We’ll probably look back five years from now and laugh at these hard-to-use first generation services. I’m sure that over time they will get far easier to use and I’m getting ready to experiment using my Amazon Echo to navigate through Playstation Vue. When it becomes simple to use vMVPDs, then  traditional cable TV might have become passe.

FCC Takes Shot at Zero-rating

Network_neutrality_poster_symbolIn perhaps the most futile government decision I’ve ever seen from the FCC, the agency last week ruled last week that AT&T was in violation of net neutrality rules with its zero-rated Sponsored Data plans. AT&T allows customers who buy DirecTV Now the ability to stream the service over cellphones without counting the data against wireless data caps. The agency didn’t take any action against AT&T as a result of the decision, and probably will not.

I call the gesture futile since it’s clear that the new Republican-led FCC is going to either gut or weaken the net neutrality rules. There are even those in Congress talking about disbanding the FCC and spreading its responsibilities elsewhere – something that would require a new Telecommunications Act. So it’s obvious that this decision doesn’t have any teeth.

I guess it’s not hard to understand that the current FCC staff wants to make one last stand for its signature policy. I don’t think there was anything in the history of the agency that got so much positive public feedback. It’s still hard to imagine that over a million people made formal comments in the FCC net neutrality docket.

And yet, as popular as the concept of net neutrality is – the concept of keeping an open internet – there probably is not a worst place to take a stand than zero-rating. This is a practice that the public is going to love. For the first time people will have the ability to watch video on cellphones without worrying about the stingy cellular data caps. I’m probably a bit old and my eyes have a problem enjoying video on a small cellphone screen. But after seeing my daughter watching video on her Apple smartwatch I am positive that this is going to be popular.

But zero-rating is eventually going to lead to exactly what net neutrality was designed to protect against. In this case AT&T is promoting its own programming with DirecTV Now, and perhaps there is nothing wrong with that. But it won’t be long until other content providers are going to be willing to pay AT&T to also carry their video on cellphones outside the data caps. And that will eventually create an environment where only the content of the biggest and richest companies will be sponsored.

The only video that will be available on cellphones will be from companies with the ability to pay AT&T to carry it. And that eventually means the end of innovation and of new start-ups. It means that Google and Facebook and Netflix will be available because they can afford to pay to sponsor their content, but that the next generations of companies that would naturally have supplanted them, as is inevitable in the tech world, will never get started. You can’t become popular if nobody watches you.

On the flip side, zero-rating is going to point out the hypocrisy of the current cellular data prices. A customer will be able to watch 100 gigabytes of DirecTV Now with no extra fees, but will quickly figure out that watching other video would have cost them $1,000 at the current price of $10 for each gigabyte of extra download. The supposed reason for the high data prices is to protect the cellular network – but it will quickly become clear that the high prices are only about profits. So perhaps this will begin the process of lowering the outrageous cost of cellular data – which is clearly the most expensive data in the world today.

OTT is Not Easy on the Consumer

Fatty_watching_himself_on_TVThis article compares the channel line-ups for Sling TV, DirecTV Now and Playstation Vue.  I think it provides the best demonstration I’ve seen yet of how confusing it’s going to be for consumers to choose an OTT option.

The process of choosing an OTT provider is only going to get harder in the future as additional OTT providers enter the market. In the coming year we are going to be seeing Google / YouTube with a similar on-line option. Hulu has announced that they will soon be launching a live-streaming alternative. There is a strong rumor that Amazon is considering an OTT option and has already announced they are pursuing live sports. And various articles I’ve read hint at a few more new OTT providers in 2017.

Comparing OTT channel line-ups is a lot more work than comparing the line-ups of your cable company vs. one of the satellite providers. While satellite providers aren’t required to maintain the same rigidly-defined line-ups as the cable companies, the two sets of line-ups are still reasonably comparable.

Cable company line-ups are defined by the FCC cable rules that require a basic and expanded basic line-up. Contracts between cable companies and programmers has led to uniformity and there are not major difference between cable companies. Cable companies are free to offer additional premium tiers and packages, but even those are largely the same between cable companies. The satellite providers know that their basic package is competing against the expanded basic line-up, so they include roughly the same channels in their 50 – 75 channel packages as the cable companies.

The OTT companies have a different set of challenges. The programmers are not required to sell them any content, and so the OTT companies must negotiate with each programmer individually. These have to be interesting negotiations because the OTT providers want to put together the skinniest bundles they can get while still offering what consumers want. They are then free to bundle channels in any way that the programmer contracts will allow. Since each OTT providers negotiates a unique arrangement with programmers there are going to be major differences between the line-ups from different OTT providers.

The programmers, however, either want to sell multiple channels or else they want a revenue stream that insures them of some decent profits. Programmers understand the math, which is that they are losing money for every customer that moves from traditional TV to a smaller OTT offering. This puts them into an awkward position. It’s obvious that the cord cutting phenomenon is gaining momentum. But if the programmers help to create really attractive OTT packages they are then helping to accelerate cord cutting for consumers.

As I’ve written before, many of the programmers are able to tolerate the growth of OTT since they are selling a lot more new content overseas than they are losing to cord cutting. Many of them acknowledge that there are cable channels that only exist because of the monopoly the handful of programmers have over the industry. They know that the cord cutting phenomenon is going to mean the death of less popular cable networks.

But back to consumers. You can see in the comparison in the link I posted above that between the first three major OTT providers it’s not easy to even visualize what you get in the various packages. The options between the three providers are significantly different, and all of these options have some glaring holes from programmers that have not yet allowed their content into these OTT bundles. It’s hard to imagine how complex this comparison is going to be with 3 – 6 more options by the end of 2017. I think a lot of consumers are going to come to web sites like this and be intimidated by the choices and will delay cutting the cord.

It’s likely that over time the various OTT providers will find niches in the market. Certainly if they all end up with the identical sets of channels there won’t be a lot of difference between them. But I would expect the ones that will be successful in the long-run will find a demographic niche that will give them an advantage. But for now their line-ups are a messy hodgepodge since they are cobbling together line-ups from the channels that they are able to acquire. This is going to make for a number of confusing products for the first few years of this new industry until they all figure it out.