Trends for Programmers

It’s always a good idea for anybody that offers a cable product to keep an eye on what is going on with the programmers. Probably the number one problem for small cable operators is the never-ending increase in the prices paid to buy programming. Here are some of the current trends that are going to impact the cost of buying cable programming over the next few years:

Subscriber Losses Continue. All of the major programmers are losing customers. Probably the most widely discussed is ESPN that has lost 13 million customers since 2011. But it’s happening across the board to all of them to a slightly lesser extent.

The loss of customers puts obvious earnings pressure on the programmers. They are now facing a classic Catch-22 situation. If they try to make up for lost revenues by raising rates even faster they are likely to lose customers even faster. It’s getting to be pretty clear that cable rate increases are the driving force behind a lot of cord-cutting. But probably even more important that cord-cutting is cord-shaving where millions of customers are opting for smaller and less expensive channel line-ups. At this point cord-shaving is costing the programmers more loses than cord-cutting – but we don’t know the numbers since the big cable companies are not releasing statistics on cord-shaving.

Advertising Taking a Hit. We are also seeing a crossover point and late last year we saw more advertising being done on the web than on TV. In this latest quarter we are finally starting to see real declines in TV advertising revenue – a far cry from year-after-year growth in ad revenues for the cable networks. For years programmers were on a trajectory of expecting healthy growth of both subscriber revenues and ad revenues, and both are starting to sink at the same time.

At this point the drop in advertising revenues is tiny, but it’s going to get worse as ad spending continues to shift to online. And the ad dollars are not only dropping for the programmers, but drops in advertising are affecting local ad revenues for television stations and cable companies.

Ad revenues are sinking due the shrinking in ‘eyeballs’ watching cable programming. While cord cutting is shaving the total number of cable subscribers, the more substantial issue is that people are spending more time watching Netflix and other OTT content, at the expense of watching cable shows. This means that the ratings for most TV shows has been plummeting and taking with it the willingness of programmers to pay premium rates for ad slots. There is also a big age shift with younger viewers abandoning traditional cable programming at a much faster rate than older generations.

No Easy Shift to Streaming. A lot of programmers were counting on a shift to direct OTT content to help to reverse the shift in traditional TV viewers. For example, Disney / ESPN just announced that they will be offering online versions of their networks starting in early 2018.

But we also just saw NBC cancel their online offering Seeso. The network carried a significant amount of comedy programming and NBC tried to lure customers to pay $3.99 per month for the service. But they had very few takers and that failure is probably scaring the rest of the industry. Recent surveys by Nielsen and others have shown that viewers care as much about the platform as they do about the content. That means that they are only willing to buy a monthly subscription if they see a value in staying on a given platform. The programmers are all hoping that people will be willing to pay a small fee to watch one or two favorite shows, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. People value a platform like Netflix where they can move from show to show without the hassles of logging in to multiple platforms. This doesn’t bode well each programmer creating individual platforms consisting of the same content they show on traditional cable.

Pressure to Create More Content. There are newcomers like Netflix, Amazon and Apple that are spending billions annually to create new content. This is putting a lot of pressure on traditional cable networks to keep up, adding to their bottom line costs. There is always the reward for those handful of hits that become must-watch shows, but the most new content doesn’t generate enough revenue to cover the production costs.

What Does This Mean? All of these trends predict a poorer future for programmers. I think it means some of the following:

  • More mergers. We will probably see more mergers as a way to control costs. We are just now seeing the merger of Discovery and Scripps. But there were only seven major programmers before that merger, so there is only so much benefit that can be gained through mergers.
  • Faster rate increases. These are all publicly traded companies. They are going to try every avenue to maintain earnings, but in the face of dropping subscribers and flat ad revenues they are going to have little ultimate choice but to raise programming rates even faster. But they are also limited in some sense with this because most programming contracts with cable companies are signed on a three-year forward basis, and the prices are already locked for the next few years for most of their cable company customers.
  • Reduced expectations. Programmers have been some of the darlings of Wall Street for the last few decades. But as these new realities sink in there is going to have to be reduced stock prices for these companies as well as lowered expectations about their earnings potential. And in today’s stock-driven corporate world that is anathema. We may be seeing the first hints of an industry whose wheels are coming off.

Merger Madness

The last year was a busy one for mergers in the industry. We saw Charter gobble up Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. We saw CenturyLink buy Level 3 Communications. But those mergers were nothing like we see on the horizon right now. I can barely read industry news these days without reading about some rumored gigantic acquisitions.

There have always been mergers in the industry, but I can’t remember a time when there was this level of merger talk happening. This might be due in part to an administration that says it won’t oppose megamergers. It’s also being driven by Wall Street that makes a lot of money when they find the financing for a big merger. Here are just a few of the mergers being talked discussed seriously in the financial press:

Crown Castle and Lightower. This merger is already underway with Crown Castle paying $7.1 billion for Lightower. It matches up two huge fiber networks along with tower assets to make the new company the major player in the small cell deployment space, particularly in the northeast.

Discovery and Scripps. Discovery Communications announced a deal to buy Scripps Networks for about $11.9 billion. This reduces the already-small number of major programmers and Discovery will be picking up networks like the Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, the Cooking Channel and Great American Country.

Comcast, Altice and Charter. Citigroup issued a report that speculates that Comcast and Altice would together buy Charter and split the assets. Comcast would gain the former Time Warner cable systems with the rest going to Altice. There is also talk of Altice trying to finance the purchase of Charter on its own. But with Charter valued at about $120 billion while also carrying around $63 billion in debt that seems like a huge number to finance. This would be an amazing merger with the ink not yet dry on Charter’s merger with Time Warner.

Amazon and Dish Network. This makes sense because Amazon could finally help Dish capitalize on its 700 E-block and AWS-4 spectrum licenses. This network could be leveraged by Amazon to track trucks and packages, monitor the IoT and to control drones.

T-Mobile and Sprint. Deutsche Telecom currently owns 63% of T-Mobile and Softbank owns 82% of Sprint. A straight cashless merger would create an instantly larger company and gain major operational advantages. The FCC and the Justice Department nixed a merger between T-Mobile and AT&T a few years back, but in an environment where the cellular companies are getting into the wireless business this might sail through a lot easier today. Sprint has also been having negotiations for either a merger or some sort of partnership with Comcast and Charter.

Comcast and Verizon. There is also Wall Street speculation about Comcast buying Verizon. The big advantage would be to merge the Comcast networks with the Verizon Wireless assets. Comcast has a history of buying companies in distress and Verizon’s stock price has dipped 17% already this year. But this would still be a gigantic merger worth as much as $215 billion. There are also some major regulatory hurdles to overcome with the big overlap in the northeast between Comcast and the Verizon FiOS networks.

Programmers Hate Skinny Bundles

cable headendI read several reports from the current International Broadcasting Convention in Amsterdam that there is a lot of talk among programmers about a dislike of the skinny bundles that are being offered by companies like Sling TV. This is a convention of mostly programmers and companies that produce content. FierceCable reported on the convention and wrote an article titled Execs from Discovery, Roku and others warn the skinny bundle will hamper content creation.

I can understand the perspective of the programmers. Consider Discovery. They are one of the more egregious programmers when it comes to making cable companies take all of their content. Discovery benefits tremendously from the bundle because given a choice, many cable providers would elect to not carry at least some of the many Discovery networks.

There is no doubt that the move to skinny bundles is going to be bad for programmers like Discovery as they lose revenues on many of their networks. Discovery currently has 13 different networks in the US and a few more internationally. And obviously skinny bundles like Sling TV won’t elect to carry many, or even any, of them.

But Discovery and the other networks are trying to swim against the tide if they think there is any way to stop the move towards smaller line-ups. It’s what people want. Numerous studies have shown that most households only watch a very small fraction of the 200 or 300 channels that are delivered to them in the big bundles. And people in general are getting fed up with paying for all of them.

Netflix and Hulu got this all started by letting people watch individual shows rather than networks. And that is what people really want. They create a loyalty to a given show much more than to a network. Interestingly, Discovery takes advantage of this trend already and some of their series like MythBusters, How It’s Made, and River Monsters are available on Netflix.

The real question being raised in Amsterdam is if the trend towards skinny bundles is going to stifle the creation of unique content. It’s a good question and only time will tell. My gut says that it is not going to cut down on the making of good new content because there are profits to be made from coming up with a popular show.

What might change is who is making the content. There is no doubt that over time the move to skinny bundles will hurt traditional programmers like Discovery. They may have to shut down some of their networks if not enough people are willing to pay for them. But these networks were only created in the first place in the artificial environment where millions of homes were guaranteed to pay for a new network. One of the primary reason that the big bundles are breaking apart today is the greed of the programming conglomerates that created and forced numerous new networks on the cable companies. What we are now seeing is that with the Internet people have the ability to push back against the crazy big bundles they have been forced to buy.

So it is quite possible that a company like Discovery will lose a lot of money compared to what they make today, and perhaps as part of that transition they won’t produce as much unique content. But I think that somebody else will. We already see companies like Netflix producing new content. There are even rumors about Apple producing content.

As long as content can make a lot of money, people are going to take a chance for the big bucks. One has to remember that most unique content doesn’t make money today. Many movies don’t recover the cost of producing them if the public doesn’t like them. When these companies talk about creating new content, what they really are talking about is producing hits. One very successful series or movie can produce a huge profit for the producer of the content. As long as that big carrot is dangled there are going to be many who are going to chase the big dollars.

I really didn’t mean to pick specifically on Discovery and they are just an example. You could substitute any of the other large network conglomerates above and it’s the same conversation. The fact is, content delivery is changing and there is going to be fallout from that change. It’s likely over time that some of the existing large conglomerates might go under or disappear. That is the consequence of this kind of fundamental change. But it’s happened to many other industries over the last decades and there won’t be anybody lamenting the fall of a Discovery any more than people are nostalgic about Kodak. All people are really going to care about is that they can watch content they like and they aren’t really going to care much about who created it or who profits from it.