The Non-boom of OTT Programming

Fatty_watching_himself_on_TVI recently looked back at research I did a year ago, and at that time there was a lot of press talking about how over-the-top video offerings were going to soon flood the market, leading to a boom in cord cutters. But in looking at the OTT offerings on the market today it’s easy to see that the flood of new OTT entrants didn’t materialize.

My look backwards was prompted by an article citing the CEO of CBS who said that his network had gotten requests from Facebook, Apple, and Netflix seeking the right for both TV shows and live broadcasts. Those are certainly some powerful companies, and other than Netflix, a company one would expect to be making such requests, it might portend some new OTT offerings. Many pundits in the industry have been predicting an Apple OTT offering for a number of years to go along with the Apple TV product.

I’m a cord cutter myself and so I’m always interested in new OTT offerings. But for various reasons, mostly associated with price, I am not very interested in most of what is out there today. We subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime, and I’ve tried Sling TV twice. But I have not seen any compelling reason to try the other OTT offerings. The list of pay OTT content that’s available is still pretty short, as follows:

  • Showtime: $11 per month with an Apple TV device (which I don’t have).
  • HBO Now: $15 per month with an Apple TV device, and coming soon to Google Play and through Cablevision.
  • CBS All Access: $6 per month but blocks sports content like the NFL.
  • Nickelodeon Noggin: $6 per month.
  • Sling TV: $20 per month. Mix of sports and popular cable networks.
  • PlayStation Vue: Starts at $50 per month. Includes both broadcast and cable networks. This seems like an abbreviated cable line-up, but at cable TV prices.
  • Comcast Stream: $15 per month, only for non-TV devices and must have a Comcast data product. A dozen broadcast networks plus HBO and Streampix.
  • Netflix: $8 per month.
  • Amazon Prime: $99 per year. Includes free or reduced shipping on Amazon purchases and free borrowing of books and music.
  • Hulu Plus: $8 per month with commercials and $12 without commercials. Mostly network TV series.
  • Verizon Go90: Free to certain Verizon wireless customers.

So why hasn’t there been an explosion of other OTT offerings? I think there are several reasons:

  • The standalone networks like CBS and Nickelodeon are basically market tests to see if there is any interest from the public to buy one channel at a time. These channels are being sold at a premium price at $6 per month and it’s hard to think that many households are willing to pay that much for one channel. Most networks want to be very cautious about moving their line-up online and are probably watching these trials closely. One doesn’t have to multiply out the $6 rate very far to see that any household trying to put together a line-up one channel at a time is going to quickly spend more than a traditional expanded basic cable line-up for a lot fewer channels.
  • HBO and Showtime have nothing to lose. The Game of Thrones has been reported as the most pirated show ever and so HBO is probably going to snag some of the cord cutters who have been pirating the show. The prices for these networks are just about the same as what you’d pay for them as part of a cable subscription. But there aren’t many other premium networks out there that can sell this way.
  • One has to think that the major hurdle to anybody putting together a good OTT line-up is getting the programmers to sell them the channels they want at a decent price. The programmers don’t have a major incentive today to help OTT programmers steal away traditional cable subscriptions. Whereas somebody like Sling TV might buy a few channels from a given programmer, that programmer makes more money when cable companies buy their whole lineup. So it’s likely that the programmers are making this hard and expensive for OTT companies. I’ve not seen any rumors about what companies like Sling TV are paying for content, but Sling isn’t like most OTT companies in that it is owned by Dish Networks who is already buying a huge pile of programming. It’s got to be harder for somebody else to put together the same line-up. The dynamics of this might change someday if there a true bleeding of traditional cable customers fleeing cable companies. But for now cord-cutting is only a trickle and most of these networks are still expanding like crazy overseas to make up for any US losses.

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.