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.

OTT News – August 2017

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It’s been a busy time in the OTT market with players coming and going and the choices available to customers growing more complicated and confusing.  Here are some of the bigger recent events in the industry.

Continued Cord Cutting. The major cable providers lost 946,000 cable customers in the second quarter – the worst quarterly loss ever. This puts cord cutting at an annual loss rate of 2.7% of customer, up from only 1% a year ago. It’s obvious that cord cutting is picking up momentum, and the wide variety of OTT viewing has to be a contributor. Nielsen recently reported that 62% of homes now watch OTT content at least occasionally.

It’s getting harder for analysts to count cable customers. For example, Dish Networks is not reporting on the specific performance of its satellite service versus SlingTV. The losses for the quarter were also eased a bit by the fact that Charter began counting seasonal customers even when they go dormant, such as the snowbird in Florida who subscribe only in the winter but who keep the account active.

ESPN / Disney OTT Offering. Disney announced that it would be launching two new OTT offerings in 2019 – a standalone ESPN offering and a standalone Disney offering. Along with this announcement they announced they will be withdrawing Disney content from Netflix. The ESPN offering will not duplicate the cable version of the network and will not include things like the NFL and NBA. But it will include major league baseball, the NHL, major league soccer, grand slam tennis events and college sports. Analysts think this offering is mandatory since ESPN has lost 13 million subscribers since 2011 and advertising revenues dropped 8% last quarter.

The standalone Disney offering is also interesting in that the company has decided to take Netflix on head-to-head. Because of contractual arrangements Netflix will still have access to content produced by Disney such as the numerous shows produced by Disney’s Marvel Studios. But starting in 2019 Disney is going to make new content only available on their own platform. This prompted Netflix to purchase Millarworld, a major comics producer.

NBC Closing Seeso. NBCUniversal says that it will be ending the Seeso OTT offering later this year. This is an offering that consisted largely of NBC comedy and related entertainment such as Saturday Night Live and the Tonight with Jimmy Fallon.

This failure is a big warning to the many cable networks that have been contemplating using the strategy of shoving existing content online. Industry analysts say that simply taking linear content online is not a recipe for success. It seems that the platform is just as important as the concept and the bigger platforms like Netflix keep customers engaged and enabling them to move from show to show without leaving the platform. But it’s too easy for a customer to leave a limited-offering platform, thus diminishing the perceived value for customers to buy a subscription.

Facebook OTT Offering. Facebook has announced the launch of Watch, an OTT service that will include content from A&E, Univision, Major League Baseball and other content such as worldwide soccer. For now the new service is being launched overseas with some limited US trials, but is expected to hit the whole US market later this year.

The offering is being structured like YouTube to enable content creators to launch their own channels. Facebook is currently funding some content providers to seed content on the new service. They are hoping that within time the platform becomes self-sustaining and can be an alternative to the wildly popular YouTube. Facebook is counting on their ability to lure enough of their billion plus users to the new platform to make it a success. The company’s goal is to keep people on their platform for more than just social networking.

Apple. Apple will be entering the OTT world and announced that they will spend $1 billion to create programming content over the next year. This puts them into rarified company with Netflix that is spending $6 billion, Amazon at $4.5 billion and HBO at $2 billion. There is no news yet of the nature or timing of an Apple OTT offering.

The Myth of OTT Savings

One of the reasons touted in the press for the recent popularity of cord cutting is the desire of people to save money over a traditional cable TV subscription. But as I look at what’s popular on the web I wonder if the savings are really going to be there for people who like to watch a variety of the best content.

There has been an explosion of companies that are pursuing unique video content, and this means that great content can now be found at many different places on the web. Interestingly, most of this great content is not available on traditional TV, other than the content provided by the premium movie channels. But considering the following web platforms that are creating unique content:

  • Netflix. They are the obvious king of unique content and release new shows, specials, movies and documentaries seemingly weekly. And they seem to have a wide variety of content aimed at all demographics.
  • Hulu. They are a bit late to the game. But the newly released The Handmaid’s Tale is getting critical acclaim and will be part of a quickly growing portfolio of unique content.
  • HBO. HBO has always had a few highly popular series with Game of Thrones still drawing huge audiences.
  • CBS All-Access. CBS has made a bold move by offering the new series Star Trek: Discovery only online. It’s bound to draw a lot of customers to the online service.
  • Amazon Prime. The company says they are going to invest billions in unique programming and are aiming at overtaking Netflix. Their recent hit The Man in the High Castle is evidence of the quality programming they are pursuing.
  • Showtime. They have historically created limited amounts of unique content but are now also looking to create a lot more. Their new show Twin Peaks has come out with high reviews.
  • Starz. This network is also now chasing new content and has a hit series with American Gods.
  • Seeso. Even services that most people have never heard of, such as Seeso are creating popular content such as the comedy series My Brother, My Brother and Me.
  • YouTube Red. The industry leader of unique content is YouTube which has allowed anybody to create content. While most of this is still free, the platform is now putting a lot of great content such as the comedy Rhett and Link’s Buddy System behind a paywall.

Subscribing to the above online services with the minimum subscriptions costs $79 per month (and that’s without figuring in the annual cost of Amazon Prime, which most people buy because of the free shipping from Amazon). The above line-up doesn’t include any sports and you’d have to buy a $30 subscription from Sling TV to watch ESPN and a few other popular sports networks. ESPN recently announced that they still don’t have any plans to launch a standalone web product but are instead pursuing being included in the various skinny bundles.

Not considered, though, in the above list are numerous other less-known paid OTT subscriptions available on line. As listed in this recent blog there are dozens of other platforms for people who like specialized content like Japanese anime or British comedies.

Of course, one thing the above list shows is that there is a world of content these days that is not being created by the major networks or the traditional cable networks. There is likely more money pouring into the creation of content outside of the traditional networks.

So OTT doesn’t seem to save as much as hoped for people that wish to enjoy a variety of popular content across different providers.  But there are other benefits driving people to OTT programming.  One of the great benefits of OTT programming is the ability to subscribe and cancel services at will. I have been trying various OTT networks and it’s really tempting to subscribe to each for a month or two until you’ve seen what you want and then move on to something else. I’m starting to think that’s the way I will use these services as long as they continue to allow easy egress and exit.

And OTT programming allows for non-linear TV watching.  As long as somebody lives near to a metropolitan area a cord cutter can still view the traditional network channels using rabbit ears. But what a lot of cord cutters are finding is that they quickly lose their tolerance of linear programming. I know that when I travel and have TV available in the room that I only watch it if I want to catch a football or basketball game. I can no longer tolerate the commercial breaks or the inability to pause linear TV while I want to do something else. And that, perhaps more than anything, is what will bring down traditional cable TV. As much as cable companies tout TV Everywhere, their basic product is still showing content linearly at fixed times. There is such a huge volume of great OTT content available any time on any device that it’s not hard for somebody to walk away from the traditional networks and still always have something you want to watch.

So Many OTT Choices

I get asked by clients all of the time about how long they should stay in the video business. Most small providers are losing money on video and most of them are becoming less wedded to sticking with the product. By now just about everybody is familiar with Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime as alternatives to traditional cable TV. Additionally, there are now numerous skinny bundles like Playstation Vue, Sling TV, DirecTV Now, and soon those will be joined by YouTube TV and a new unnamed service from Hulu. It’s becoming a lot easier for people with good household bandwidth to cut the cord. But there are a lot more alternatives that don’t get as much press as the above options, and today I’m going to take a look some of the other choices. A cord cutter can put together an amazing array of content with a little work. Many of these networks offer free trials.

FuboTV. This was launched in early 2015 and carried mainly soccer. But the service has expanded to a 70 channel line-up that includes popular networks and is heavy on sports. They offer a wide range of sports programming to include the Fox Sports channels, the Big 10 Network plus a lot of off-beat networks that carry things like rugby, the European golf tour, motorcycle racing and boxing. The service comes with free on-line DVR storage.

Layer3 TV. This company is taking a different approach to everybody else. They are offering large packages at cable company prices for those that like the big packages but don’t like cable company customer service. They are not available everywhere yet. They offer 200 channels of HD programming and a lot of 4K programming, a great settop box, a high-capacity DVR, and integration with most social media and the promise of great customer service.

Sundance Now. This is a service that offers indie films, award winning foreign films and independent documentaries.

Curiosity Stream. They offer a number of non-fiction documentaries, heavy on science, technology, history and nature.

BritBox. This service from BBC Worldwide carries over 2,000 hours of British TV.

Feeln. This is a service that specializes in ‘feel-good’ movies.

Jazz & Blues TV. This features music documentaries and concerts.

Rooster Teeth. This is service that is popular with millennials and that grew out of a popular series Red vs. Blue from YouTube.

FilmStruck. They carry the kind of films that were shown on Turner Classic Movies.

Shudder. The service carries a big library of horror films. Don’t expect the blockbuster classics, but they seem to have everything else.

Fandor. This has been described as the service for film majors. It includes indie films, classics, silent movies, foreign films, documentaries and shorts.

SeeSo. Contains uncensored standup comedy.

Other Pay Streaming Services. There are new ones being added all of the time, but not included above are Acorn TV, ConTV, DramaFever, RabbitTV, Vid Angel, VUDU, Warner Archive and TV Land.

Individual Channels. You can also buy individual channels like CBS ALL-Access, HBO Go, Showtime, Starz, and the CW Network.

Free Programming. There is a mountain of free content available. This includes sites like AOL ON, Break, CollegeHumor, Crackle, CW Seed, Funny or Die, Itenu, Internet Archive, Mohu One, My Damn Channel, PBS, PlutoTV, PopcornFlix, Red Bull TV, ShareDots, ShareTV, Shout!, Simpsons World, SnagFilms, South Park Studios, teamcoco.com, TestTube, The Onion, Tubi TV, TV.com, VEVO, Viewster, Vimeo and Yamgo.

Free News. This includes 60 Minutes All Access, Bloomberg, C-SPAN, CBS News, and NBC News.

I think the bottom line is that your customers can put together some amazing package of programming as an alternative to traditional cable TV. A customer could use rabbit ears for local stations and for $50 – $70 per month could do Netflix and a number of the above OTT products and have a great tailored programming package. And it’s likely that the online choices will be increasing. I have several clients who have dropped cable TV and who are glad about it. I think the above puts the writing on the wall and every small cable company ought to at least add this as a topic of company conversation.

OTT Latest – August 2016

tubitv_squareThe only way for cord cutting to become a true problem for the cable companies is for there to be so much content online that people feel comfortable walking away from the cable packages. If the last few months are any indication of where the OTT industry is heading, we soon ought to be seeing more people cut the cord. So far this year there has been an average of almost one new OTT roll-out every week and there are now over 130 subscription video services on the web. Here are just a few of the more interesting recent announcements in what is becoming a busy new industry:

Acorn TV. Priced at $4.99 per month (first month free) this service bundles the best shows from the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The service is starting with 60 exclusive titles that include a lot of drama, police who-dunnits and dry British comedy.

Sling TV. The service has grown from very simple to having a wide range of options. They have added a ton of new programming such as Fox Sports and other Fox Shows, They brought in the NBC suite including the live NBC feed, USA, Bravo, SyFy and BBC America. They beefed up the sports offering with some regional sports networks. The NBC live feed will be the first place that local NFL games will be broadcast on the web. They have added E! and Oxygen to their Lifestyle package. And they’ve added BBC World News, CNBC and MSNBC to their World News Package. Overall this is starting to become as large and confusing as looking at cable packages!

Hulu. The company has confirmed it will soon be launching a skinny bundle. Much of the content is going to come from the owners of Hulu including a suite of packages from ABC / Disney including ESPN, a package from NBC Universal, and a package from 21st Century Fox. Plus Hulu is making a deal with CBS. This would make Hulu the first to offer all of the major networks’ feeds live online, with ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox. The company has said that their base package will be around $35, and this makes it a true skinny bundle since it includes the networks plus other most-watched channels. As I was writing this blog Hulu announced they are ceasing all free / ad-based program and are now all-subscription.

Tubi TV. Tubi TV is taking a different approach from the other services and is free to customers and is ad-supported. The service carries a lot of content aimed at millennials, who supposedly are most interested in free content. The service includes Japanese anime 2-days after being aired in Japan as well as a lot of movies and various series of interest to millennials. The service has made deals with over 200 content provides including MGM, Lionsgate, Paramount Pictures and Starz!

Comcast brings in Netflix. In an attempt to keep viewers on their platform and under their channel guide Comcast has made a deal to bring Netflix into the fold. Netflix will appear in the lineup like any other network and customers can navigate using their remote control.

Speaking of remote controls, Comcast distributed a lot of new voice-controlled remotes in time for the Olympics in the hopes of keeping customers from cutting the cord. We’ll have to watch to see how customers like the new devices.

Networks go Directly Online. All of the major (and many not-so-major) networks are taking their content online, but with different business models. It will be interesting to see which of these approaches is the most popular.

Fox has announced that it is now online for customers using the Fox.com website or the Fox Now app. This is an authenticated service and customers have to be verified as a customer of a cable provider and already paying for the Fox programming.

ABC is re-launching its unauthenticated streaming service (free for anybody) and showing older series for free, supported with ads.

CBS has taken the premium subscription approach and is a monthly subscriptions for $5.99 it’s calling CBS All Access. The company is producing original content just for this platform including the next Star Trek Series.

NBC has chosen to produce OTT content through its Seeso platform. This is going to consist of a number of different types of programming, with the comedy platform launched late last year. The comedy channel costs $3.99 per month. It includes older NBC comedy series as well as twenty new comedy series produced only for the Seeso platform.

Even smaller networks like CW now have an unauthenticated ad-supported platform called CW Seed that is showing older shows such as MadTV, Constantine and the O.C.