Is OTT Service Effective Competition for Cable TV?

The FCC made an interesting ruling recently that signals the end of regulation of basic cable TV. Charter Communications had petitioned the FCC for properties in Massachusetts claiming that the properties have ‘effective competition’ for cable TV due to competition from OTT providers – in this case, due to AT&T DirecTV Now, a service that offers a full range of local and traditional cable channels.

The term effective communications is a very specific regulatory term and once a market reaches that status a cable company can change rates at will for basic cable. – the tiers that include local network stations.

The FCC agreed with Charter and said that the markets are competitive and granted Charter the deregulated status. This designation in the past has been granted in markets that have a high concentration of satellite TV or else that have a lot of alternative TV offered by a fiber or DSL overbuilder that has gained a significant share of the market.

In making this ruling the FCC effectively deregulated cable everywhere since there is no market today that doesn’t have a substantial amount of OTT content competing with cable companies. Cable providers will still have to go through the process of asking to deregulate specific markets, but it’s hard to think that after this ruling that the FCC can say no to any other petition.

From a regulatory perspective, this is probably the right ruling. Traditional cable is getting clobbered and it looks like the industry as a whole might lose 5-6 full percentage of market share this year and end up under a 65% national penetration rate. While we are in only the third year where cord cutting became a measurable trend, the cable industry customer losses are nearly identical to the market losses for landline telephone at the peak of that market decline.

There are two consequences for consumers in a market that is declared to be effectively competitive. First, it frees cable companies from the last vestiges of basic cable rate regulation. This is not a huge benefit because cable companies have been free for years to raise rates in higher tiers of service. In a competitive market, a cable provider is also no longer required to carry local network channels in the basic tier – although very few cable systems have elected this option.

I’ve seen several articles discussing this ruling that assume that this will result in an instant rate increase in these markets – and they might be right. It’s a headscratcher watching cable companies raising rates lately when higher rates are driving households to become cord cutters. But cable executives don’t seem to be able to resist the ability to raise rates, and each time they do, the overall revenue of a cable system increases locally, even with customer defections.

It’s possible that this ruling represents nothing more than the current FCC’s desire to deregulate as many things as possible. One interesting aspect of this ruling is that the FCC has never declared OTT services like SlingTV or DirecTV Now to be MVDPs (multichannel video program distributors) – a ruling that would pull these services into the cable TV regulatory regime. From a purely regulatory viewpoint, it’s hard to see how a non-MVDP service can meet the technical requirements of effective competition. However, from a practical perspective, it’s not hard to perceive the competition.

Interestingly, customers are not leaving traditional cable TV and flocking to the OTT services that emulate regular cable TV service. Those services have recently grown to become expensive and most households seem to be happy cobbling together packages of content from OTT providers like Netflix and Amazon Prime that don’t carry a full range of traditional channels. From that market perspective, one has to wonder how much of a competitor DirecTV Now was in the specific markets, or even how Charter was able to quantify the level of competition from a specific OTT service.

Reality Pricing Coming for Online Video

I’ve been a cord cutter for many years and over the last few years, I’ve tried the various vMVPDs that offer channel line-ups that somewhat mimic traditional cable TV. I’ve tried Sling TV, DirecTV Now and Playstation Vue. In every case I’ve always scratched my head wondering how these products could offer prices that are lower than the wholesale price of the content from programmers. There are only two possibilities – either these companies have been setting low prices to gain market share or they had been able to negotiate far better deals for content than the rest of the industry.

Of course, the answer is that they’ve been subsidizing these products. And Wall Street is now pressuring these companies to end the subsidies and become profitable. There is probably no better example of this than AT&T’s DirecTV Now service. When DirecTV Now launched it carried a price tag of $35 per month for about a hundred channels of programming. The low price was clearly set as a reaction to a similarly low price from Sling TV which was the first big successful vMVPD.

Both companies offered line-ups including the channels that most households watch. This included the high-price programming from ESPN and numerous other quality networks. The initial pricing was crazy – a similar package on traditional cable was priced at $60 – $70.

The low pricing has worked for DirectTV Now. They are getting close to surpassing the Sling TV in subscribers. AT&T has featured DirecTV Now in its advertising and has been shuttling customers from the satellite-based DirecTV to the online product.

But AT&T company just got realistic with the product. They have collapsed from four options down to two options now priced at $50 and $70 per month. The company got ready for this shift by eliminating special promotional prices in the fourth quarter of last year. They had roughly half a million customers who were paying even less than their published low prices. When AT&T raised the rates they immediately lost over half of those promotional customers.

Not only are prices rising, but the company has significantly trimmed the channel counts. The new $50 package will have only about 40 channels while the $70 package will have 50 channels. It’s worth noting that both packages now include HBO, which is the flagship AT&T product. HBO is by far the most expensive programming in the industry and AT&T has now reconfigured DirecTV Now to be HBO plus other premium channels.

The new prices are realistic and also include a profit margin. It will be interesting to see how the DirecTV Now customer base reacts to such a drastic change. I’m sure many of them will flee to cheaper alternatives. But the company may also attract customers that subscribe directly to HBO to upgrade.

The big question is if there will be cheaper alternatives? The online industry has been around long enough that it is now out of its infancy and investors are starting to expect profits from any company in this space. The new realistic pricing by AT&T is likely to drive the other online programmers to also get more realistic.

These price increases have ramifications for cord-cutting. It’s been easy to justify cutting the cord when you could ditch a $70 per month traditional cable product for a $35 online one that has the channels you most watch. But there is less allure from going online when the alternative choice is just as expensive as the traditional one. There is always going to be some savings from jumping online – if nothing else customers can escape the exorbitant fees for renting a settop box.

It’s clear that AT&T is counting on HBO as the allure for its online offering. That product is available in a number of places on the web for a monthly rate of $15, so including that in the $50 and $70 product still distinguishes DirecTV Now from the other vMVPD providers.

What is clear by this move is that we are approaching the time when companies are willing to eat huge losses to gain online market share. That market share is worthless if customers leave in droves when there is a rate increase. These big companies don’t seem to have fully grasped that there is zero customer loyalty online. Viewers don’t really care who the underlying company is that is carrying their favorite programming – it’s the content they care about. The big cable companies have to break their long history of making decisions like near-monopolies.

Why Households Keep Cable TV

The results of a new survey were recently released by Telaria and Adobe Advertising Cloud that looked in detail at both cord cutters and those who still use traditional cable TV packages. The survey asked questions to groups of cord-cutters, those with traditional TV and also consumers who only watch video on demand and don’t pay for a service. A summary of the survey can be found at this link.

The survey asked why households keep traditional cable TV and got the following responses:

  • 42% said the primary reason for keeping traditional cable TV is to watch live programming such as sports or local news.
  • 55% said that the options for cord-cutting are confusing.
  • 34% said they liked having a lot of channels available.
  • 21% said they didn’t know where to look for alternative options to traditional cable TV.
  • 55% with traditional cable TV are still satisfied with the value they get for the price they pay.
  • 48% said they have considered cancelling traditional cable TV.
  • 30% said they would cut the cord if they were sure they could watch all of their favorite content

Cord-cutters were asked why they had left traditional TV:

  • 73% said it was due to the high cost of cable TV. 74% of cord-cutters say they are now happy with what they are paying for content.
  • 30% described themselves as low users of watching content and left because they didn’t use traditional TV very much.
  • 36% said they were still able to get the content they want.

There were some other interesting responses in the survey:

  • 16% of respondents say they have used somebody else’s password to watch streaming content.
  • 27% of homes now use a digital antenna to watch over-the-air TV, with sports being the primary reason for using the antenna.

These results are further validated by a survey released earlier this year by Deloitte who surveyed 2,088 households asking why they are keeping traditional cable TV:

  • The primary reason for keeping TV, cited by 71% of households is the ability to watch live broadcasts – be that sports, local news or events like the Emmys or Oscars.
  • Another primary reason is that households perceive that they are saving money due to a bundle. 56% of respondents said the bundle made them feel like they are getting a good deal.
  • The third reason cited for keeping traditional cable is that households said they’ve had the service for a long time and don’t want to change.
  • However, Deloitte found concern about price with 70% of respondents said they are paying too much for their cable subscriptions.

As somebody who cut the cord a number of years ago I echo some of the concerns voiced in these surveys. It can be confusing understanding the differences between the online programming options. I applaud anybody who can decipher the differences between packages offered by Sling TV, DirecTV Now and Playstation Vue. I’ve not yet found an online service that is easy to surf if you don’t have specific programming in mind. The proliferation of platforms with unique programming such as CBS All Access, Disney and others will likely make it even harder to find or afford all of the content you might want to watch. We are definitely not yet to a point where cord-cutting is as easy as keeping the traditional cable package.

Can Skinny Bundles Remain Viable?

It seems like the industry has accepted the new paradigm that households are cutting the cord and getting programming online. Those going online have a few options. The option that gets the most press are skinny bundles – those online services that offered a smaller version of traditional cable programming. Another alternative is for households to abandon the traditional content found on cable and to seek different content from providers like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

At the end of June there were about 6 million households that have purchased the online skinny bundles. That number is still small compared with the 90 million or so homes that still buy traditional cable programming from cable or satellite providers, but it represents a 75% growth just since October of 2017.

Current estimates of customers of the largest services include Sling TV at 2.3 million, DirecTV Now at 1.5 million, Hulu Live at 1 million, YouTube TV at 800,000 PlayStation View at 500,000.

Skinny bundles providers are attracting customers by offering a suite of the most-watched cable channels at a lower price than the cable company. They also get rid of all of the hassle of dealing with a cable company and customers can come and go easily without having to deal with cable company customer service.

I have to wonder how sustainable these businesses are. Every analyst I’ve been reading speculates that these businesses are all losing money and are using low prices to gain market share. But that means they lose more money with each customer added and it’s hard to see the end game for this industry segment.

One article I read speculated that YouTube TV is paying more for programming than the consumer price being charged. It’s unlikely that anybody but a few insiders really know the cost of programming, but the analyst estimated that YouTube TV was paying $49 per month for content to support its $40 consumer product. They speculated that YouTube might also be making $15 per month from advertising. That would mean only a tiny margin before considering any of the costs of operating the business. Obviously this is a concern for the skinny bundle providers, and YouTube TV and Sling TV each recently raised monthly rates by $5 per month.

The biggest issue for the skinny bundle companies is that they are still operating in a world where the programmers control their costs. Programmers have little incentive to offer big discounts to skinny bundle providers, which would provide incentives for more customers to cut the cord.

The big programmers all have interesting pricing that penalizes skinny bundle providers. They tend to charge a lot for their most popular channels and very little for the many other channels that they provide to cable companies. For the skinny bundle provider this means that they might spend as much to buy the one or two most popular Discovery channels or MTV channels and still pay as much for programming as the cable companies that get a whole large suit of channels for almost the same cost. Programming has been sold that way for years and I always assumed it was so that the programmers could extract full price out of smaller cable systems that can’t physically handle the 200-channel line-ups. But this pricing seems tailored-made as a way for programmers to minimize losses from selling to the skinny bundle providers.

Ultimately something has to give for skinny bundles to become a viable alternative to traditional TV. One alternative is for the prices to rise to be similar to traditional cable with the value proposition being that customers can easily come and go with a provider without the hassle. However, numerous surveys have shown that the primary reason for cutting the cord is to save money, and so skinny bundles likely can never charge as much as traditional cable. In the long-run skinny bundle providers can’t keep losing money, and it’s hard to see this same industry being around five years from now.

Skinny bundle providers share some of the same concerns as traditional cable companies. Many cord cutters seem willing to give up on watching many of the networks they have been accustomed to watching. This is what my household has done. We mostly watch the content on Amazon Prime and Netflix, including buying the occasional seasons of specific shows from other networks. That means that we no longer watch content from Discovery, MTV, the Comedy Channel and the many other traditional cable networks – we’re satisfied with the wide array of alternative programming.

Surveys from Nielsen show that people become loyal to the content they watch, but that means that they are also able to forget about and not care about content that they no longer watch. If price is the main driver for consumers to choose programming, then traditional cable TV and skinny bundles both are battling a losing battle if their must charge a lot to cover the high cost of programming.

Do People Really Want a la Carte TV?

We just got a glimpse of a la carte TV and it makes me wonder if this is what people really want. Poll after poll over the years have shown that people would like to pick their own channels. I’m not sure that many people really want a la carte channels once they see the market reality of the product.

Sling TV just started offering a number of a la carte channels and they are available to anybody. Subscribers don’t need to buy another Sling TV package and can buy just one channel. The company says they are planning on offering more a la carte channels.

For now the a la carte line-up is small. It includes Showtime for $10 per month, which is also available elsewhere on line. The other channels available now include:

  • Dove Channel for $5 per month. This channel is not carried on any cable systems and is marketed direct to consumers. It carries a library of Christian-based programming.
  • CuriosityStream for $6 per month. This is an ad-free network that delivers documentaries and shows about science, technology, technology and nature.
  • Stingray Karaoke for $7 per month. This network carries a big library of karaoke songs that streams both the music and lyrics.
  • Outside TV Features for $5 per month. This network carries a big library of outdoor adventure sports films. This is the network that carries the dramatic footage of surfing, skiing, skydiving and numerous adventure sports.
  • UP Faith & Family for $5 per month. This carries original content and movies that are family-based and faith-friendly.
  • Pantaya for $6 per month. This network carries Spanish movies.
  • NBA League Pass for $28.99 per month. This network carries all NBA games and related content.

Sling TV is not the first one to offer a la carte channels and it’s a big part of Amazon Prime. Amazon carries many of these same networks, and over 100 others. However, you must subscribe to the Amazon Prime service for $119 per year in order to buy the a la carte channels. Amazon has taken the approach of being the biggest bundler of content and has become the portal to a huge array of content.

The only other service with any real a la carte characteristics is the new package offered by Charter, only to their own customers. They provide the local networks in a market and then let a subscriber choose 10 out of 65 networks. This is supposedly priced at $21.99, but the fine print shows there will be other fees, typical of a cable company, and I’m guessing this will cost around $30.

What strikes me most about the Sling TV offering is the monthly fee of between $5 and $7 per channel. How many people are willing to spend $60 to $84 per year for one channel? Surveys by Nielsen have shown that the average family regularly watches about a dozen networks. A price of $5 per channel would mean a price of $60 per month to get the networks a household wants. But local network channels, movie networks and sports networks would likely cost more than $5 and it wouldn’t be hard to see a bill of $75 to $100 to buy only the channels a family regularly watches.

I don’t think this is what households want. When people respond to surveys talking about buying channels individually they were not thinking of paying $5 each. I recall a Nielsen survey from a few years ago where people suggested they would be willing to pay less than $2 per channel if they could buy them individually.

I saw a Google article that said that the Dove Channel had over 100,000 customers. Even if they now have twice that, at $5 per month per subscriber the network would have a monthly income of $1 million. That might sound like a lot, but it’s not enough to support a staff, buy the needed content and also try to fund original programming.

Contrast this with a network that sits today on the traditional line-ups on cable systems. At the current nationwide cable TV penetration rate of 69%, a network that charges only a nickel to the cable companies would make $4.4 million per month. A network like the Dove Channel would need to get nearly 900,000 subscribers at $5 per month to perform as well as traditional cable network that charges only a nickel. You can see why most cable networks are scared of the a la carte model because there are very few of them could survive as online providers.

Simultaneous Data Streams

By working all over the country I get to hear a lot of stories about how people use broadband. I’ve noticed that over the last few years that the household expectation for broadband performance has changed.

As recently as three or four years ago most households seemed to judge the adequacy of their broadband connection by how well it would handle a video stream from Netflix or other streaming service. Households that couldn’t stream video well were unhappy, but those that could generally felt that their broadband connection was good enough.

Interestingly, much of the perceived improvement in the ability to steam video was not due to better broadband performance. Streaming services like Netflix took steps to improve the performance of their product. Netflix had always buffered their content, meaning that a customer would load the video stream a few minutes ahead of viewing to eliminate the variation in customer broadband connections. They subsequently built some brains into the service so that the compression used for a given stream would vary according to the broadband connection of the customer. They also began caching their content with ISPs so that their signal would be generated from the ISP’s local network and not from somewhere in the distant cloud.

Streaming quality then became an issue again with the introduction of live streaming sports and other content, and many of the flaws in the video stream became more apparent. I remember trying to watch ESPN online when it was first offered by Sling TV and the experience was miserable – the stream would crash a number of times during a football or basketball game. Live-streaming services have subsequently improved their product to work better with a variety of broadband connections.

Over the last two years I’ve noticed a big change in how households talk about their broadband performance. I haven’t heard anybody mention single video streaming in a few years and the expectation for a broadband connection now is that it can handle multiple data streams at the same time.

This tells me two things. First, as mentioned above, video streaming has improved to the point where you don’t get interruptions on most broadband connections. But more importantly, households have changed how they use broadband. I think my household is a typical example. The only broadband need we have that is different from many families is that my wife and I both work from home. But other than that, we don’t have atypical broadband demands.

If you go back five years we probably had perhaps half a dozen devices in our home capable of connecting to the Internet. We rarely demanded a lot of simultaneous broadband. Today we have over 40 Internet capable devices in our house. While some of them use little or no broadband, we’ve changed how we use broadband. We are cord cutters and routinely are streaming several videos at the same time while also using the Internet for gaming and schoolwork. We’re often stream music. Our computers automatically upload files to the cloud and download software updates. Cellphones are connected to the WiFi and there is regular use of FaceTime and other apps that include video streams.

Interestingly, when the FCC established 25/4 Mbps as the definition of broadband they justified the speed by looking at simultaneous uses of multiple broadband services. At that time a lot of critics derided the FCC’s justification since it wasn’t realistic for how most households really used broadband. Perhaps the staff at the FCC was prescient, because their illustrative examples are exactly how a lot of homes use broadband today.

If anything, the FCC’s method was conservative because it didn’t account for the interference that arises in a home network that is processing multiple data streams at the same time. The more streams, the more interference, and it wouldn’t be unusual for a home like ours to experience 20% to 30% overhead in our WiFi network while processing the numerous simultaneous streams.

Unfortunately, many policy makers are still stuck on the old paradigm. This is the only way they can justify something like the CAF II program that will provide data steams in the 10 Mbps range. They still talk about how that connection will allow a household to watch video or do homework, but they ignore all of the other ways that homes really use broadband today. I know for my home that a 25 Mbps broadband stream is not sufficient and will bog down at various times of the day – so I buy something faster. It’s hard to imagine stepping back to a 10 Mbps connection, because doing so would force us to make hard choices on curtailing our broadband usage.

Another Alternative to Cable TV

In just the last few years we’ve seen a plethora of alternatives to cable TV. It was only a few years ago in 2014 when the Supreme Court rules against Aereo for offering a product that allowed people to bypass the cable company to watch local channels anywhere within a market. In retrospect is looks like Aereo’s biggest sin was being too early to market, because today Sling TV is offering a product that feels the same to customers.

Sling TV’s product is AirTV. The company provides several options, all which include a settop box that includes an antenna to receive local over-the-air networks. AirTV then integrates the local channels into the Sling TV OTT offering for a seamless mix of local and on-line channels. The box let’s a user watch the local channels on any device within range of the customer’s WiFi network. The box also will upload your local channels to the cloud to watch anywhere else while you are traveling.

The differences between AirTV and Aereo are subtle. Both companies avoided paying retransmission fees for the local networks. Both companies used antennas to receive off-air channels like ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and PBS. AirTV places the antenna in the home while Aereo had an individual antenna for each customer at the central office and then beamed the shows to an Aereo box in the home. A non-technical customer would probably be hard pressed to describe the difference between the services, because from the end-user perspective the products offer the same end result.

The Supreme Court’s ruling again Aereo was also subtle. They ruled that Aereo had infringed on network copyrighted material by beaming the signal from an Aereo customer antenna located at a hub and the customer site. Now only four years later these same content owners seem to have no issues with AirTV beaming local content over the Internet to reach a customer who is traveling.

The big obvious difference between 2014 and now is the proliferation of numerous other OTT offerings that are using subsets of the traditional cable offerings to compete with cable companies. Some of the biggest ISPs like Comcast and Verizon even have their own OTT offering to compete against their own cable products.

It seems like the genie is out of the bag now and anything goes in the programming world. We recently saw Charter introduce a package that feels like a la carte programming where customers only get the channels they want. We see millions of customers opting for smaller packages by cutting the cord or migrating to smaller packages.

If you go back and read the big cable company complaints against Aereo you could make many of the same arguments against AirTV – and yet they are not being pushed out of business, as happened to Aereo. The cable companies can’t stop anybody from selling rabbit ears, but one would think they would have a valid complaint against a company that bundles the rabbit ears with other programming without paying retransmission fees.

One reason that AirTV might not be getting push-back is because they are owned by Dish Networks. A lot of the alternative programming today is being offered by the biggest players in the industry, and perhaps Aereo was singled out because they were a brash outsider. Clients ask me all of the time about creating their own small packages and I regret having to tell them that the programmers won’t even talk to small companies about the possibility.

Smaller cable operators don’t have the same options as Comcast, Charter, Dish Networks or AT&T. Small cable providers must still follow FCC rules that require traditional cable TV packages and lineups. Any small cable provider that wants to buck these rules probably ends up on the wrong side of a lawsuit or else is threated by the programmers with losing their programming contracts. Small cable operators, who are already losing money on cable TV are not willing to risk a legal battle with one of the big programmers.

I love seeing companies like AirTV blazing new ground because I hope that what they are doing will eventually filter down to the rest of the market. Sling TV has made it clear that they don’t expect to make money on AirTV and their real goal is to create stickiness for the Sling TV product. I know a lot of small cable operators who would be thrilled to reach breakeven with a cable product, and I’m hopeful that in the next few years they might have the option to resale a bundle like Sling TV and AirTV rather than continuing to lose money with traditional cable.

Skyrocketing Retransmission Fees

I just saw that the Sinclair Broadcast Group, one of the largest owners of local television stations now gets nearly 50% of their revenues from retransmission fees. This is an extraordinary number when considering that a decade ago that number would have been zero. What is most telling about that number is that Sinclair is growing profits while their core business is sinking. Their advertising revenues are down and the cable companies that carry their signals continue to lose customers due to cord cutting.

Retransmission fees are probably the leading factor in the escalating cost of buying cable TV. Retransmission fees are billed by local over-the-air (OTA) network stations like ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox to allow cable systems to carry their programming. FCC rules make it mandatory for cable companies to carry local OTA content. A decade ago there were almost no retransmission fees outside of a few major markets like New York City. Traditionally cable companies added local programming to their line-up without having to pay a fee – and everybody was happy because the local networks affiliates still got the eyeballs for their advertising.

But today every local network affiliate charges cable companies to carry their content. The current fees average fee per station has climbed into the range of $3 per network month, meaning that roughly $12 of every cable subscription is being sent directly to the local network affiliates – not into the pocket of the cable companies.

This is a rigged game and cable subscribers are funding huge profits for the network affiliates. The cable companies are forced to carry the content and the OTA network affiliates raise rates each year, essentially printing money. There is supposedly a negotiation process for the rates, but the OTA network affiliates have all of the power in the relationship and generally are inflexible on prices.

I suspect that the average cable subscriber has no idea that they are paying close to $12 per month to get the same content they could get for free with a TV antenna. We know from numerous surveys that cost is the leading factor that convinces households to cut the cord, and the escalating retransmission fees have been driving up cable rates by $2 to $3 per year.

We know from looking around the industry that many folks are rebelling against the high prices stemming from the retransmission fees. Over the last three years it’s estimated that there are almost 11 million new homes that are using antennas to get local content. Some of the most successful online video sources like Sling TV and Playstation Vue offer their lowest-cost packages of programming without any local programming.

Sling TV has gone so far as to offer as to offer a box it calls Air-TV that includes an antenna to get local content that is then integrated with the other Sling TV content. The CEO of Sling TV says that the company makes no money with this product, but it’s proven popular and helps to convince households to drop traditional cable by making it easy.

Most of the large cable companies have responded to the retransmission fees by creating a fee separate from the cost of the cable product. They label these fees with names such as Local Programming Fee and hope subscribers think it’s a tax. This is a deceptive billing practice because it lets cable companies advertise the price of cable without the local fees, yet every customer must pay these fees. I was looking at a customer bill from a big cable company last week that had a $40 rate for cable and an $11 cost for the local networks, meaning that the real price for the product was $51 yet they advertise the $40 rate when trying to attract customers.

Congress is the only one who can fix this issue. It is rules established by Congress that make it mandatory for cable providers to carry the network affiliates. I think almost every small cable provider I know would gladly provide free rabbit ears to customers if they could get out paying these fees.

Of course, there is another side to the issue to consider. If these fees ended today a lot of local TV stations would likely fold. This raises the question of whether these businesses should be propped up by this clear subsidy. The original concept behind the Congressional rules was not to establish a revenue for local affiliates, but rather to make sure that cable subscribers had access to local programming. But some smart industry consultants talked local stations into charging these fees and it’s now as close as you can get to a business that prints money.

The retransmission fees should probably not go to zero – but there needs to be a balance between network affiliates and cable companies. Today there is nearly zero negotiations on these fees. There are several possible fixes I can think of. One easy fix would be to allow cable companies to make these stations optional for customers. Then people who want to use an antenna could avoid the fees. This would put some balance into the negotiations since the networks would be less likely to gouge when they’d see the impact of customers dropping their programming. This is not the only possible fix – but we need to try something, because this is badly broken.

The Crowded MVPD Market

The virtual MVPD (Multichannel Video Programming Distributor) market is already full of providers and is going to become even more crowded this year. Already today there is a marketing war developing between DirecTV Now, Playstation Vue, Sling TV, Hulu Live, YouTube TV, CBS All Access, fuboTV and Layer3 TV. There are also now a lot of ad-supported networks offering free movies and programming such as Crackle and TubiTV. All of these services tout themselves as an alternative to traditional cable TV.

This year will see some new competitors in the market. ESPN is getting ready to launch its sports-oriented MVPD offering. The network has been steadily losing subscribers from cord cutting and cord shaving. While the company is gaining some customers from other MVPD platforms they believe they have a strong enough brand name to go it alone.

The ESPN offering is likely to eventually be augmented by the announcement that Disney, the ESPN parent company, is buying 21st Century Fox programming assets, including 22 regional sports networks. But this purchase won’t be implemented in time to influence the initial ESPN launch.

Another big player entering the game this year is Verizon which is going to launch a service to compete with the offerings of competitors like DirecTV Now and Sling TV. This product launch has been rumored since 2015 but the company now seems poised to finally launch. Speculation is the company will use the platform much like AT&T uses DirecTV Now – as an alternative to customers who want to cut the cord as well as a way to add new customers outside the traditional footprint.

There was also announcement last quarter by T-Mobile CEO John Legere that the company will be launching an MVPD product in early 2018. While aimed at video customers the product will be also marketed to cord cutters. The T-Mobile announcement has puzzled many industry analysts who are wondering if there is any room for a new provider in the now-crowded MVPD market. The MVPD market as a whole added almost a million customers in the third quarter of 2017. But the majority of those new customers went to a few of the largest providers and the big question now is if this market is already oversaturated.

On top of the proliferation of MVPD providers there are the other big players in the online industry to consider. Netflix has announced it is spending an astronomical $8 billion on new programming during the next year. While Amazon doesn’t announce their specific plans they are also spending a few billion dollars per year. Netflix alone now has more customers than the entire traditional US cable industry.

I would imagine that we haven’t seen the end of new entrants. Now that the programmers have accepted the idea of streaming their content online, anybody with deep enough pockets to work through the launch can become an MVPD. There have already been a few early failures in the field and we’ve seen Seeso and Fullscreen bow out of the market. The big question now is if all of the players in the crowded field can survive the competition. Everything I’ve read suggests that margins are tight for this sector as the providers hold down prices to build market share.

I have already tried a number of the services including Sling TV, fuboTV, DirecTV Now and Playstation Vue. There honestly is not that much noticeable difference between the platforms. None of them have yet developed an easy-to-use channel guide and they feel like the way cable felt a decade ago. But each keeps adding features that is making them easier to use over time. While each has a slightly different channel line-up, there are many common networks carried on most of the platforms. I’m likely to try the other platforms during the coming year and it will be interesting to see if one of them finds a way to distinguish themselves from the pack.

This proliferation of online options spells increased pressure for traditional cable providers. With the normal January price increases now hitting there will be millions of homes considering the shift to online.

 

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.