Forecasting the Future of Video

I recently saw several interesting forecasts about the cable industry. The research firm SNL Kagan predicts that broadband-only homes in the US – those that don’t subscribe to traditional linear cable TV – will increase from 23.3 million in 2018 to 40.8 million by 2023. In another forecast Parks Associates predicts that the number of worldwide OTT subscribers – households that subscribe to at least one online video service – will grow to 310 million by 2024.

These kinds of forecasts have always intrigued me. I doubt that there is anybody in the industry that doesn’t think that cord cutting won’t keep growing or that the market for services like Netflix won’t keep growing. What I find most interesting about these total-market forecasts is the specificity of the predictions, such as when Kagan predicts the 40.8 million number of broadband-only homes. I suspect if we did deeper into what Kagan says that they have probably predicted a range of possible future outcomes and were not that specific. But I also understand that sometimes putting a number on things is the best way to make a point in a press release.

What I’ve always found interesting about future predictions is how hard it is to predict where a whole industry is going. If I look back ten years I could find a dozen experts predicting the death of traditional landline telephones, and yet not one of them would have believed that by 2019 that landline penetration rates would still be around 40%. I imagine every one of them would have bet against that possibility. It’s easy to understand the trajectory of an industry, but it’s another thing to predict specifically where an industry will land in the future. It wasn’t hard ten years ago to predict the trajectory of the landline business, but it was nearly impossible to know how many landlines would still be around after ten years.

That doesn’t mean that somebody doesn’t have to try to make these predictions. There are huge dollars riding on the future of every telecom industry segment. Companies that invest in these industries want outside opinions on the direction of an industry. If I was developing a new OTT product like Apple is doing, I’d want some feel for the potential of my new investment. I’d want to gather as many different predictions about the future of the OTT market as possible. The above two predictions were announced publicly, but corporations regularly pay for private market assessments that never see the light of day.

To show how hard it is to make such predictions, I want to look a little more closely at the Kagan prediction. They are predicting that in five years there will be 17.5 million more homes that buy broadband and don’t buy a traditional TV product. There a number of factors and trends that would feed into that number:

  • It looks like first-time households of millennials and generation Z don’t subscribe to cable TV at nearly the same levels as their parents. Some portion of the increase in broadband-only homes will come from these new households.
  • While final numbers are still not in for 2018 it appears that there will be around 2 million homes that cut the cord last year and dropped cable TV. Is the future pace of cord cutting going to be faster, slow or stay the same? Obviously, predicting the future of cord cutting is a huge piece of the prediction.
  • It’s becoming a lot more complicated for a household to replace traditional cable. It looks like every major owner of content wants to put their unique content into a separate OTT service like CBS All Access did with the Star Trek franchise. The cost of subscribing to multiple OTT services is already getting expensive and is likely to get even costlier over time. Surveys have shown that households cut the cord to save money, so how will cord cutting be impacted if there are no savings from cutting the cord?
  • The big cable companies are creating new video products aimed at keeping subscribers. For instance, Comcast is bundling in Netflix and other OTT products and is also rolling out smaller and cheaper bundles of traditional programming. They are also allowing customers to view the content on any device, so buying a small bundle from Comcast doesn’t feel much different to the consumer than buying Sling TV. What impact will these countermeasures from the cable companies have on cord cutting?

I’m sure there are other factors that go into predicting the number of future homes without traditional cable TV and these few popped into my mind. I know that companies like Kagan and Parks have detailed current statistics on the industry that are not available to most of us. But statistics only take you so far, and anybody looking out past the end of 2019 is entering crystal ball territory. Five years is forever in a market that is as dynamic as cable TV and OTT content.

We aso know from past experience that there will be big changes in these industries that will change the paridigm. For example, the content owners might all decide that there is no profit in the OTT market and could kill their own OTT products and cause an OTT market contraction. Or a new entrant like Apple might become a major new competitor for Netflix and the demand for OTT services might explode even faster than expected. I don’t know how any prediction can anticipate big market events that might disrupt the whole industry.

Understand that I am not busting on these two predictions – I don’t know enough to have the slightest idea if these predictions are good are bad. These companies are paid to make their best guess and I’m glad that there are firms that do that. For example, Cisco has been making predictions annually for many years about the trajectory of broadband usage and that information is a valuable piece of the puzzle for a network engineer designing a new network. However, predicting how all of the different trends that affect video subscriptions over five years sounds like an unsolvable puzzle. Maybe if I’m still writing this blog five years from now I can check to see how these predictions fared.  One thing I know is that I’m not ready to take any five-year forecast of the cable industry to the bank.

Runaway Retransmission Fees

rabbit earsCBS just announced that they are making over $1 billion per year in retransmission fees. These fees are a big culprit in the continually steep price increases for cable TV.

Retransmission fees are the fees that the major over-the-air networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX) charge to cable companies for the right to air their content. These fees have been allowed in FCC rules for decades, but it’s been in the last ten years or so that the networks woke and up started charging cable companies to carry their content.

There are two slightly different ways that these fees work. The majority of the CBS stations around the country are owned by somebody else and are referred to as affiliate stations. CBS charges these affiliates a fee each year – which the industry calls reverse compensation – to give each station the right to carry the CBS programming. CBS and the other major networks increase these reverse compensation fees every year, and each affiliate station has little choice but to then pass those costs on as increased retransmission fees to cable operators.

CBS also directly owns 14 TV stations in major cities as well as two smaller stations. In these stations CBS directly charges the retransmission fees to the cable companies.

I call these fees runaway in the blog title because there doesn’t appear to be any end in sight for the size of these fees. At the end of 2015 CBS had estimated that these fees would grow to $2 billion by 2020. But they just now upped their estimate to $2.5 billion. To hit those targets from today’s $1 billion revenue figure means we’ll be seeing big increases in cable rates. And if CBS is raising the fees this much you can expect the same thing from the other major networks. This is verified by estimates from SNL Kagan who now estimates total retransmission fees in 2020 of $10.6 billion.

To put that number into perspective, there will roughly be around 90 million cable households by 2020. That means by then that the average retransmission cost per household will be $10 per month. But that average hides the real story. A lot of satellite subscriptions don’t include network channels, or if they carry some they come from one of the major markets like New York City or Chicago. I’ve always figured that the satellite guys are getting a greatly reduced price for those channels, which would benefit both them and the big station that sells bulk subscriptions. There are also many places in the country where the cable systems don’t carry all four networks, or they again carry some remote station at a reduced cost. When you consider all of that I’m guessing that the real cost per household for urban cable systems will be around $15 per household per month.

For years now the major networks have been saying that they deserve to get as much revenue as the most expensive cable networks – and that means ESPN. ESPN now costs over $6 per household per month. If the four major networks climb that high that will be $25 per household per month just for the four major networks. The irony is that most households can receive these networks for free with “rabbit ear” antennas.

But the FCC cable rules require that cable systems carry all local networks that can be received by people with rabbit ears. And that means that cable customers cannot opt out of receiving or paying for these channels in a cable subscription. The only way for a household to avoid these fees is to drop traditional cable packages completely.

A number of cable companies have begun to isolate the retransmission fees on customer bills and call it something like “local network charge.” But I don’t think the cable companies have done a very good job of explaining the retransmission fees to customers.

There are more households every year thinking about dropping cable, and for many of them the primary issue is price. As cable subscription prices keep climbing much faster than inflation my guess is that the cord cutting phenomenon is going to accelerate. There are OTT services now like Sling TV that will sell customers a high quality set of rabbit ears that can be easily incorporated with their content. There are a lot of households that will be happy to avoid paying for local networks if somebody can make it easy for them to do so.