The Cable Industry – 4Q 2017

It was just a year ago where there were numerous industry articles asking if cord cutting was real. There were many who thought that cord cutting would fizzle out and would not be a big deal for the cable industry. But the numbers are not from Leichtman Research Group for the end of 2017 and it shows that cord cutting is now quite real. The following numbers compare the fourth quarters of 2017 and 2016.

4Q 2017 4Q 2016 Change
Comcast 22,357,000 22,508,000 (151,000) -0.7%
DirecTV 20,458,000 21,012,000 (554,000) -2.6%
Charter 16,997,000 17,236,000 (239,000) -1.4%
Dish 11,030,000 12,025,000 (995,000) -8.3%
AT&T 3,657,000 4,281,000 (624,000) -14.6%
Cox 4,200,000 4,290,000 (90,000) -2.1%
Verizon 4,619,000 4,694,000 (75,000) -1.6%
Altice 3,405,500 3,534,500 (129,000) -3.6%
Frontier 961,000 1,145,000 (184,000) -16.1%
Mediacom 821,000 835,000 (14,000) -1.7%
Cable ONE 283,001 320,246 (37,245) -11.6%
 Total 88,788,501 91,880,746 (3,092,245) -3.4%

These companies represent roughly 95% of the entire cable market, so these numbers tell the story of the whole market. From what I can see from many of my clients, many small cable companies are likely doing even worse than the big companies.

What’s probably the most significant from these numbers to me is that the overall industry cable penetration dropped to 70% by the end of 2017, down from a high of a few years ago of 75%. There were 126.2 million households at the end of 2017, per statistica, and only 70% of them are buying traditional cable – and that number has certainly dropped more into 2018.

The rate of growth of cord cutting is increasing. In 2016 the industry lost just over 1 million customers and in one year that grew to over 3 million.

It’s not hard to see where these customer went. FierceCable reported recently that 5% (over 6 million) of US households subscribe to a vMVPD service – these are online services that carry smaller bundles of traditional cable channels like Sling TV, Playstation Vue and DirecTV Now. It’s easy to forget that just a year ago most of these services were just getting started.

It’s worth noting that AT&T overall saw only a minor drop in total cable subscribers. While AT&T and their DirecTV subsidiary lost 1.2 million customers, DirecTV now has just over 1.1 million customers. But this still has to be hurting the company since analysts all believe that the margins on the vMVPD services are much slimmer than traditional cable.

Of other note are the large percentage losses of cable customers at Dish, Frontier and Cable One.

Another way to consider these losses is on a daily basis, and the industry lost nearly 8,500 customers per calendar day during the year.

It’s obvious in looking at these number that the cable industry is now in the same kind of free fall we saw a decade ago with landline telephones. The phenomenon is widespread and 3 million cord cutters means this is every neighborhood in the country. I believe that the pace of cord cutting will continue to accelerate. It’s looked around my own neighborhood and I can’t find anybody who hasn’t either cut the cord or is thinking about doing so.

What surprises me the most is that the big cable companies are not in screaming to the Congress and the FCC to change the rules governing traditional cable. Those rules force the big channel line-ups, and the cord cutting shows that people can be happy with far less than what the programmers are selling. The cable company could be offering more of the skinny bundles offered by the vMVPDs and could retain more bundled customers.

Walking Away from Cable

Several different events in the last week got me thinking about an interesting trend in the cable industry. First, in my community there is a Redbox outlet in a neighborhood grocery store. My wife and I were discussing how busy they seem to be in renting out movie DVDs. All of the Blockbuster and other movie rental outlets have closed. Until I moved to this neighborhood recently I hadn’t notice any video stores or related outlets in a long time. But this Redbox seemed to have a lot of business.

I also saw an article in FierceCable that noted that only 5% of US households have subscribed to a vMVPD – an online cable provider like Sling TV, DirecTV Now or Playstation Vue. My first thought is that a 5% market penetration seems pretty phenomenal for an industry that is barely two years old. But the article notes that while 5% of households are current subscribers to online programming, another 8% of the market has tried and dropped one of the services. Since only about 20% of the total households don’t have traditional cable service it makes you wonder what the real upper potential for this market might be – it might be a lot smaller than the vMVPDs are hoping for.

I also went to a Superbowl party. The half dozen families attending are from my neighborhood and it turns out all of the households are cord cutters and don’t subscribe to traditional cable service. I was the only one that used a vMVPD and I currently have a subscription to Playstation Vue. None of them had tried a vMVPD and they seemed to have no interest in doing so. (I only use Playstation Vue because it’s the cheapest way to get Big10 sports and Fox Sportsnet so I can watch Maryland sports teams – I rarely watch the other linear programming).

National broadband penetration rates are now at 84% of all households. I’ve seen many of the opponents of spending money to build rural broadband say that households just want broadband to watch video. Netflix has made a huge dent in the market and served nearly 55 million US homes at the end of 2017. Add to that some percentage of the 90 million homes that subscribe to Amazon Prime, and it seems like there might be some truth in that.

But if households are cutting the cord, why aren’t more of them buying one of the on-line cable alternatives? Those services have packages that carry only the most popular cable channels at half the price of buying traditional cable.

I think the answer is a combination of two factors. One of the predominant factors is price. Every family at the neighborhood party has kids and they dropped traditional cable because it was too expensive. That has to be the factor that explains why the Redbox outlet is doing so well. Most of the movies available from Redbox are also available online. But getting online means also having an Internet-enabled TV or else buying a Roku or other web interface. And even then, watching many of these newer movies means subscribing to yet a different online service. I think there is a cost barrier, or perhaps a technology barrier that is keeping households using a traditional DVD player and Redbox.

Two different households at the party told me that they were satisfied with just watching Netflix and the free programming available on YouTube. And that is the second important trend. Households are getting used to watching just a subset of the programming that is available to them. When somebody drops cable TV and doesn’t buy a vMVPD service it means they have walked away from all of the content that is available only in those two media.

Most of my neighbors still watch the major networks using rabbit ears (something I don’t do). So they are still watching whatever is available on local CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX. But the families on my street are learning to live without the Game of Thrones, or the Walking Dead. They are no longer watching ESPN, Discovery, Comedy Central, the Food Network and the hundreds of channels that make up traditional cable TV.

This means their kids are not growing up watching traditional cable networks, and thus are not developing any brand loyalty to those networks or their programming. If you don’t learn to love a network when you are a teenager, will you decide to watch it when you are older?

I don’t have any answers to these questions, and obviously I can’t define a trend just from talking with some of my neighbors. But I found it intriguing that they all had dropped traditional cable and had not replaced that programming with something online. This tells me that there must be a lot of people who are not enamored with linear programming whether it’s on cable or online. And a lot of people are convincing themselves that it’s okay to walk completely away from the big pile of programming that is offered by the cable TV networks.

This is potentially a watershed phenomenon, because somebody that walks away from traditional programming is probably not coming back. These folks are cord cutters who are literally walking away from most of the programming available on traditional cable. Those networks and their programming are going to become irrelevant to them. But interestingly they are still going to consume a lot of video content – just not that created by the traditional cable networks. In my mind these households are looking a lot like Generation Z in that they are foregoing traditional programming and watching something else.

The vMVPDs are banking that people will transition down to their smaller packages when they leave a cable TV provider. But will they? This is a phenomenon that you can’t determine from industry-wide statistics, other than perhaps by seeing the dropping number of paid subscriptions to the various cable networks. People like my neighbors are dropping cable due to the expense, but they are quickly learning to live without traditional cable programming and aren’t chasing the online alternatives.

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.