OTT News, March 2017

There is a lot of activity going on with web-based video. There are offerings that are starting to look like serious contenders to traditional cable packages.

Comcast Integrates YouTube. Comcast has made a deal with Google to integrate YouTube into the Comcast X1 settop box. This follows last year’s announcement that Comcast is also integrating Netflix. Comcast also says they are working to integrate other SVOD platforms.

Comcast is making a lot of moves to keep themselves relevant for customers and to make the X1 box a key piece of electronics in the home. The box also acts as the hub for their smart home product, Xfinity Home.

One has to think that Comcast has worked out some sort of revenue sharing arrangements with Google and Netflix, although all details of these arrangements have not been reported. The most customer-friendly aspect of these integrations is that the Comcast X1 box is now voice-activated and customers can surf Netflix and YouTube by talking to the box.

Sling TV Adds More Sports. Sling TV has made another move that will make it attractive to more customers by adding the Comcast regional sports networks (RSNs) to their line-up. This includes CSN California, CSN Bay Area, CSN Chicago and CSN Mid-Atlantic. These networks carry a lot of unique sports content that is not easily available anywhere else on-line today. The networks carry pro basketball, pro baseball and a number of college sports. For example, CSN Bay Area is the home station for the popular Golden state Warriors. CSN Mid-Atlantic is the home station for the Baltimore Orioles.

I know in talking to my sports-centric friends that the narrow sports content on-line is the number one issue holding them back from switching to an OTT package. There are still other networks that Sling TV would need to add, like the Big Ten Network and the NFL Channel, to be a totally rounded sports provider. But they have already added a credible sports line-up that includes all the ESPN channels, the SEC Network, the ACC Network, NBA TV, the NHL Channel, the PAC12 Network and a few other sports networks like Univision TDN.

YouTube Launching an OTT Line-up. Cable TV just got another new OTT competitor. The new service is called YouTube TV and brings a fourth major OTT competitor along with Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, and DirecTV Now. The platform is going to launch sometime in the next few months, with no firm release date yet. The basic product will be $35 per month and allows customers to turn the service off and on at will.

YouTube TV will carry the typical network channels as well as ESPN, Disney, Bravo and Fox News – a line-up that sounds similar to its competition. The service will come with unlimited cloud DVR storage. It will allow 3 simultaneous streams per account and 6 user profiles per account. They will first launch in a few major urban markets (probably due to the availability of the local channels for various network channels).

If YouTube has any advantage in the marketplace it’s that they are becoming the preferred content choice for a lot of millennials. The company says they now are delivering over a billion hours per day of content. Millennials are leading the trend of cord cutters (and even more so of cord nevers), and if YouTube can tap that market they should do great.

Dish Network Predicts OTT will Replace Traditional TV. For the first time, Dish Networks Chairman and CEO said he thought that OTT programming is the real future of video. Until now the company, which owns Sling TV, has said that their product was aimed at bringing video to cord cutters.

But Sling TV and the other OTT products are getting a lot better. Sling TV now has over 100 channels that provide a wide set of options for customers. And these channels are not packed into a giant must-take line-up like traditional cable packages, and instead provide a number of smaller packages that a customer can add to the Sling TV base package. Sling TV and the other providers also make it easy for customers to add or subtract packages or come and go from the whole platform at will – something that can’t be done with cable companies.

Certainly Sling TV has made a difference for Dish. The company has been bleeding satellite customers and had customer losses for the last ten quarters. But the company had a small customer gain of 28,000 customers in the fourth quarter due to the popularity of Sling TV. The company does not report customers by satellite and OTT, so we don’t know the specific numbers.

Comcast Labs

comcast-truck-cmcsa-cmcsk_largeIt’s easy to think of all of the big ISPs in the industry as roughly equivalent in terms of services, technology, and customer experience. But Comcast has invested in Comcast Labs, a research and development branch of the company that is starting to distinguish Comcast from the rest of the industry.

Comcast Labs has branches in Silicon Valley, Seattle, Philadelphia, Denver and Washington D.C. The Lab employs 40 PhDs, 10 Distinguished Fellows and hundreds of engineers and active inventors, all very focused on telecommunications and product research.

The lab is different than the more familiar Bell Labs, which has always done a lot of pure research and not just telecom research. Comcast Labs is very focused on developing specific products for the company as well as looking for ways to improve the Comcast networks.

The impact from Comcast labs is pretty easy to see. They developed the X1 settop box platform which is regarded as the most innovative box in the industry. The platform includes an easy to use navigation system and cloud-based DVR and can be used to control up to five TVs in a home. They are constantly developing new features and during the recent Olympics they rolled out a remote with voice control (you talk to the remote).

They have also developed a fully integrated set of home automation features marketed at Xfinity Home. Comcast Labs developed a custom hub, rather than relying on a hub made by somebody else. The company so far has integrated a number of home automation features into the platform which includes security, thermostat, water sensors, cameras, door locks, etc., all controlled from a smartphone or from a TV.

Comcast Labs doesn’t only develop consumer devices and you can read about some of their other research on their blog. The company has adopted the concept of moving network control to open source software and is heavily invested in OpenStack and GitHub development. They are also researching a future migration to IP video, which would free up more of the network for delivery of data.

http://labs.comcast.com/

The company and the Labs are also researching areas that will have a long-term benefit to the company such as finding network solutions that use less energy and moving towards a software defined network to be more flexible and to more quickly implement solutions nationwide.

A high-level Comcast executive recently bragged that the company through Comcast Labs could solve problems and deliver solutions within weeks that would take other companies in the industry many months or years.

I find it interesting that the company doesn’t talk a lot about Comcast Labs. There are very few articles on the organization outside of the Comcast websites and I assume that they dissuade those at the Labs giving interviews to outsiders.

But it’s clear that Comcast Labs provides the company with a lot of solutions that would not come from off-the-shelf electronics and solutions. This puts the company on par with Google, Facebook and AT&T as companies that have largely withdrawn from the normal industry vendors and taken their own path by developing their own equipment and solutions.

Of course, the company doesn’t operate in a vacuum. For instance, the FCC is currently strongly considering a requirement that the industry develop a standard solution to allow customers to buy off-the-shelf settop boxes. The custom X1 box that Comcast Labs has developed goes in the exact opposite direction of what the FCC is looking at and the company would probably have a hard time complying with such an order.

But overall Comcast Labs provides the company with a resource that other telcos can’t match. The company is constantly rolling out new features and products that companies without a research arm will not be able to match. I’m sure the reason for this research is to create more loyal customers by providing features and services that they can’t get elsewhere. I guess time will tell how good this strategy is, but it’s hard to argue with success, and as much as people like to complain about the company they are growing faster than anybody else in the industry in terms of new customers.

What’s Up With Cable?

Fatty_watching_himself_on_TVThe results for 2014 are in, so today I am going to take a fresh look at the cable industry. The largest nine traditional cable companies lost just under 1.2 million cable customers in 2014, an improvement over the 1.7 million they lost in 2013. But looking at the bigger picture, the top thirteen cable companies lost only 125,000 customers for the year, which is slightly higher than 95,000 in 2013. Within those numbers, Direct TV and Dish Networks together added 20,000 subscribers for the year and Verizon and AT&T added just under 1.1 million cable customers for the year, down from 1.4 million from the prior year.

The industry as a whole is hanging solid and these thirteen companies have 95.2 million customers. Hidden in these numbers is the growth of cord cutters. For a number of years running, the cable industry as a whole has been slightly shrinking even though there is roughly one million new households entering the market each year.

Of course, the growth for the cable companies is in broadband. The largest cable companies in the group added 2.6 million high-speed data customers in 2014, while AT&T added 1,000 and Verizon 190,000. Time Warner Cable said in their annual report this year that their data product has a 97% margin, a number that opened a lot of eyes.

There are two other trends that are not captured in these numbers. First is the growth in time spent by people watching online programming like Netflix and Amazon Prime; and with that a corresponding decrease in time spent watching traditional cable TV programming. The overall hours spent per viewer for traditional cable dropped 4.4% for the year, but Nielsen reported that this was accelerating at the end of 2014. The most shocking number published this year came from Nielsen which reported that over 10 million millennials had largely fled linear TV just in the last year. Primetime viewing dropped by 12% during 2014 as more viewers are changing to time-shifted viewing.

The other trend is in the continued increase in rates. Most of the cable companies are reporting profits up 7–9%, due in part to more data customers, but also due to continued rate increases. As an example, Cablevision raised cable rates by 5.3% last year, or $7.86 and their average revenue per customer is now up to $155.20. It’s a bit mind boggling to think that’s the average and that there are a lot of households paying a lot more than that.

For yet another year the largest cable companies came in dead last in nationwide customer satisfaction surveys. This puts cable companies behind banks, airlines, and large chain stores and the satisfaction scoring for the cable companies dropped significantly just since 2013.

There is anxiety in cable boardrooms. Just in the last weeks there have been mixed signals from Wall Street when some industry analysts downgraded cable stocks due to the FCC’s net neutrality ruling, while others said there would be no significant impact from it. I tend to side with the second crowd since the FCC has excused broadband from rate (and most other kinds of hands-on) regulation.

But the real anxiety comes from a look at the demographics supporting the industry. The average age of cable viewers is increasing quickly as younger people eschew watching traditional TV. The average age of viewers for many shows and networks is now over 55, up sharply from even a decade ago. This is already starting to be felt in terms of advertising revenues, with the pre-sale for the current ad season down sharply from 2013.

There is also a lot of anxiety over Over-the-Top (OTT) programming on the web. It seems like there are weekly announcements of new alternatives coming online. The biggest recent shocks were when HBO, Disney, and ESPN said they would have some product on the web. These have been considered the bedrock channels of the cable company line-ups. Sling TV seems to be doing well with an abbreviated line-up (but which keeps growing). Sony is supposed to be unveiling what they are calling a major new online product later this year, and there are another dozen companies trying to put together web TV packages. The FCC is also looking at changing the rules that might make it easier for online content providers to obtain programming. The feeling is that 2015 is possibly going to be a sea change year and that we will start to see major shifts in the industry.

Meanwhile, programmers keep raising the rates they charge to cable companies, and the rate of programming increases is accelerating. Many programmers don’t seem overly concerned about the problems faced by the cable companies because many of them expect to have content included in online packages, and many are seeing explosive growth internationally in subscribers.

Liberty Media chairman John Malone chastised the industry recently for not implementing TV everywhere fast enough. That is the product that lets customers watch programming on any device on their own time. He says that this is probably the number one reason why Netflix and others have fared so well (which does sort of ignore the cost issue).

The larger cable companies are putting more effort into this area as witnessed by the new X1 settop boxes that Comcast is deploying. They have reported that there is significantly less churn from customers who have the newer technology. What can be said is that the industry is in turmoil. It may not look so bad when looking at customer numbers, but everybody in the industry senses that things are going to start changing quickly.

As an aside, I know somebody with the new X1 box and they tell me a different story than what Comcast is publicly saying. They recently moved and were given the new X1 box and they hate it. It regularly won’t record shows, or it goes offline and they can’t access regular programming or their recorded programming. They’ve asked repeatedly to get back their old style of box. They instead have been given numerous credits and one manager, as he was giving them a credit, admitted that Comcast had rolled out the new box too fast and there were problems with it everywhere. They have called several times to cancel but have instead been given another credit. When I told them what I was writing, they speculated that there is less churn because Comcast is just not letting people go. I don’t know how widespread the problems are with the new box, but cable companies have been known to withhold bad news from investors in the past.