Pay-TV’s Rising Sea Of Troubles

Change comes slowly, and then all at once. And it’s coming now to the pay-TV business.

For years — even as technology-driven disruption ravaged the music, publishing, and other media industries — the traditional pay-TV bundle largely held together despite a trickling away of subscribers to cord-cutting.

A big reason it hasn’t fallen apart until now is that programmers and operators shared in interest in keeping it together, even as they regularly clashed over carriage renewals. For programmers, bundling channels into a single carriage deal brings in incremental affiliate fees and increases advertising inventory; for operators, the big bundle helps sustain high ARPU rates and long-term subscriber contracts. Neither side had an incentive to fundamentally alter the structure of the business.

Even the emergence of over-the-top “skinny” bundles proved less disruptive than many expected as programmers successfully pushed OTT providers to fatten up their skinny offerings and raise prices to levels nearly comparable to traditional pay-TV subscriptions.

But the trickle of cord-cutting has now become a flood. And as the water rises programmers and operators have begun to turn on each other in earnest.

DirecTV-parent AT&T warned in an SEC filing this week that it lost 390,000 subscribers from its satellite and U-verse fiber-optic TV services in the the third quarter — far more than even the most bearish analysts had expected. While the telco made up some of that ground with the additional of 300,000 subscribers to its DirecTV Now OTT service, that still represents a trading-down in ARPU and exposed a growing rift between programmers and operators over the future of the business.

Viacom this week which is locked in a carriage-renewal standoff with Charter Communications, accused the No. 2 cable operator of trying to prevent Viacom from making deals with over-the-top distributors that compete with Charter.

“Among the issues we face is Charter’s attempt to inhibit the creation of smaller, more innovative and less expensive packages of the networks customers want, by penalizing Viacom if it participates in new skinny bundles or OTT streaming platforms,” CEO Bob Bakish said in a memo to employees obtained by Bloomberg News.

Meanwhile, the American Cable Association, which represents small operators, is accusing Comcast of trying to prevent ACA members from creating their own, sports-free skinny bundles that exclude regional sports networks such as those owned by Comcast in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and other markets.

“Those salad days of fat bundles, automatic carriage renewals and customary affiliate steps ups are long gone,” Citigroup Inc. analyst Jason Bazinet wrote in a note this week. “Today, every media and cable firm is jockeying for self-preservation.”

That’s just what disruption looks like.

X1 Marks the Spot for Comcast

Comcast and Netflix this week confirmed an agreement to incorporate Netflix’s streaming service into Comcast’s X1 video platform, signalling a dramatic shift in what has long been a contentious relationship between the companies.

“Comcast and Netflix have reached an agreement to incorporate Netflix into X1, providing seamless access to the great content offered by both companies,” the two said in a joint statement given to Recode.  “We have much work to do before the service will be available to consumers later this year. We’ll provide more details at that time.”

netflix_blockThat’s a far cry from a few years ago when Netflix CEO Reed Hastings was working overtime to turn Comcast into public enemy number one in the net neutrality fight and Comcast was imposing interconnection fees on Netflix for access to its last-mile network.

But the shift is more likely the result of a change in circumstances than a change of heart. Read More »

In Cable, The Rich Get Richer

Daniel Frankel, over at FierceCable, noted an interesting pattern in the Q1 data from cable operators this week. All of the vaunted rebound in video subscribers during the period was concentrated among top-tier providers.

Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter collectively added 89,000 video subs.

Mid-size operators, however, all experienced continued erosion among video subscribers. Cablevision lost 15,000; Cable One lost 13,000; and Mediacom lost 2,000 across its two operating units.

money_bagsFirst-quarter data on smaller providers, which is compiled by SNL Kagan, is not yet available. But it would be surprising if the pattern there were different from that of the mid-size providers.

In both cases, operators are increasingly making a de facto, if not quite formal, decision not to fight very hard to attract or retain video subscribers because of the high programming costs that come with them and to focus their business primarily on their broadband service.

“The lower end of the market can no longer afford the big bundle; the number of disruptive OTT technologies and vendors are now multiplying rapidly; and the millennial generation has very limited interest in traditional TV viewing,” Cable One CEO Thomas Might told Fierce. “These patterns will inevitably bring an end to the ubiquitous fat bundle, but only slowly and painfully.”

Slowly and painfully perhaps, but the data also suggest it could happen at very different speeds in different markets, depending on the size of the local providers’ national footprint. Read More »

Cable’s Q4 Bundle of Joy

Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter all reported strong video subscriber growth in the fourth quarter of 2015, adding 172,000 between them. That was a far cry from a year earlier, when they collectively lost 35,000 video subs.

The results led some to speculate that the worst days of cord-cutting are now behind the industry and that cord-nevers may be starting to change their minds about paying for TV.

Maybe, although the pay-TV industry as a whole continues to lose subscribers, at a rate of about 1 percent a year, according to an estimate by comcast_vanMoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett. Most of that shrinkage in the fourth quarter came from telco and satellite providers, as those two businesses undergo restructurings.

Between them, Verizon’s FiOS TV service and the combined AT&T/DirecTV lost 6,000 video subscribers in the quarter, as Verizon shifted its video focus to its new mobile streaming service Go90 while AT&T shed U-Verse subscribers as it prepared to swallow DirecTV.

In Comcast’s Q4 earnings call, CEO Brian Roberts acknowledged that some of cable’s gain last year probably reflected a market share shift, reversing several years in which cable was losing share to satellite and telco. Read More »

Zero Tolerance

As the FCC awaits the fate of its open internet order (a.k.a. net neutrality) in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, language that could have mooted much of the legal case by limiting the commission’s authority to regulate internet access was stripped at the last minute from the 2000-page omnibus spending bill unveiled by congressional leaders Tuesday night to keep the government running into 2016.

The removal of the rider was a blow to ISPs, which had lobbied to keep the language in the spending bill, but net neutrality advocates have found plenty of other things to complain about lately regarding the behavior of ISPs. Top of the charts: the growing number of streaming services ISPs are selectively exempting from data caps.

FCC_buildingIn just the past three months:

  • T-Mobile introduced its Binge On plan, which allows mobile users to stream video from roughly two-dozen “partner” services, including Netflix, HBO Now, Sling TV, MLB.tv, Showtime and Starz, without those bits counting against a subscriber’s data cap;
  • Comcast launched Stream TV in a handful of markets, a live and on-demand streaming service that, unlike Netflix, for instance will not count against Comcast subscribers’ data caps where those are in place (as no doubt they soon will be everywhere);
  • Verizon launched Go90, its in-house streaming service for which data usage is “sponsored” by advertisers and therefore isn’t counted toward the user’s data cap;
  • AT&T hinted broadly that it, too, will launch a mobile streaming service that, like Verizon’s Go90, would be “sponsored” by someone other than the user.

Read More »

Pay-TV Operators Eye Mobile Video To Reduce Subscriber Costs

AT&T officials offered some pretty eye-popping numbers this week on the impact of the DirecTV acquisition on the bottom line. Speaking at the Goldman Sachs Communicopia conference in New York AT&T CFO John Stephens said DirecTV pays $17 a month less per subscriber in content costs “on an apples-to-apples basis” compared to what AT&T has been paying per U-Verse subscriber.

AT&T is now working to “bring those prices in line” by moving everything to “the most efficient contract pricing in the house,” which is the DirecTV price. “So with 6 million U-Verse subscribers you can get your head around about $100 million a month,” in savings, he said, or $1.2 billion per year. “That’s sort of the easy math on iphone_TVhow you can conceptualize the scale” of the savings.

The math could soon get even easier for AT&T. “Right now we have 75 million smartphones and tablets and 50 million broadband locations that we don’t sell video to today,” Stephens said. “So we have 125 million locations we can take to the content team and say, let’s work together to sell something. It doesn’t have to be an adversarial situation, it’s here’s your growth and we built this integrated carrier model to take advantage of that.” Read More »

Comcast Antes Up For a Peak At New Media Data

This post originally appeared at Smart Content News.

That $45 billion Comcast did not get to spend on Time Warner Cable seems to be burning a hole in its pocket.

On Monday, Comcast announced it would invest $200 million in BuzzFeed at a valuation of $1.5 billion, giving the old-line cable MSO entree to BuzzFeed’s more than 200 million unique monthly visitors, including 82.4 million in the increasingly elusive 18-34 age group.

“BuzzFeed has built an exceptional global company that harmonizes technology, data and superior editorial abilities to create and share content in innovative ways,” BuzzFeed_BadgesNBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke said in a statement. “They reach a massive, loyal audience and have proven to be among the most creative, popular and influential new media players. We are pleased to be making this investment and for our companies to partner and work together.”

The BuzzFeed deal comes one week after Comcast unveiled a similar $200 million investment in Vox Media, valuing the parent of SB Nation, The Verge and Vox.com at roughly $1 billion.

Comcast is also reportedly planning to launch a new digital video service called Watchable that will focus on original, unlicensed content and made available to Comcast subscribers with an X1 set-top box. Read More »

The FCC’s Imperfect Path To Increased Video Competition

The conditions the Federal Communications Commission has attached to its approval of AT&T’s merger with DirecTV are being met with a predictably mixed response. Some groups, such as Comptel, a Washington-based lobbying group representing Netflix, Amazon, Cogent Communications, Level 3 and other network operators and service providers, praised the FCC for requiring AT&T to disclose details of its network interconnection deals. Others, such as Free Press, blasted the conditions for not going “nearly far enough” to address the problem of pay-TV consolidation.

Here’s what we know, from a statement issued Wednesday by FCC chairman Tom Wheeler:

An order recommending that the AT&T/DirecTV transaction be approved with conditions has circulated to the Commissioners. The proposed order outlines Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler gestures at the FCC Net Neutrality hearinga number of conditions that will directly benefit consumers by bringing more competition to the broadband marketplace. If the conditions are approved by my colleagues, 12.5 million customer locations will have access to a competitive high-speed fiber connection. This additional build-out is about 10 times the size of AT&T’s current fiber-to-the-premise deployment, increases the entire nation’s residential fiber build by more than 40 percent, and more than triples the number of metropolitan areas AT&T has announced plans to serve.

In addition, the conditions will build on the Open Internet Order already in effect, addressing two merger-specific issues. First, in order to prevent discrimination against online video competition, AT&T will not be permitted to exclude affiliated video services and content from data caps on its fixed broadband connections. Second, in order to bring greater transparency to interconnection practices, the company will be required to submit all completed interconnection agreements to the Commission, along with regular reports on network performance.

Importantly, we will require an independent officer to help ensure compliance with these and other proposed conditions. These strong measures will protect consumers, expand high-speed broadband availability, and increase competition.

Read More »

Netflix Flexes Its Muscles

Having played a pivotal role in persuading the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice to reject Comcast’s attempted merger with Time Warner Cable, Netflix has seemingly done an about face and given its blessing to Charter Communications’ bid to acquire TWC. In a letter to the FCC dated July 15, VP of global public policy Christopher D. Libertelli said, “Netflix  supports the proposed Charter – Time Warner Cable transaction if it incorporates the merger condition proposed by Charter.”

reed_hastingsKey to the apparent change of heart was precisely that “merger condition proposed by Charter,” specifically a commitment by Charter to offer settlement-free peering with edge providers like Netflix across its entire expanded footprint.

“Charter’s new peering policy is a welcome and significant departure from the efforts of some ISPs to collect access tolls on the Internet,” Libertelli wrote. “Charter’s policy will promote efficient interconnection with on line content providers and with the transit and content delivery services that smaller online content providers rely on to reach their consumers. Charter’s endorsement of the policy as an enforceable merger condition will ensure that consumers will receive the fast connection speeds they expect.”

Charter outlined the new policy in a separate filing with the FCC, also dated July 15.

Comcast’s successful effort to impose interconnection fees on Netflix was the main reason Netflix aggressively opposed Comcast’s bid for TWC. Peering agreements were also the main focus of Netflix’s lobbying in support of net neutrality, urging the FCC to require open interconnection policies as part of its Open Internet order (in the end the FCC did not include specific rules for interconnection arrangements in its order, but set up a process for reviewing complaints against ISPs brought by consumers or edge providers). Read More »

From Over-The-Air To Over-The-Top

The over-the-top dam seems to be breaking for over-the-air broadcasters. Comcast announced last week that it will introduce a new streaming service called Stream later this summer, starting in Boston, that will offer access to local broadcast channels plus HBO and a mix of on-demand content for $15 a month. Seattle and Chicago will follow the Boston launch, with rollout to Comcast’s full footprint planned for 2016.

This week brought a new indications that over-the-air channels will also be core components of Apple’s planned OTT service when it launches later this year.

According watch_abc_tabletto a report in the NY Post, Apple’s talks with ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox are “rapidly gaining momentum” and now include access to the networks’ local affiliates’ feeds. That dovetails with an earlier report on Re/Code that the launch of Apple’s OTT service was being delayed to allow time to clear rights to local TV content.

According to the reports, Apple asked the networks to go back and get the streaming rights to their affiliates’ feeds. After initially balking, the networks agreed, and several major affiliate groups are now reportedly on board.

Previously, the networks had largely kept their content off third-party OTT platforms, preferring to launch their own proprietary apps like CBS All Access and Watch ABC. Read More »

Comcast’s Bid for Time Warner Cable Gets Bundled Away

In his statement on Comcast’s decision to drop its $45 billion bid for Time Warner Cable, Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler made it clear his agency was concerned about the merger’s potential impact on the development of the over-the-top video market:

Today, an online video market is emerging that offers new business models and greater consumer choice. The proposed merger would have posed an unacceptable risk to competition and innovation especially given the growing importance of high-speed broadband to online video and innovative new services.

nbc-comcastSo, too, was the U.S. Justice Department, according to a separate statement by Attorney General Eric Holder:

 This is a victory not only for the Department of Justice, but also for providers of content and streaming services who work to bring innovative products to consumers across America and around the world.

It was certainly a victory for content owners and providers, many of whom, such as Discovery and Netflix, had lobbied aggressively against the merger and cheered the deal’s collapse. But “content owners and providers” is a group that very much includes Comcast, by virtue of its owning NBC Universal, lending an unavoidable measure of irony to the outcome here. Read More »

Apple’s Least-Favored Network: NBC

Ever since the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month on Apple’s evolving plans to launch a multichannel subscription streaming video service, much has been made, largely by those already inclined to be suspicious of Comcast’s motives, of the reported absence of Comcast-owned NBC from the talks Apple is said to be holding with the other broadcast networks.

apple_tv“It appears from press reports that Comcast may be withholding its affiliated NBC Universal (“NBCU”) content in an effort to thwart the entry of potential new video competitors. Apple reportedly is planning a Fall 2015 launch for an over-the-top (“OTT”) bundle of TV channels,” the consortium Stop Mega Comcast wrote to the FCC last week. “If the reports are accurate about Apple, it would be consistent with Comcast’s prior conduct in attempting to leverage affiliated content to thwart rival services, even when faced with merger conditions.” Read More »

TV vs. Cable

The Media Wonk spent last week in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show where, everybody said, 3DTV would be the big story. And sure enough, nearly everywhere you went on the show floor folks were sporting either polarized shades or the full Geordi La Forge wraparounds and squinting at the new 3D displays tucked into carefully light-controlled alcoves of the display booths, like so many bug-eyed NFL refs going under the hood.

Yet for all the hoopla over 3D, the really important TV story out of CES was the explosion of embedded applications on Internet-capable HDTVs and Blu-ray players for bringing over-the-top (i.e. Internet-delivered) video into the living room. A year ago at CES there were only a few such TV sets on display, from a handful of manufacturers, and about all you could do with them was run a few Yahoo widgets and stream Netflix movies. At this year’s show, it was hard to find a home entertainment device that wasn’t Internet-ready, and if it didn’t come with its own app store it came embedded with one of the growing number of online content platforms from the likes of Vudu, DivX, Rovi and Boxee, among others.

Far more than 3D, set-makers’ growing commitment to enabling over-the-top video delivery to HDTV screens holds the potential to shake up the future evolution of the TV business. Read More »

Getting nowhere on TV Everywhere

The Media Wonk is en route to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show as this is being written, where I expect to be inundated with all things 3D. Between taking off from Washington, DC and a stopover in Minneapolis, however (there’s a reason Delta Airlines went bankrupt awhile back, by the way), my BlackBerry was bombarded with “urgent” communiqués from all sides of what looks to be shaping up as a nasty policy fight over TV Everywhere.

The hoo-hah appears to have started with an item in the Washington Post Monday about calls on federal antitrust regulators by various public interest groups spearheaded by Free Press to begin immediately to investigate TV Everywhere. The calls were ostensibly prompted by a “study” paid for by Free Press, which purportedly discovered that TV Everywhere is actually a plot by “giant cable, satellite and phone companies,” along with Time Warner, to “eliminate the threat of online competition,” so they can continue to gouge consumers.

“This is a textbook antitrust violation,” thundered University of Nebraska law professor Marvin Ammori, the study’s author. “The old media giants are working together to kill off innovative online competitors and carve up the market for themselves…The antitrust authorities should not stand by and let the cable cartel crush Internet TV before it gets off the ground.” Read More »