Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Why the status quo in the U.S. cable business can't hold

The more that I look at the U.S. cable, satellite and IPTV business, the more I realize that "business as usual" is eventually doomed. Cable companies' core business for more than 50 years has been to sell access to bundles of broadcast and cable-only channels, which are accessed through the use of proprietary set-top boxes, to consumers. Starting in the late 1990s, cable operators started adding access to high-speed Internet services, which ride in and out of consumers' homes on available bandwidth not used for video. A few years later, cable operators added Voice over IP telephony services, which use the same bandwidth as high-speed Internet. IPTV companies offer the same service, but in the reverse order: First came analog voice telephony, more than 100 years ago. Then, DSL came in the 1990s for high-speed Internet service, and finally, AT&T, Verizon and others added broadcast and cable-only television channels, accessible through proprietary set-top boxes.

Today's cable and IPTV operators look very similar so far as consumers are concerned, and they both face the same business challenges: Retransmission and carriage fees. Retransmission fees are intended to compensate broadcasters for the use of their programming by video operators. Carriage fees provide compensation to cable network operators. It used to be that some cable networks would pay video operators to carry their programming, in order to sell advertising that would reach the widest possible audiences. Today, however, almost all cable networks charge video operators to supply their programming to consumers.

Until 2008's Great Recession, broadcasters and cable networks got most of their revenues from advertising. Broadcasters kept their retransmission fees low, or waived them altogether if video operators agreed to carry cable channels provided by the broadcasters' parent companies. Cable networks generally also kept their carriage fees relatively low, in order to get into the widest possible number of households. After 2008, however, all that changed. Broadcasters' advertising revenues dropped (in some cases, dramatically,) so they needed to make up for lost income. In addition, broadcast networks, which had been paying television stations to carry their programming, began charging stations for programming or demanded a portion of the stations' retransmission fees. Similarly, cable networks started increasing their carriage fees to replace lost advertising revenues.

Early on, video operators absorbed the price increases from content providers as best they could, knowing that they couldn't pass the increases on to customers in the form of higher rates during a recession. Now, however, not a week goes by where a video operator isn't threatening to drop a broadcast station or cable network because it's too expensive, or a broadcaster or cable network isn't threatening to cut off a video operator. Video operators are trying to disguise consumer rate increases as things like "concierge" services, where they charge for services that consumers used to get for free. And today, Cablevision filed an antitrust lawsuit against Viacom, charging the company with forcing cable operators to license a bundle of 14 unpopular cable networks in order to get access to popular ones such as Comedy Central and Nickelodeon.

This situation can't persist for much longer. In many markets, subscription prices have reached the maximum that consumers are willing to pay, and consumers have gotten wise to video operators' pricing tactics: Offer low "teaser" rates to get consumers to switch, and then start raising rates frequently, and often silently, once their introductory deals expire. Consumers respond by cancelling services, switching video operators, and in the worst case, dropping video services altogether and switching to over-the-air broadcasts and over-the-top Internet video.

Within a decade, I believe that most cable and IPTV companies will be well on the way to dropping their video services. Consumers will purchase their own set-top boxes, and similar functionality will be built directly into new televisions. Some set-top box vendors will also aggregate content. Rather than the plethora of formats for publishing video that work on set-top boxes from Apple, Google, Intel, Roku, etc., a single standard protocol will enable content providers to publish channels and on-demand video that will work with most set-top boxes, and will show up in the devices' program guides. Cable and IPTV companies are likely to partner with set-top box vendors and receive a portion of their revenue from consumer subscriptions.

Consumers would get the "a la carte" cable channel choices that they've been asking for--but at a price. For example, Disney's ESPN might make its primary ESPN channel available by itself to subscribers for $6.95/month--but price the entire ESPN channel lineup at $12.95/month, thus making it more attractive to pay more but get everything. This strategy would work for the rest of Disney, as well as Viacom, CBS, Discovery, Fox, NBC Universal and others.

The cable and IPTV operators would compete on other services and benefits--who offers the fastest and most reliable high-speed Internet service, the simplest and most useful home networking, the best home automation and security packages, etc. All of these would be services that the cable and IPTV operators would provide themselves--thus, they wouldn't be subject to ever-increasing financial demands from cable networks and broadcasters. By literally wiring their services deep into households, it would be much harder for consumers to switch from one service provider to another, which should decrease churn levels.

The war among video operators, broadcasters and cable networks, with consumers in the middle and paying the bills, can't go on for much longer. At some point, a critical mass of consumers will stop paying the bills, and video operators will have no choice but to spin off their video services.

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