OTT Platforms: If Cable Networks Can’t Beat Them, It’s Time To Join ‘Em

On TV And Video” is a column exploring opportunities and challenges in advanced TV and video.

Today’s column is written by Tyler Pietz, principal at Two Rock Consulting.

Last month, Nielsen painted a rather alarming picture for cable networks.

Despite an increase in the total number of TV homes (+1%), traditional cable subscriptions have continued to decline at an accelerated pace (-3.1%), Nielsen said [PDF]. Taken in totality, this suggests a widening gap of -3.9% in cable subscription growth as a proportion of total TV homes.

VMVPD subscriptions, such as Sling TV, Playstation Vue and DirecTV Now, often dubbed skinny bundles, have grown, but at slower rate than necessary to sufficiently make up for the declines in traditional cable subscriptions.

Skinny bundles are inherently less lucrative than traditional subscriptions for distributors and networks because the smaller number of channels erodes cable network penetration on a per-subscriber basis. And since the regional monopolies, equipment rental fees and contractual lock-ins historically enjoyed by cable operators are effectively eliminated, the bundles also put downward pressure on margins due to increased competition from other providers.

This underlines the precarious position of traditional cable bundles: In an effort to address weakening demand for a highly lucrative revenue stream – traditional cable subscriptions – distributors have introduced a less lucrative one that has so far failed to close the gap in subscribers, let alone revenue.

But while the shift toward OTT content delivery (which runs through operators’ pipes) and a lax regulatory environment (which opens the door to payments from platforms to prioritize their traffic) will help operators absorb losses, networks have little to take solace in.

Cable networks have historically operated as franchisors, focusing on creating, acquiring and programming content while relegating to their affiliates – cable operators – the messy business of bundling and selling access to their content in exchange for a per-subscriber fee. This worked when consumers had little choice in the matter, but cord-cutting and shaving has become an increasingly viable option as more direct-to-consumer offerings emerge and negate the hegemony once enjoyed by operators.

This leaves cable networks with a few choices, none of which are easy or particularly attractive compared to their legacy businesses.

Do Nothing (Base Case)

If recent trends hold, the average network will see a significant erosion of its traditional subscriber base year over year for the foreseeable future. Beyond the hit to affiliate revenue, which is now the primary revenue stream for most networks, this will also endanger ad revenues as TV ad rates are predicated on reach. Lower viewership density equals fewer eyeballs to monetize and threatens the utility that networks offer to advertisers as an easy button that taps into most, if not all, households.

Realistically, the only lever that networks can pull under this scenario is to demand an increase in the fee that cable operators pay per subscription. Operators have shown an increased aversion to abetting these increases, as these costs are passed directly to the consumer, creating a vicious cycle that makes bundle economics less tenable for current subscribers.

Develop Assets That Can Stand On Their Own

Most cable networks spread their content over several channels or properties, each of which commands its own subscriber fee. Demand for lesser properties will weaken significantly in a higher-choice environment, so networks need to focus on quality-over-quantity products that can command a loyal audience in an increasingly unbundled world, even if those audiences are smaller and more niche.

Beyond the world of linear content delivery, there is great demand at companies such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu for high-quality, creator-driven video content, such as “Breaking Bad” and “Fargo.” Licensing these shows already brings in nontrivial revenue for networks such as AMC and FX, but windowing – where they are made available six or more months after the original air date, to avoid cannibalizing live TV audiences – limits this revenue stream.

And as TV ad revenues decline with audiences, networks with the luxury of owning the rights to such coveted content should get serious about day-and-date distribution on digital platforms to fully realize the value of their content.

Create A Discrete Direct-To-Consumer Bundle

Direct-to-consumer businesses, when executed correctly, confer extraordinary benefits on their owners, particularly in the form of user data that can be utilized for serving highly targeted ads and the ability to measure viewership data with precision and granularity.

But the lift is much heavier, and the stakes are higher. A move into direct-to-consumer necessitates a type of business acumen and degree of technical and product excellence that is currently lacking at most cable networks. It will involve creating business models that networks have never battle-tested at scale.

Disney, having recently announced plans to develop its own OTT subscription service, may serve as the ultimate bellwether in this case. But with service expected to launch no earlier than the second half of 2019, the hand-wringing decisions and harsh realities of such a strategy are already rearing their ugly heads. Namely, the success of the new venture will be predicated on Disney’s willingness to pivot from revenue streams that will be more profitable in the short term but recede in the long term.

Today, most networks are clinging to hopes that these consumer shifts are cyclical and not secular. There is, and has always been, an instinct among networks that any step to address this reality plays into the hands of Netflix and other OTT services, prematurely cannibalizing their most coveted and lucrative revenue stream. But if networks can’t make realistic decisions about the future of their businesses, consumers and shareholders will decide for them, and it won’t be pretty.

Follow Tyler Pietz (@tylerpietz) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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