There will be blood. A lot of it.
Last week made clear — between HBO and CBS announcing plans for a streaming service that bypasses pay-TV distributors and Netflix's failing to meet subscriber targets — that the television industry's "Red Wedding" is here. Change is coming to the pay-TV business; we just don't know what it is going to look like. And a Game of Thrones level of blood is going to be shed before we do.
There are still a few rusty arguments in support of the "bundle" of channels that you're stuck buying from your cable company — it's cheaper, they say, to get CNN, MTV, Animal Planet, and Food Network, whether you want them all or not. Choosing individual channels would be more expensive. Networks aren't going to blow up their extremely lucrative relationship with distributors. It is unwieldy for consumers to manage multiple individual subscriptions.
But these arguments all presuppose the same thing: Pay-TV distributors and network operators just absolutely have to — as a kind of law of nature — make the same amount of money they do now. The truth is that they won't. Some of the weaker distributors and networks are going to die, others will shrink considerably. A lot of financial pain is ahead.
Needham & Co analyst Laura Martin wrote in a widely read report last year that most consumers receive about 180 channels under a typical pay-TV subscription, though they only watch about 18 of them regularly. To maintain all 180 channels under an "à la carte" system, consumers would have to increase their annual spending on TV to $1,260, up 75% above the $720 per year they currently spend.
Consumers aren't going to pay that. Viewing habits, particularly among younger generations, are shifting to computers and mobile devices, making a smaller, cheaper, streaming-only video bundle inevitable. But inevitable doesn't mean imminent. It's not like distributors can randomly choose networks to put into a smaller bundle and start selling them. And it's not like programmers can just start handling all the billing and customer service and administrative functions that distributors currently take care of for them. As a result., distributors and programmers are headed for a messy fight, with contracts and hit shows (or lack thereof) among the leverage points each side will use to keep the balance of power in their favor while managing the transition.
The music industry offers an imperfect analogy for what is about to unfold in the television business. Surely the major record labels, which gouged consumers for years with $18 compact disc prices, would have loved to maintain their level of revenue and profit generation after Napster and iTunes and Pandora and Spotify and all the other digital delivery services came along and unbundled the album. Instead, music sales in the U.S., the industry's largest market, have shrunk by more than 50% in the last decade, from nearly $16 billion in domestic revenue in 2003 to what will likely be around $7 billion this year. The major record labels dwindled to three from five. EMI, home to The Beatles and Beastie Boys, vanished after more than 80 years in existence. New deals with artists and radio and concert promoters grew from the technological changes, as did new revenue lines, but they are far from replacing what was lost, and it is unlikely that they ever will.
The only reason the television business has been able to hold off the digital insurgency for so long is because, unlike in music, distributors and programmers have a reason to work together. Their businesses are built on a virtuous flow of money from one side to the other. Networks charge distributors increasingly higher carriage fees, and the distributors pass those costs along to consumers, one reason for the standard 5% increase in cable bills annually.
But there's no reason to believe that the television industry can reverse its current trajectory any better than the music industry. Lots of reports, like this one and this one, have suggested that part of the reason HBO and CBS went over the top is to actually strengthen the status quo and extract more money from pay-TV distributors.
That may be true in the short term, but in the long run, once consumers get a taste for not just a new but also a better way of getting what they want, you've already lost the war. Empires can only be defended for so long after the people rise up before they fall. Now it's just a matter of how many casualties there will be. In terms of the battles, here's a look at what's ahead in the coming years.
Consumers — not the companies — are in control now, and they will increasingly forgo linear television for on-demand streaming options.
A recent comScore study found that one-third of all television viewing done by 18- to 34-year-olds happens on a computer or mobile device, not a traditional television screen. Twenty-four percent of people polled in that demographic don't subscribe to a traditional pay-TV distributor, yet 61% of them are paying members of a digital video streaming service like Netflix or Hulu Plus.
What this means is that there isn't a lot of content, other than sports, compelling consumers to watch television on a scheduled date and time. Younger consumers, whose viewing habits are going to become the norm rather than the exception, are perfectly happy to delay viewing watching something when they want and how they want, ad-free.
"There is no doubt that Netflix has caused a meaningful change in consumer TV consumption behavior," wrote BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield in a report last month. "Time previously spent watching live, linear television is now being spent on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu or other binge watching vehicles (such as VOD). Consumers are now building their own personal TV 'bucket lists' of what they want to watch, when they want to watch it and on the device(s) they want to watch the content."
Put another way, the TV business is becoming an on-demand business, not just for companies like Netflix, but also the traditional pay-TV distributors. Comcast, for instance, is happy to tell anyone who will listen that its subscribers have viewed on-demand content more than 30 billion times on its platform.
Other data points, among them the continued ratings erosion for primetime programming, the push among network owners for delayed viewing up to seven days after a show debuts to be counted in the ratings, a weak broadcast and cable upfront advertising market, and a decline in pay-TV subscribers for the first time ever last year despite what many are calling a "Golden Age" for TV programming, also prove that streaming is becoming the dominant form for TV viewing.
As a result, the pay-TV industry will need to create smaller, cheaper, broadband-only bundles.
The pay-TV industry considers the bundle as holy as a deity, and they are all in its service. They insist that a package of channels provides more choice and better economic value for consumers. They claim managing multiple subscriptions to numerous streaming services is unwieldy and wouldn't end up saving consumers much, if any, money.
They are completely missing the point. Consumers, particularly younger ones, no longer want 500 channels of nothing, even if it is cost effective. They don't care about networks, they care about shows, and shows are available everywhere. Think about this: A subscription to HBO Go, the new CBS streaming service, Netflix, and Hulu Plus could theoretically give consumers access to shows from the four major broadcast networks, the premium pay-TV service, and many of the most popular shows on basic cable. They don't need to subscribe to 12 different streaming services from 12 different networks to get what they want. But they are likely also more comfortable doing so than being beholden to one cable company. Writing in The Atlantic last week, Derek Thompson nailed it when he said that younger Americans find the mess of streaming options "easier to deal with than a cable box and a Comcast representative."
To combat this, the pay-TV industry is going to have to create smaller, cheaper, streaming-only TV bundles. Companies like Sony, Verizon, Dish, Comcast, and others are already experimenting with them.
Before that happens, programmers and networks will have to renegotiate their current carriage deals. These negotiations, which have been particularly nasty in recent years, will only get uglier.
A big part of the planned streaming-only offerings from HBO and CBS is to use them as a pressure point in carriage negotiations with pay-TV distributors. Agree to my license-fee increase or we will be forced to make up the lost revenue by selling our streaming service direct to consumers for cheaper than what you charge. Having an over-the-top service also incentivizes pay-TV distributors to include the network in whatever smaller bundles they create.
But it isn't like pay-TV distributors can just randomly select a package of, say, 15 channels and create a new bundle. Most network carriage deals require that they be distributed on the basic or expanded basic tier, thereby exposing them to the largest number of potential subscribers. Others, like HBO's, for instance, incentivize distributors to market the channel by allowing them to keep all the revenue after certain subscriber metrics are hit.
Time Warner said last week that its Turner Broadcasting channels, which include TBS, TNT, and Cartoon Network, among others, will increase its operating profit margin by low double-digit rates for the next three years. One way it plans to do that is through increased carriage fees from cable operators. HBO Chief Executive Richard Plepler basically said the HBO Go over-the-top service will help it renegotiate its contracts with distributors for a higher revenue split. To cite another example, AMC Networks, whose flagship channel is home to Mad Men and The Walking Dead, saw distribution revenue grow 7% in the second quarter to $234 million.
Network owners aren't going to just give up guaranteed recurring revenue and allow distributors to put them in separate bundles that require proactive subscribing on the part of the consumer. Creating smaller bundles is inevitable, but figuring out what networks and how many to offer in them will be a particularly nasty negotiation.
Some networks will end up being permanently removed from pay-TV distributors.
Not every network has the power or programming to really exert leverage on a distributor by threatening to go direct to consumers the way HBO and CBS can. Those two networks, along with ESPN, are arguably the three most important in the traditional television universe.
The relative weakness of some cable networks has been underscored in recent years by the increase in blackouts during license-fee disputes. Viacom, whose suite of networks includes MTV and Comedy Central, has been blacked out from DirecTV and Suddenlink in the last two years. AMC, ABC, and CBS, among others, have also been blacked out for a period of time during contract disputes with distributors. As David Carr of the New York Times rightly points out, "The next time CBS fights with a cable system, it can do more than take out full-page ads to complain — it can tell consumers to use its cheap, $6-a-month service to get its must-see shows."
Part of the reason lesser-rated networks get carriage to begin with is because they are bundled with more powerful networks owned by the same company. Some viewers would go crazy if they didn't get Fox News, for instance, but they might not be so upset about not getting Fox Business. So, 21st Century Fox ties them both together so that the success of one prevents at least the failure of the other.
Martin's report last December said that it cost about $280 million annually to run an entertainment cable channel and that it would need to average 165,000 viewers over a year to break even. Martin said that based on 2012 viewing levels, more than 120 channels would die in an unbundled world.
It is not unreasonable to assume that one way the bundle breaks is by distributors fighting back against fee increases for mid- and lower-rated networks — the channels with one or two hit shows and nothing else, particularly if those hit shows are available for streaming on some other platform. These types of networks, along with independent ones, can be expelled from cable distribution altogether in the new digital world order. Think about it: Would the threat of an over-the-top History Channel or TLC really make a pay-TV distributor nervous enough to agree to a large licensing fee increase to carry those networks?
It is all but certain that one of the traditional television networks will end up losing its pay-TV distribution and go all digital either through its own app or via YouTube or some other destination in the next few years. World Wrestling Entertainment has already found some success with its own streaming-only service, though the company still licenses its shows to traditional TV. But "passion channels," as Martin dubs them, that are too small to survive on their own could potentially reinvent themselves as all-digital networks.
Some of these networks will only have themselves to blame for allowing streaming services to build up huge power off of their shows.
Many credit the success of AMC's Breaking Bad to the network's decision to license the show to Netflix, which allowed viewers to catch up on past seasons and build hype for the show over its run. The idea is that allowing viewers to sample Breaking Bad drove consumers to sign up for pay-TV packages in time for new seasons.
But making hit shows available for consumers to binge-watch on demand ad-free is not without its dangers. What is Netflix, after all, if not the best aggregator of hit network television shows around?
While Netflix and Amazon Prime have helped boost media conglomerates' bottom line through hefty syndication deals, the focus on short-term financial gain has also allowed these companies to build huge businesses off the back of someone else's content.
"The longer-term risk is that there is becoming an incredible array of content that is binge-able with so little content that is so important that it must be watched live or even near-live," wrote BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield in a September report. "In turn, the risk for broadcast and cable networks is that when you, your significant other, your friends, your kids, etc. get home at night do you/they turn on their multichannel set-top box or do they start with an array of apps such as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu or HBO GO enabling them to access content that is proven and known to be of high quality, with limited to no commercial interruptions."
Put another way, selling your best content to the competition might not be the smartest long-term strategy.
Hit shows will become ever more important currency, with exclusivity, staggered rights, and current seasons on demand driving up value.
Network television, like music and movies, is a hits-driven business. The more hits a network has, the more it is worth. That goes double for a network that owns its shows. Must-see TV is still a thing, but when consumers tune in nowadays spans from live to a week later to after the season ends.
As a result, hit shows will become bargaining chips networks use as leverage in negotiations with both traditional pay-TV and streaming distributors. Concepts like exclusivity, staggered licensing, and the availability of current seasons on demand will grow in importance. HBO's deal with Amazon Prime to license only a select portion of its library, comprising mainly older shows, with current seasons of new shows available starting three years after they appear on the network, could provide a model for future deals that leverage both traditional pay-TV and streaming distributors to the network's advantage.
Conversely, networks could keep their hit shows to themselves to drive subscribers to their own streaming app. One could imagine an MTV app, for example, that aggregates all of the shows across Viacom's networks, which also include VH1, Comedy Central, and Nickelodeon, that it sells directly to consumers. HBO has already hinted that it could include shows from Turner in its streaming-only service.
Or pay-TV distributors, who have access to larger cash reserves than Netflix, for instance, could agree to pay a premium to have exclusive rights to new hit shows for their on-demand service. Consider that Netflix's total revenue in 2013 was $4.4 billion, while Comcast's was $64.7 billion. Comcast has focused its efforts in recent negotiations on getting on-demand rights to current seasons of hit shows, not just past seasons, which allows viewers to save new episodes for binge-watching, a practice known as "stacking."
But the rise of web video will continue to erode what a hit show means.
There's a reason old media conglomerates have been buying up web-only video networks lately: Younger people are watching them in ever greater numbers. Dreamworks Animation started the trend in May 2013 when it bought AwesomenessTV, then Disney followed with a $500 million deal for Maker Studios, and AT&T last month bought Fullscreen for a reported $200–300 million.
To be sure, the future of TV may be even grimmer than even the most dire predictions in part because few of them take into account the rise of web video producers. Research firm eMarketer estimates people spend 55 minutes per day watching digital video and that it should generate $6 billion in advertising revenue this year. (TV advertising revenue, by comparison, totals around $70 billion.)
Major media outlets, from the Wall Street Jounral to Bloomberg Businessweek to the New York Times, have published stories this year about the rise of "YouTube stars." Multichannel networks like AwesomenessTV and Maker attract tens of millions of unique visitors per month who watch billions of streams of video.
In the new, streaming-only digital video order, it is entirely possible that traditional pay-TV distributors start carrying some of these multichannel networks or shows as apps on their set-top boxes and that they get more views than traditional networks.
True unbundling and à la carte channel choice is still years away, if not decades. Think about it: Roughly 2.5 million people still pay AOL a total of $650 million a year for dial-up internet access, which also means that landline phones still exist.
And 63 million compact discs were bought during the first half of this year, according to Nielsen Soundscan.