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Watching ‘Skinny’ Bundles Get Lively

NEW YORK — Hulu is the latest media company to reveal plans to offer a “skinny bundle” of live cable and broadcast network feeds to stream over the Internet. Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins announced the proposed streaming service last week by emphasizing that subscribers to the package will be able to enjoy “live sports, news and events in real time without a traditional cable or satellite subscription.”

Hopkins’s emphasis on live event programming is important. While offering a slimmed down package of entertainment-themed programming will have its appeal for young millennials and cord-cutters who want to slice their cable bill, Hulu seems to believe that in order to gain broad appeal these bundles must offer a good helping of live sports and news content — arguably the last vestige of must-see TV for today’s binge-watching, delayed-viewing consumers.

A quick look at recent ratings trends shows how appealing and valuable live event programming is. During the first quarter, sports and news programming comprised nine of the top 15 most watched shows during the period. (AMC’s The Walking Dead held the remaining spots.)

Also fans are streaming more live events — sports content in particular — via the Web, as such events become more available. CBS Sports’ live stream of Super Bowl 50 consumed more than 402 million total minutes on mobile devices on Feb. 7. The National Basketball Association’s NBA League Pass out-of-market offering scored a record 27 million video views and 1.2 billion total minutes of viewing during the 2015-16 regular season — including, for the first time, single-game sales.

On the live news side, Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC have benefited greatly from the contentious and unprecedented presidential campaign. Fox News was the most watched network on cable in primetime during the first quarter of 2016, posting a 37% increase over the same period a year ago, followed closely by ESPN. CNN posted a whopping 162% primetime increase to finish among the top 10 most watched networks, while MSNBC was up 65% year to year, according to Nielsen.

Not all distributors are convinced that live sports and news programming is vital to a basic skinny bundle package, particularly given the high price of sports networks. Verizon recently released its monthly $55 Custom TV package featuring 45 entertainment channels, but not ESPN, FS1, Fox News Channel or MSNBC. Verizon Custom TV subscribers would need to add a “sports channel” package and a “news and info” package to get those networks.

As more distributors explore skinnybundle offerings — and as more cable and broadcast networks wrestle with the idea of a “less is more” bundled world — a workable structure that benefits all parties will eventually emerge. If it looks anything like what Hulu is proposing, it will hit the field running with live sports and news programming.

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.