Cable’s New Power Play: Adding Energy Dollars

Cable is starting to offer a powerful addition to its product bundle — electrical service.

Following hints that surfaced in January, Comcast and a unit of NRG Energy have sparked up a market test in the Pittsburgh area, and are pitching perks and rewards, including prepaid Visa cards and free premium-TV services, to consumers who enroll in one of two new energy programs.

The pilot effort, called Energy Rewards, got underway earlier this month and pairs Comcast with Independence Energy Group, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Princeton, N.J.-based NRG.

The Energy Rewards program, offered exclusively to Comcast subscribers, hawks two energy plans. One is a six-month, variable “Guaranteed Savings” plan that offers a 10% savings off the local utility’s price. The other is a fixed plan that locks in a monthly price for 12 months.

Comcast is tossing in some goodies to entice customers to sign on. All Energy Rewards members receive a $25 prepaid Visa card and a three-month “extended freeview” of HBO, Showtime or Starz. Program members are also eligible for other perks, including a 20% discount on movie tickets from Fandango, the service Comcast acquired in 2007. Comcast also includes a free “Smart Thermostat” for its Xfinity Home service, and a 20% discount on Fandango gift cards.

Early on, the trial is limited to areas covered by local utility Duquesne Light, which serves about 584,000 customers in parts of Allegheny County and Beaver County.

But the trial is an early indication of the sort of expanded, stickier service bundles that Comcast and other MSOs are expected to pursue in other deregulated energy markets.

Plus, it fits well with cable’s new array of home security and automation services, including EcoSaver, a cloud-based home energy-management service that Comcast developed in partnership with iControl and EcoFactor.

Crius Energy, an independent energy supplier that serves more than 400,000 residential and commercial customers in 12 states, plus Washington, D.C., has struck up similar co-marketing deals with three telcos — Cincinnati Bell, FairPointCommunications and Frontier Communications — that pitch “green” energy plans via their respective call centers and direct mail and email campaigns.

Energized cable bundles are a rarity now, but trends indicate they could become table stakes in states that have loosened up energy regulations.

Check IDs at the Door: Younger Subs More Apt To Cut the Pay TV Cord

Multichannel video programming distributors across the country have all stepped up their customer-service efforts, trying to retain customers. But they might have better luck checking their subscribers’ birth certificates.

Telcos have the best customer service reputation in pay TV, with nearly 50% of customers stating they are very satisfied with service vs. just 30% for cable customers.

But telcos also have the highest number of subscribers who intend to disconnect their pay TV service in the next 12 months — 17%, up from 14% last year, according to a new streaming survey conducted by Morgan Stanley. Only 8% of cable customers said they would cut the cord this year, the same as last year.

The key factors: Telco-TV customers skew younger than cable subscribers, they watch more video on devices other than TVs, and more of them own tablets that they use to watch video on the go.

The largest segment of telco-TV subscribers (about 35%) is the 30-to-44 age bracket, while cable’s largest segment (45%) is the 45-to-64 bracket. Telco customers also spend about twice as many hours (14) watching video on devices other than TVs than cable customers (7 hours), and 60% of telco video customers own tablets, versus about 50% of cable subscribers.

Overall, cord-cutting from pay TV is going to rise. In the survey, 10% of respondents said they “defi nitely will” cut the cord in the next 12 months, up from 8% a year ago.

Age seems to be the biggest factor. Nearly 30% of respondents in the 18-to-29 group and about 25% of those ages 30 to 44 said they intend to end their pay TV relationship in the next 12 months.

Income played a surprisingly small role in the desire to sever pay TV connections. About 17% of respondents making under $25,000 annually said they intended to disconnect in the next 12 months, about the same number as those making more than $100,000 per year.

Overall, the rebounding economy and improvement in housing starts leads to a predicted uptick in pay TV subscriber adds this year.

— Mike Farrell

Hallmark’s Kitten Bowl Becomes Feline Franchise With No. 2 on the 2015 Slate

Hallmark Channel, having drawn some 3.2 million unduplicated viewers during its noon-3 p.m. (ET) premiere of Kitten Bowl — and 6.1 million over the course of its three encores on Feb. 2, otherwise known as Super Bowl Sunday — is adding a roman numeral to its fledgling franchise and will enter the hardball arena next year.

At its upfront press luncheon in New York last week, the family- and feline-friendly network revealed it will hold Kitten Bowl II on Feb.1, 2015, as part of its Pet Project initiative to celebrate pets and raise awareness of the plight of shelter animals nationwide. Also on deck for next year is a baseball competition, the Kitten Paw Stars Game, comprising hurdles, jumps, toys on tracks, lures and home run derbies. It’s set for Sunday, July 12, 2015, two days before the All-Star Game at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati.

Kitten Bowl I, which benefited the adoption program at Long Island’s North Shore Animal League America, was hosted by the group’s national spokeswoman, Beth Stern, the wife of shock jock Howard Stern, and New York Yankees radio play-by-play man John Sterling.

Bill Abbott, CEO of Crown Media Family Networks, home of Hallmark Channel, reported that at spring training, Sterling has fielded more questions about Kitten Bowl than about his take on the Bronx Bombers’s free-agent acquisition of former Red Sox centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury.

Hallmark executives said they plan to reach out to Major League Baseball for potential tie-ins and support. Michelle Vicary, EVP of programming for Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movie Channel, expressed confidence a connection will be made, noting that MLB Network mentioned the inaugural Kitten Bowl on its air.

Nielsen and social-media attention aside, Kitten Bowl succeeded in its game plan: All 71 cats, including Tabby Romo, FerrelOwens and Tomcat Brady, were adopted. Abbott, who came up with the idea, pointed out that the stars of the Paw Star Game have yet to be born, but The Wire wanted to lend a hand with these lineup suggestions: Robinson Cato, Big Tabby Ortiz, Jose Felinenandez, Andrew McCatchen, Jason Kitnis and Mainy Machado.

— Mike Reynolds