Indie Networks Hope Flexibility Pays Off

Why This Matters: Independent pay TV programmers are adding VOD and OTT options to broaden their appeal for distributors.

Several independently owned cable networks are heading into this week’s Independent Show prepared to offer distributors a multiplatform content package they hope will create distribution opportunities to help them stand out from the pack.

Traditional multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) keep losing subscribers, and virtual MVPDs such as Sling TV, DirecTV Now and YouTube TV are offering lineups that feature mostly top-tier services. So offering distributors a package of traditional cable, video-on-demand and SVOD options greatly improves a niche network’s chances of getting its content in front of its target audience, programmer executives said.

“As platforms have evolved and distributors’ needs have changed, we’re trying to fit those needs with new business opportunities,” Dennis Gillespie, senior VP of distribution at Outside TV, a network showcasing active adventure sports such as biking, skiing, hiking and surfing, said.

Numbers Are Daunting

Cable and satellite providers lost about 305,000 net video subscribers during the first quarter of 2018, after losing 515,000 during the same period in 2017, according to Leichtman Research Group.

As cable subscriptions decline, the digital MVPD universe — which includes Sling TV, DirecTV Now and YouTube TV, offering packages of 30 to 120 channels — continues to grow.

Virtual MVPDs, which LRG said are now in about 3.7 million households, could have as many as 20.1 million subscribers according to the high-end model by 2022, 15.8 million by midrange estimates and 11.6 million in the low-end scenario, according to research and analysis firm The Diffusion Group.

In an effort to cut through the clutter, smaller niche networks are becoming more flexible and offering alternative video packages to potential clients.

Four-year-old equestrian-themed network Ride TV has basic carriage on Dish Network and Verizon Fios TV, and is trotting out a multi-tier, multiplatform pitch to distributors that also features VOD opportunities, as Ride TV owns 90% of its content.

“It was very different and so much easier in years past, but today it’s a much tougher, more competitive environment, so we’ve had to learn how to pivot to offer our content through the operators in different scenarios,” Ride TV CEO and co-founder Michael Fletcher said. “We have traditional basic linear distribution; we’re on sports tiers in some places; we’re a la carte with Comcast and Verizon and Frontier; and we’re on Dish’s basic package. We’ve learned to focus on the content and make it available on the platform.”

Other services like Outside TV have launched SVOD content to complement linear channel offerings. “We’ve adopted a strategy to serve them in multiple ways — we have a cable network that is distributed broadly, we have a digital syndication network that’s distributed broadly and a SVOD product developed in the last year,” Gillespie said.

The network has also created an app that offers some of its original programming, as well as Outside TV Features, a $4.99-permonth service that offers about 150 outdoor/adventure films and documentaries along with original series, according to Rob Faris, senior VP and general manager for Outside TV Features. Comcast, Sling TV and Dish Network have all launched the product over the past two months, he said.

“We feel like we’re part of the solution, which is a nice place to be in a business that is innovative and accepting of new ideas,” Faris said.

Trends Point to VOD Usage

Audience trends lean toward more VOD viewing, which could benefit networks willing to provide on-demand content for distributors, media consultant Bill Carroll said.

“The audience has now adapted to what I will call the Netflix approach to delivery of programming, which means the audience is willing to pay for something that they place a value on, but they have to be able to watch that programming whenever and wherever they want,” he said. “That’s where the whole industry is going.”

BYU TV is continuing to negotiate with providers for both its linear service as well as a VOD product that features general entertainment shows suitable for co-viewing, Ian Puente, director of operations and strategy at BYU Broadcasting, said. His network will look to add native advertising and content sponsorship within VOD — a tactic Puente said he expects other independents to adopt to monetize their content outside of SVOD or MVPD subscription fees.

R. Thomas Umstead

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.