Out of Bounds

The rise of over-the-top television services and a growing cord-cutting trend are applying pressure to cable’s pay TV business as never before.

As the quarterly impact of subscriber losses on legacy cable-TV operators is scrutinized, many investors’ deepest concern is an eventual tipping point at which new, internet-delivered “skinny” TV services will become the dominant viewing option and traditional bundled packages will fade.

While an in-footprint strategy focused on a next-generation video platform helped Comcast buck the trend and actually grow its video subscriber base, most other U.S. cable operators are still consistently losing customers.

Most incumbent MSOs don’t compete directly with other cable operators, a regulatory dynamic that, over many years, has resulted in a mélange of cross-industry policy, tech and marketing organizations such as NCTA–The Internet & Television Association, the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing, the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers and CableLabs, as well as joint ventures like Canoe, the cable industry’s advanced-advertising consortium.

Because cable-TV operators are essentially awarded an exclusive franchise to serve an area, they’ve focused their video and broadband assaults on their own footprints and against rivals such as the telcos, satellite-TV providers and overbuilders.

As it becomes more challenging for operators to gain, yet alone retain, video subscribers in their own territories as they fend off old rivals and a fresh phalanx of virtual MVPDs, though, questions are swirling as to when, not if, MSOs will develop their own OTT services to launch beyond their traditional borders.

Such a brash move would create a cascade of consequences for programmers in particular, but it would certainly force other cable distributors to do the same, likely sparking an all-out video Armageddon.

AT&T and Dish Network have no such industry allegiances to worry about, and have already marched ahead with their own OTT TV services — DirecTV Now and Sling TV, respectively. Verizon Communications, meanwhile, has been rumored to be developing a virtual MVPD of its own that could be sold on a nationwide basis.

And though cable operators such as Comcast have stressed that the economics of an OTT TV service simply don’t add up, it’s clear that it and other cable operators are making the necessary preparations to build and deliver an out-of-market service — just in case.

The technology needed to pull this off is the easy part. The more difficult business-facing aspects of building an OTT service are also coming together.

Earlier this year, industry sources confirmed a Bloomberg report that Comcast has already locked in the rights to offer some channels over-the-top on a national basis. However, it was also stressed that a portion of those rights came by way of “most favored nation” clauses in carriage contracts with programmers that ensure that Comcast gets the same terms that are granted to other distributors, including virtual MVPDs. There’s also no clear indication yet that Comcast intends to act on those rights.

And Comcast hasn’t wavered from its position about OTT economics.

“We think we have a lot of opportunity just in our footprint,” Brian Roberts, Comcast’s chairman and CEO, said on the company’s first-quarter earnings call. “It’s a big upside. We continue to believe in what we’re doing. … The second thing, we just haven’t found the business model that works outside. We’ll keep evaluating, keep looking at it, but our success within our footprint is packaging, bundling. So we’ll continue to drive that internally within our footprint.”

But Comcast is a different animal even among its MSO peers, and has some advantages and initiatives underway that others do not.

X1 is a prime example. That multiscreen, cloud-based platform now serves as the core of Comcast’s next-generation video service. However, Comcast is also getting some out-of-footprint benefits, in terms of both economic scale and product influence, via X1 syndication deals it has forged with Cox Communications and two Canadian operators — Shaw Communications and Rogers Communications.

Comcast is also starting to underpin a new in-footprint skinny TV service with X1 technology. Sources confirmed that Comcast is eyeing a third-quarter commercial launch for Xfinity Instant TV, a managed IPTV service that will feature a range of packages, a cloud DVR service, and initially target broadband subscribers who don’t take a pay TV package from Comcast. Reuters said the app-based offering will be priced starting at about $15 per month and include packages that could sell for up to $40 per month, and allow for add-ons such as ESPN.

With the proper digital distribution rights, it would not seem a difficult thing for Comcast to pivot that handiwork into an OTT product.

But would it make any money? Without the benefits of service bundling, including the latching on of superhigh margin broadband services and newer products like Xfinity Home, a standalone OTT TV service would certainly be less profitable.

As another potential advantage that other MSOs don’t have, Comcast will also get a close-to-first-hand look at how profitable (or not) a virtual MVPD can be.

Hulu, which is partly owned by Comcast’s NBCUniversal, last week launched the beta version of a live TV service that starts at $39.99 per month for a lineup of 50-plus channels, including live locals of the Big Four broadcasters in some markets. The new service, which includes Hulu’s premium SVOD offering, also features some add-ons, including unlimited in-home streaming and enhanced cloud DVR service that allows users to fast-forward through ads in recorded shows, that, when bundled, push the price to almost $60 per month.

Hulu’s live service is just getting off the ground, but the company, which has revenues coming in the door from its millions of SVOD customers, is already costing Comcast big money. In a 10-Q report filed late last month, Comcast disclosed its share of losses at Hulu in the first quarter were $54 million due to higher programming and marketing costs.

Speaking on CNBC, Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins expressed confidence the new OTT service will turn a profit via its mix of live TV, SVOD and advanced ad capabilities.

Dan Rayburn, executive vice president of StreamingMedia.com and principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan, is on board with Comcast’s position about the economics of OTT.

“The economics don’t make sense; we really don’t have to debate that,” he said, pointing out that the content- licensing costs alone are a killer. “People say all you need is big scale. Netflix has 100 million subs … and they’re still not profitable.”

And the new class of virtual MVPDs face the challenge of marketing services that are designed to appeal to cost-conscious cord-cutters.

“With a live, linear service, you can never charge customers enough to make up your costs,” Rayburn said, pointing out that it’s this degree of sticker shock that caused Microsoft to throw in the towel years ago when it was mulling its own OTT TV service.

He also doesn’t believe the current pay TV environment and its battle against cord-cutting and luring in cord-nevers will force cable’s hand to go out-of-market.

He said services like Sling TV, PlayStation Vue and DirecTV Now have hardly put a dent in the market, and that there’s a good reason why they don’t (or rarely do) offer subscriber numbers — because they don’t want Wall Street to figure out the costs of running a service that sells for $20 to $40 per month.

But today’s troubling pay TV trend “certainly makes [cable operators] re-look at how things are packaged and offered,” Rayburn said. “But what’s the benefit to your overall business? I don’t see one.”

Telsey Advisory Group media analyst Tom Eagan also isn’t convinced operators are plotting to offer video service outside of their footprints anytime soon. In an interview, he said any attempts to secure out-of-market content rights are more than likely an effort to keep their options open.

“Who knows what will happen in five years?” Eagan said. “You always want to have as many levers as you can. I don’t expect anything in the next couple of years, but they want to have the optionality.”

So why, then, are all of these OTT TV services entering the fray if there’s no money to be made? Rayburn said the answer is simple — they all are owned by larger companies that can hide the bad economics, or take the hit without getting killed. DirecTV Now is owned by AT&T, YouTube TV by Google, Sling TV by Dish, PlayStation Vue by Sony and Hulu by a handful of major programmers. fuboTV, the sports-oriented vMVPD, is an exception.

“No one is standalone” in that OTT TV grouping, he said. “None of these guys can survive or exist if it wasn’t a big conglomerate that was actually operating it or running it, because the economics don’t work as a standalone business.”

Colin Dixon, founder and chief analyst of nScreenMedia, agrees that rising content costs are making all pay TV services less profitable, but also believes that cable operators going OTT is an inevitability.

“I think they’re all going to end up having to do it — the environment is just ripe for it,” he said, adding that pay TV subs are seeking other video options in increasing numbers. “Even if it’s marginally profitable, it’s still incremental revenue that they get to add to the bottom line. I don’t see how they can resist doing it in the long run.”

Mike Farrell contributed to this story.

SIDEBAR: Cord-Cutting Draws More MSO Blood
If cord-cutting is among the key reasons prompting cable operators to look beyond their borders for video growth opportunities, then consider that box checked — in permanent ink.

It’s now undeniable that U.S. pay TV providers are contending with cord-cutting along with a large group of consumers who have never taken a traditional pay TV package.

Even before all public cable providers reported their first-quarter results, MoffettNathanson issued a report that said the U.S. pay TV industry lost about 762,000 video subscribers in the period, making it the worst-ever Q1 when viewed through the video lens.

“For the better part of 15 years, pundits have predicted that cord-cutting was the future. Well, the future has arrived,” MoffetNathanson principal and senior analyst Craig Moffett declared last week in his Q1 2017 Cord-Cutting Monitor, which found that multichannel video programming distributors were taking it on the chin despite positive new household formation.

First-quarter video losses were more than five times as large as last year’s loss of 141,000, and that the incremental number of cord-cutter and cord-never homes has grown to more than 6.5 million since 2013.
— Jeff Baumgartner