Two Types of Station Owners: How Broadcasters’ Inability to Navigate OTT Services Could Be Their Undoing – And Broadcasting’s Salvation

Ever since the Aereo controversy caused broadcast networks to threaten to pull their signals from the free airwaves, I’ve long accused broadcasters as a whole of being led by retransmission consent to disdain their own nominal medium. But it’s not a coincidence that ground zero of the Aereo controversy was New York, the single largest market in the nation where most of the biggest stations are owned and operated by their networks. The networks are on the front lines of fighting with cable networks for sports and other content, and are deeply aware of the advantages of the cable business model. Many of them have substantial investments in cable networks themselves or would like to have them.

Their affiliates are a lot harder to read. On the one hand, many affiliate owners were pursuing cash in retransmission consent negotiations even before the networks got in on it. The National Association of Broadcasters, which is supposed to represent broadcasters as a whole, has fought hard to preserve the retransmission consent system as it is and to weaken ownership restrictions so station owners can get more leverage at the expense of the overall viability of broadcasting. And certainly affiliated stations aren’t falling over themselves to improve their coverage areas any more than their networks are. So it’s pretty clear that affiliate groups, like their networks, staunchly try to preserve their retransmission consent revenue against forces trying to disrupt it. But are they willing to go so far as to give up their identity the way the networks are?

On the surface, there is reason to think they wouldn’t, simply because if the networks went cable-only they would effectively shut the affiliates out entirely, but during the Aereo affair Fox only threatened to take away the most valuable programming that seemed to most need retransmission consent to support it, and pretty much seemed set to simply insert their programming into affiliates’ feeds they sent to cable companies, allowing them to keep the affiliates in the process, and they seemed fine with that. More tellingly, I don’t think any broadcasters, no matter how small, vouched for Aereo’s argument that they were simply broadening broadcast stations’ reach, nor did affiliates indicate that they were in any way resisting the moves their networks seemed to be making to undermine broadcasting except insofar as it undermined their own access to top-tier programming, and even then in utterly ineffectual ways; certainly keeping the CW and MyNetworkTV alive in their current forms suggested they had no ambitions to improve the relevance of broadcasting as a whole. So my assumption was that the affiliates understood the perceived importance of retransmission consent to their business and to their networks’ ability to compete with cable networks, and so wouldn’t do anything to make broadcast more viable and would present a united front to preserve retrans and keep people tied to the cable bundle, with some potentially bailing in the incentive auction out of a belief that broadcasting isn’t viable on its own (and certainly the fact the FCC’s initial clearing target is the maximum possible suggests broadcasting is being as undervalued as I’ve long feared).

But there was always reason to think the networks were overselling the importance of retrans and their signal-pulling threat had more to do with their cable-network offerings than any actual importance of retrans; after all, contrary to popular belief advertising is sufficient to pay broadcast networks’ NFL rights fees and even Fox’s deal with the BCS, the one it ended up losing to ESPN because they couldn’t pay enough to make up ESPN’s subscription fee advantage and kicking off the retrans mania to begin with, actually made money for them without needing to be a loss leader. At the same time, someone was leading the charge to develop ATSC M/H and ATSC 3.0, technologies that hold (or held) the promise to increase the usefulness and viability of broadcasting as a technology without, by themselves, changing the economic incentives favoring cable, and while the networks seemed reticent to lend their full support behind ATSC 3.0, the largest non-network station groups were pretty much staunchly behind it, and while they’ve never quite fought the forces undermining their industry as strenuously as I might like (and in some cases have doubled down on them), the NAB and several other groups representing broadcasters have made many of the same pro-broadcasting arguments that I’ve made on this blog, even if they’ve come across as more self-serving lip service than actually being reflected in their actual policy recommendations, which suggest they’re more interested in protecting incumbents than in the actual overall relevance of broadcasting. And while they never quite addressed the question, reading between the lines of their FCC filings, by and large station owners seemed fine with over-the-top providers omitting broadcast stations from their offerings.

Which brings me to what really has me scratching my head: TV Everywhere. In the wake of the Aereo affair, the Big Four networks have all rolled out apps allowing you to access their programming and a live feed of your local station, so long as you “authenticate” with a cable or satellite provider. In theory, these apps are a centralized clearinghouse to watch any station associated with the network, regardless of who owns them, and have been explicitly pitched to affiliates this way, with CBS All Access offering most of its affiliates through the service. The ABC and NBC apps, however, still only include their respective owned-and-operated stations, with CBS reaching an agreement with Cablevision for authenticated access to their O&Os a few months ago and Fox offering no stream of any of its stations through the app. The only markets where all the Big Four stations are owned-and-operated are New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and the Bay Area, so as a result of this, among other things, those markets plus Dallas and Miami were the only ones PlayStation Vue was operating in. This despite Hearst being announced as a partner with Watch ABC pretty much as soon as the app itself was announced, yet their stations remain absent nearly three years later – supposedly because of the need to reach agreements with the cable companies, but if Hearst was in charge of that there’s little reason for that to be a problem if they were as into it as ABC itself was, and if ABC was in charge of that you’d think they’d have already struck those agreements to begin with, and in any case there’s not much reason to announce Hearst jumping on board if it wasn’t going to actually smooth out the negotiations with cable companies. It does suggest that, on the surface, it’s understandable that three-way negotiations between network, affiliate, and cable company would be difficult to make work, and ABC just announced a “clearinghouse” intended to make it easier for stations to latch on to their existing agreements with DirecTV and PlayStation Vue for streaming, with Hearst stated to be taking part with the former. But other recent developments suggest it may be too late.

Last month, PlayStation Vue, evidently fed up with the slow progress of reaching agreements with non-owned-and-operated stations, rolled out its service nationwide (and to devices other than the PlayStation itself), omitting broadcast networks entirely in the new markets with “Slim” options $10 cheaper than the equivalent full-service options, but not giving customers in its existing markets the ability to sign up for the “slim” packages. This raises the prospect the networks feared with Aereo: people paying for cable channels including ESPN but watching broadcast networks without paying for them if they can get them with an antenna, outside of markets where PS Vue was already offering them. Then, a couple weeks ago, rival Sling TV made that prospect explicit by reportedly introducing a new “AirTV” box that enables broadcast content received over-the-air to be integrated with Sling’s own offerings in Sling’s programming guide, regardless of whether Sling has an agreement with the station or even the network in question. I’m not sure I agree with the implied notion of continuing to treat linear television as something special and separate regardless of its nature, putting all linear television into a single, separate app as though linear television itself is the product, and as such Sling isn’t really doing anything it wasn’t already doing by its own nature, but integration of OTA content on streaming boxes can be hit-or-miss enough that AirTV can still encourage people to pick up broadcast stations over-the-air without paying for them, if they can. More to the point, it sounds like Sling can then deliver the broadcast content to any device, like a legitimate use of what Aereo was doing, actually providing some usefulness to the product.

To put this in perspective, last week Dish and Viacom avoided a potentially nasty and damaging carriage dispute with an agreement that will put Viacom’s channels on SlingTV, to the confusion and disappointment of analysts who felt Dish “caved” in not standing up to a Viacom that Suddenlink and Cable One have already seemed to do well enough without. Coupled with the inclusion of Fox in the new multi-screen bundle and the mutual interest on both sides to add ESPN and the other Disney networks to it as well, explicitly hiking the price and obviating everything I said about its potential impact, it seems like Sling TV is coming awfully close to recreating the entire bloated cable bundle just like PS Vue, putting the lie to all the public statements Dish made at its launch about wanting to keep it slimmed down to provide maximum value, and making me wonder, if they really did mean those things, if the Dish-Viacom deal pointed to ESPN acting as the Godfather of the cable bundle in keeping it together at all costs, certainly in keeping Viacom dependent on it. Putting aside anything else, if Sling TV and PS Vue weren’t going to actually provide anything different from the existing cable bundles, it would seem that the cable companies could pretty easily put them out of business, even without shady tactics, by lowering their prices to make a cable/internet bundle competitive with internet plus Sling or Vue and/or making it easier to watch their linear television content on a streaming device… that is, if they weren’t hamstrung by the need to charge retransmission consent to all their customers. Sling TV and PS Vue’s ability to offer broadcast stations separately or not at all, allowing people to rely on an antenna to receive them, could well be their one major, vital advantage over traditional cable television, what allows them to continue providing value even with a traditional bloated cable bundle. I didn’t agree with Rich Greenfield that retransmission consent was the major factor causing the cable bundle to lose its perceived value, but if Sling TV and PS Vue can continue making it optional, it may well prove to be traditional cable’s fatal flaw.

The funny thing about this is that other companies have felt that finding a way to untangle the thicket of broadcast stations was so vital that Apple outright gave up on creating its own Apple TV service when it couldn’t negotiate with broadcast stations. Indeed, PS Vue itself not only offered broadcast stations in its launch markets but included them in its base packages, forcing everyone to pay for them, and showed every indication of applying the same to any market it expanded to. PS Vue wanted to play by broadcasters’ rules, yet when the affiliates couldn’t get their act together, leaving the service still stuck with just the O&Os, PS Vue decided “screw it” and took its service nationwide without broadcast stations, effectively costing the affiliates their opportunity to make OTT work for them and not against them. If Sling TV and PS Vue prove successful enough without broadcast stations, Apple and other companies that felt they had to offer them may decide that, at the very least, they’re not worth the hassle, and broadcasters will have completely missed the boat, left to see the gap between them and cable networks widen again, and seeing cable operators redouble their efforts to undo or shake up retrans.

Again, it’s possible the affiliates just didn’t grasp the importance of getting some deal, any deal done before Sony decided to go without them… but this has me wondering whether the affiliates deliberately dragged their feet as part of a larger effort to make broadcast the center of the broadcast industry again. Perhaps the affiliates really don’t want to be as dependent on cable-style bundles as their networks want them to be, and recognize that it is killing broadcasting as a medium and that nurturing the creation of a large base of people aware of and exploiting broadcasters’ free over-the-air signals is vital to broadcasting’s long-term survival (even if it might hit their pocketbooks in the short-term), by creating a group of people interested in the fate of the medium and ultimately providing motivation for broadcasters to actually invest in their signals and in technology to make them easier to access on a wider variety of devices. Perhaps they felt all along that they preferred to rely on ATSC 3.0 as their ticket to reach mobile devices and that there was no reason for cord-cutting to work to its detriment rather than its benefit. Or perhaps it’s a combination of both and they haven’t yet grasped that Sling TV and PS Vue haven’t been the threats to the cable bundle they thought they would be (not helped by uncritical media coverage that has treated them as “a boon to cord-cutters” without questioning whether someone signing up to either service is truly living up to the spirit of cord-cutting), or just didn’t anticipate “cable minus broadcast” being the niche “skinny bundles” would occupy so early, before “cable minus sports” or something else that would actually deconstruct the cable bundle… or maybe they don’t even care about that and care more about getting broadcast out of its cable-imposed ghetto.

By goading PS Vue into encouraging customers to pick up broadcast stations with an antenna while still delivering them cable channels, broadcasters may have dealt themselves a fatal blow. But if Sling TV and PS Vue have the effect of encouraging widespread antenna adoption, it may well prove the best thing to happen to broadcasting as a whole.

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