What Killed the Cable Bundle?

I’ve heard it suggested that “recent high school and college graduates“, or just members of the generation uncreatively and corporately termed “millennials”, absolutely cannot fathom why the cable bundle even exists, yet I’m only 27 going on 28 and I remember when cable was an absolutely huge deal, an almost mandatory step up from relying on an antenna, and remained so right straight through the 90s and into the new millennium. (During my lifetime, my family never relied on an antenna except when the cable was out.) Cable was the gateway to an explosion of new options far beyond the limited experience (and chintzy reception) of broadcast, where all the cool channels like MTV, ESPN, and Nickelodeon were. This is what the cable industry tries to evoke when it claims that the cable bundle is the best value in entertainment and expresses confidence that cord-cutting isn’t really that big a problem in the long term and those people that have cut the cord will inevitably come crawling back. What has changed to make what once was cable’s key selling point – the relative smorgasbord of channels it made available – into its biggest liability?

Last Monday BTIG’s Rich Greenfield, whose doomsaying on the state of the TV industry I’ve written about before, gave a presentation at an FCC panel on the shifting video marketplace, where among other things he presented his reasons for the decline of the TV industry, especially that of the “price/value equation” of the traditional cable bundle. You can see the entire four-and-a-half-hour workshop here; his presentation begins at the 30-minute mark, which the link should take you directly to, but what I want to focus on is that, rather than simply pointing to shifting consumer behavior or the shortfalls of the cable bundle and leaving it at that, he looked at how the perceived value of cable has actually gone down since those heady days of the 90s and what forces, specifically the inaction of both government and players in the industry, led to that point. As such, he touches on some of the themes I talk about in my book and on other posts on this site, but in my view, he doesn’t go far enough to the degree I talk about them, and ends up pointing the finger at some inappropriate culprits as a result.

Greenfield claims that retransmission consent is “the chief culprit that has ruined the price value of the bundle”, evolving from the system envisioned by the 1992 Cable Act, where a single station in a market negotiates with a single cable provider, into one where a station group controlling multiple network affiliations in a market, and potentially cable networks besides, is negotiating not only with a cable provider, but with satellite and telco providers as well – a familiar story the cable industry likes to repeat and that I touch on in the book, but not the whole story. He also targets retrans as the ultimate culprit to the bundling issue, claiming that it’s the power of retrans, specifically the earliest period where companies used retrans as leverage to carry cable networks rather than demanding cash payments, that allows the major media conglomerates to demand that cable companies deliver all their channels in inflexible bundles, before admitting that companies that don’t own broadcast stations engage in the same practice and, implicitly, that ESPN is at least as much a driver of Disney’s bundle as ABC. Greenfield also blames pay-TV companies for negotiating clauses into contracts that hinder programmers’ ability to move to online distribution and that prevent programmers from collecting different amounts of money from different distributors, resulting in a situation where everyone is too invested in the traditional, bloated bundle, and takes steps to ensure that none of the others can do anything to distance themselves from it, keeping everyone tied in to the bundle and in turn keeping consumers ensnared in it – so long as a Netflix doesn’t come along to provide an alternative.

The problem with this narrative is that the problems that have developed in the retransmission consent landscape are a reaction to and symptom of the larger bundling issue, not the other way around, and cannot be looked at in isolation, separate from the larger issue of pay-TV programming fees. It’s true that the introduction of satellite and telco providers have tipped the leverage balance towards broadcasters, but what has motivated them to take advantage of that imbalance, to the point of threatening to abandon broadcast entirely if they didn’t get their way with Aereo, is the much larger imbalance between broadcasters and the subscription fees collected by cable networks, the problem that retransmission consent was intended to fix in the first place. If you look at retransmission consent as merely a subset of the larger cable programming marketplace, many of the “imbalances” tipping the scale towards broadcast stations are really just ways to give broadcasters the same tools as cable channels, or ways to keep broadcasters from losing leverage or potential revenue as a result of offering their wares over the air, and in that view retransmission consent has been working exactly as intended, preventing the broadcast industry from losing all their most valuable content to cable networks that charge high prices and muscle their way into the vast majority of homes.

In particular, Fox explicitly cited the desire to keep from losing sports to cable outlets like ESPN and Turner when it began to make a harder push on the retransmission consent issue in 2009 and 2010, shortly after ESPN took the Bowl Championship Series away from it and moved it to cable. Right now the most expensive cable networks by a mile are ESPN and regional sports networks in some order. Other than those, the next biggest contributors to your high cable bill, at least nominally, include TNT, the Disney Channel, and NFL Network, then Fox News, USA, and FS1, then TBS and ESPN2. On a per-station basis for the major networks, broadcast retransmission fees are probably on the low end of the TNT/Disney/NFLN group, so before you get to retransmission consent’s impact on prices you have to go through all the much more expensive RSNs, plus four national cable networks, three of which have substantial investments in sports that both motivate and fuel those high prices. But broadcast stations are in that same exact category, in that like ESPN, TNT, and regional sports networks, it is the need and desire for sports content that drives broadcast stations to set and keep retransmission fees high and to fight tooth and nail against anything that might break up the cable bundle.

More than anything else, it is sports that is driving the high cost of the cable bundle; between highly-distributed national sports networks, regional sports networks, and the major broadcast networks, probably at least $20 of your over-$100 cable bill is ultimately paying for sports. That’s because everyone vying for sports rights knows that nothing motivates people to sign up for and remain signed up for cable like sports, and absolutely nothing motivates people to sit through commercials like live sports. So more networks come along looking for their own piece of the sports pie, passing that cost along to cable companies, and bidding the cost of sports ever higher and passing that along to cable companies and their customers. Add all of that to the non-sports component of the bundle, and you have a recipe for a cable bundle that once brought consumers unprecedented choice and value now being too highly priced to serve anyone well.

The FCC can’t get a good idea of what undermined the value of the cable bundle from a 12-minute presentation, certainly not without appreciating the factors that led the industry’s actors to behave the way they did; for that, they’ll need to read my book, which will help them appreciate not only the plight of broadcasters but why it’s so important to get this issue right. At the end of the panel, at about the hour-53 mark, Greenfield proclaims that he believes the entire medium of linear TV is dying, that what will end up complementing on-demand services like Netflix will be services that offer “live on-demand”. I still have my doubts that the Internet will ever be able to deliver the Super Bowl to 50 million households, or even that it’ll do that well at delivering a regular-season NFL game to 15 million, especially as higher-quality technologies like 4K become the norm, and especially especially to mobile devices with higher bandwidth and spectrum constraints. Linear TV will not die, but only if it recognizes that it is transitioning into a specialized service, one that efficiently delivers content to the largest audiences, especially live content that, precisely because of its unique ability to attract eyeballs to commercials, is most able to be monetized without need to charge subscription fees. That is what the commission needs to keep an eye on going forward: not merely the transition from a video landscape rooted in linear TV to one based in online streaming, but linear television’s own ability to change its role in response to that, without people being blinded by the present-day depredations of the cable bundle to what that role is and how it’s already filling it, and whether broadcast television will survive to take its place as the area of linear TV where that role is most needed without being undermined by its own actions or those of the commission.

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