Cable Companies are Disrupting the Cable Bundle – In a Way Their Streaming Counterparts Aren’t

A little over a year ago, Verizon did something that flew under the radar, and considering how much their deployment of Fios services has slowed, wasn’t really as important as it should have been. Following ESPN’s lawsuit over its “Custom TV” service, Verizon effectively defanged the service and switched to offering two base packages, one with sports channels and one without, to comply with contracts prohibiting the biggest sports channels from being on an add-on tier. A year later, however, Verizon went to a hybrid of the old and new Custom TV packages. Today’s Custom TV service consists of seven different base packages, only three of which (Sports and News, News and Variety, and Home and Family) contain ESPN and other sports networks. It’s not quite a la carte TV, and the Verizon site gives a list price for Custom TV of $64.99/mo, but that’s for bundles containing it; if you order the slowest Internet speed that can be bundled with Custom TV, the quoted price is exactly the same as the same speed without Custom TV. The fine print indicates that you would take on only $20.88 in set-top-box rental, broadcast, and RSN fees, on par with Sling TV, and presumably the non-sports packages without RSNs would cost nearly $6 less than that. That’s pushing less than half of what streaming cable services like YouTube TV and PlayStation Vue charge.

For that price, you could get most of the most popular cable networks other than sports, news, and Discovery networks on the Action and Entertainment package, or you could regain the mainstream news and Discovery networks while losing more reality-oriented channels on the Infotainment and Drama package. Both of those packages include Disney Channel and other channels owned by the four major companies with investments in sports, so you aren’t limited to channels from a small selection of companies. A truly comprehensive lineup would require upgrading to a more expensive package with sports networks, and some combinations of networks (like both Discovery and History) would require going that route, but Verizon seems to have largely recreated the comprehensive, watch-whatever-you-want feeling cable and satellite companies tried to create in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s without the downward spiral that created.

What has attracted more attention is Charter’s soft-launch last week of Spectrum Choice, currently being offered only to 100,000 “hand-selected” customers, presumably primarily people who have threatened to cancel their existing Spectrum service and/or as a way to upsell current Internet-only customers. Programming appears to only be available by streaming to Roku or other connected devices (and thus, at least potentially subject to all the delays and problems of streaming), DVR service costs extra and is loaded with restrictions, and there is a confusing maze of restrictions to your ability to watch shows on other devices or outside the home. But once you get past all that, what it offers is remarkable: true a la carte TV. You get all the broadcast networks and Music Choice channels, and then you add any ten channels of your choice. Not all channels are available (and RSNs are among the channels that aren’t), but a sports fan could add ESPN, ESPN2, FS1, NBCSN, NFL Network, and all three channels showing March Madness, and still have two channels left over, having picked up every network showing the most popular national sports events.

But of course, what’s really attractive about this is the ability to stitch together groups of channels with no sports networks whatsoever. Nick Jr. is the most popular primetime network not to be offered, and Disney Junior is still available for families with young children. You could stitch together the most popular general entertainment or reality-oriented channels – USA, HGTV, TBS, TNT, Nickelodeon, Discovery, History, and maybe a handful of others to round it out. Perhaps more to the point, you could join Spectrum Choice with the Philo service, and then use your ten channels on channels not offered by Philo: USA, TBS, TNT, Hallmark, FX, Bravo, Cartoon Network, Freeform, Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, and Syfy, mixing up what channels you order based on what channels have the shows you want and maybe throwing in a news network or two if you want. You’d have access to an incredibly wide variety of entertainment – without any sports-specific networks.

The potential of this is such that to me, the biggest problem with Spectrum Choice is that there is no price feedback to your choices: you pay the same whether you include ESPN or not. This may explain why it costs $25/mo for the first two years and $30/mo thereafter, which makes combining it with Philo non-economical and arguably doesn’t even compete well with other streaming cable providers as is. It smacks of saying “we tried to offer an a la carte offering but no one took it”. Of course, if it did offer ESPN at a different price than other networks, that would smack of offering ESPN separately, as a premium service, which ESPN would probably never stand for, and the other restrictions and constraints might be necessary to appease programmers as well; Verizon may be closer to a more viable approach to shaking up the cable bundle (it’s worth noting that both Verizon’s Action & Entertainment and Lifestyle & Reality packages each contain all but one of the non-Philo networks I listed above, if you’re willing to go without major news networks). The fact that Spectrum Choice is so close to being a true game-changer, however, should not go unnoticed. They may be halting steps, but Charter and Verizon are moving closer and closer to allowing you to watch the programming you want without having to pay the sports tax.

For all the brouhaha over streaming TV services, for the most part they haven’t offered anything that truly sets them apart from the traditional cable bundle. In the name of trying to get enough programming people want to attract customers, they’ve almost all hitched their wagon to all of the Big Nine cable programmers, throwing away the one thing that could truly set them apart from the cable bundle. Even Sling, with a lower base price point and multiple smaller base packages, doesn’t offer a base package without sports networks. Philo has taken the best available approach to building a truly sports-free package and thus a package with the most potential to strike fear in the heart of ESPN. The question surrounding Philo has been whether it has enough valuable programming to attract customers without networks associated with the sports-heavy companies – without USA, TBS, TNT, FX, or Disney Channel. If the programming you want to watch is associated with those companies, you might be stuck paying the sports tax; if there aren’t enough people satisfied with what Philo offers, sports networks, especially ESPN and regional sports networks, will continue to rule the cable bundle for the foreseeable future, even as people increasingly chafe under their power. That is, assuming Disney’s pending acquisition of a large chunk of Fox, including its regional sports networks, doesn’t end up backfiring on them, as I suspect it might, by centralizing enough of the most expensive cable networks in one place that either cable operators or streaming providers decide it’s finally worth it to go without them.

But if the merger does go the way Disney thinks, then if the likes of Charter and Verizon continue to be allowed to be more flexible with their offerings – allowing people to get FX but not FS1 or Fox News, USA but not NBCSN or MSNBC, Disney Channel but not ESPN – that could finally break the stranglehold sports has on the cable bundle anyway. And in turn, that could ironically result in the collapse of the entire cable bundle if the most high-profile sports decide it’s not worth it to continue to hitch their wagon to the smaller audiences of cable networks and focus more attention on broadcast with a side of streaming, potentially starting a downward spiral of cable subscribers touched off by the departure of those that feel they need cable to watch the College Football Playoff, Final Four, or NBA playoffs, leaving the very cable networks that made it possible to either change their business models or die.

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