A Blast from the Past that will Shape the Future: What Does the NHL’s Return to ESPN Mean for the Future of Live Sports Video?

In 2007, after ESPN had screwed over Fox (who had reportedly been thinking of putting the entire Stanley Cup Final on broadcast television) in taking control of the entire NHL broadcast contract and proceeded to barely promote it at all (especially after taking over the NBA contract a few years later) and bump it to ESPN2 if just about anything and everything could be put on ESPN ahead of it, most infamously poker, then turned down a $60 million option to extend the contract in the wake of the lockout leaving the league to turn with their tail between their legs to the outfit then known as the Outdoor Life Network, then made NHL highlights virtually persona non grata on SportsCenter to the consternation of hockey fans who felt ESPN, then at the seeming height of their monopolistic power, was sticking it to any league or entity that didn’t bother to sign a contract with them… if you told hockey fans that ESPN would end up being the entity responsible for putting every game of the Stanley Cup Final on American broadcast television, would they have believed you in a million years?

But indeed, that’s what will happen in four out of the seven years, including (presumably) next year, of ESPN’s new agreement with the NHL announced Wednesday, a deal that will reportedly pay the NHL $400 million a year, close to twice what NBC was paying for only half the national television contract. Perhaps no other recent sports rights deal better captures the shifts in the video (it seems gauche to call it “TV”) business in recent years, and it’s hard to think of one that will have more of an impact (the reported move of Thursday Night Football to largely being exclusive to Amazon feels like more of a paradigm shift but hasn’t been announced yet and may have less relevance to defining the role of linear television going forward). In something that would have been unthinkable, certainly for ESPN, maybe five years ago, this appears to be a deal largely about ABC and ESPN+, with linear ESPN largely an afterthought. 

Read moreA Blast from the Past that will Shape the Future: What Does the NHL’s Return to ESPN Mean for the Future of Live Sports Video?

What to Make of the NFL’s Experiment with Putting the Draft on Broadcast, Part 2

Last year, after the NFL Draft aired on broadcast for the first time ever, I wrote a blog post looking at the resulting ratings and what it meant for the NFL’s desire for “presidential election”-style coverage of the draft on every major network. This year, ESPN agreed to air all three days of the draft on ABC, with the first two days being college-focused coverage from College GameDay that aired on ESPN2 last year. This was somewhat surprising to me, because last year Grey’s Anatomy significantly outpaced Fox’s coverage in the 8 PM ET hour, and ABC was hosting what amounted to side coverage alongside the existing coverage on ESPN and NFL Network. I figured the league would want to repeat last year’s experiment another year, and if ESPN did decide to put the draft on ABC they would put it on only ABC, making pre-empting Grey’s more palatable and allowing both ESPN and ESPN2 to air NBA playoff games on Friday if needed. Still, it is understandable; ESPN is desperate to maintain their relationship with the league entering contract renegotiations, including pumping up ABC as a broadcast outlet for the league, while still preserving whatever impact the draft still has on their carriage fees.

Did we learn anything more about the future of the draft on broadcast? Let’s find out. This is going to be significantly shorter than last year’s analysis, and I’m going to assume, for the most part, you already read last year’s post for context.

Read moreWhat to Make of the NFL’s Experiment with Putting the Draft on Broadcast, Part 2

Does Cartoon Network Hold the Key to the Distribution Paradigm of the Future?

Since Netflix started putting out its original series by releasing every episode of each season of each show all at once, a move inspired by the phenomenon of people “binge-watching” numerous non-original series on the service they hadn’t originally watched as they came out, there has been debate over what the best strategy is for releasing serialized scripted content in the Internet age. Certainly it would seem that, freed from having to meet the needs of a linear television schedule, there’s no reason not to release content on any schedule you want; most online video series on places like YouTube, both before and after Netflix came along, have been released on a TV-like weekly schedule (or less), but they tend to be made by individuals with low budgets and without the backing of a large company like Netflix, and so need to release episodes pretty much as they’re made in order to maintain revenue to make the next episode. Whether or not Netflix’s strategy is the best strategy, with or without the constraints of a linear network, is another matter entirely.

Certainly, if the series themselves aren’t that important to your business model other than as content to fill out the service, and the main goal is simply to maintain engagement with your product, the binge-release method makes sense; it ensures that you have a large batch of content, presented as a single unit, that people can then consume over an extended period and eventually finish the season without needing to be reminded to come back. On the other hand, Netflix’s main source of revenue comes from its subscription fees, and so what would seem to be best for Netflix’s bottom line would be to keep people subscribed to its service for as long as possible, especially since, like most streaming services, Netflix offers a one-month free trial, thus opening the possibility of people binging an entire season of a given show in a single month and then quitting without paying one cent. (And that’s a very viable proposition; Stranger Things has only eight or nine hour-long episodes in a season, meaning you only need to watch two episodes a week to catch up within a month. It’s entirely viable to catch up in just two nights, or even one day if you can spare the time.) And while Netflix shows are often subject to a burst of intense buzz right around when each season comes out, it quickly dies down as people finish the season and move on to other things, meaning Netflix shows don’t get the same sort of sustained buzz over a period of months as week-by-week shows like Game of Thrones do.

From a creative standpoint, the Netflix model probably does better justice to intricately-plotted shows that in the past might have been deemed better on DVD, where individual episodes don’t necessarily hold up all that well on their own, except in terms of their contribution to the larger narrative of the show, and so their momentum and the immersion in their world is better maintained by watching them in larger chunks. Indeed, since the length of each episode isn’t fixed by the needs of a linear television schedule either, the only criterion for where to place episode breaks at all is to identify good stopping places for people to break at in the likely scenario that they can’t consume the whole season as one really long movie. But this can be a double-edged sword: for truly compelling shows, especially those with lots of plot twists and mysteries inviting speculation as long as they remain unsolved, the week-by-week wait for each episode only strengthens the anticipation. There’s a reason the cliffhanger and other devices borne of the serialized format have such a long and time-honored history. For particularly complex, multilayered shows, the lack of answers drives fans into endless speculation, poring over scenes for clues, rewatching the series in lieu of any new episodes, and generally gaining a deeper appreciation of the series than would be apparent in a one-time surface-level viewing. With a binge-release model where everyone is watching at their own pace, discussion of the show on online forums becomes nearly impossible, with the need to accommodate people at every level of progress through the season. As good as Netflix’s shows may be, they can never truly amount to “water-cooler talk” if not everyone is at the same point.

Of course, the sort of show that creates this sort of constant, edge-of-your-seat anticipation for each episode is also the exact same sort of show that is best suited to a slot on linear television in the Internet age. A show that doesn’t have people feeling they have to watch it the instant it comes out, lest they be left behind in or spoiled by the discussion, is probably also a show that doesn’t lose much by being released all at once and may be better consumed that way, so it’s not clear that there’s a situation where Netflix gets a show that’s better consumed in a serialized format. Still, what this suggests is that the best strategy will ultimately depend on the show. Some shows may work better with a week-to-week release schedule to heighten the anticipation for each episode, others may work better released all at once so they can be consumed as a unit right away, and that’s not even getting into purely episodic shows that would be fine in either format. (I talked about some of the factors going into either strategy, in another context, nearly a decade ago.) It’s not even like you’re bound to one release strategy or the other. You could release episodes in batches, breaking at a point you feel is a good place to leave off and leave the fans wondering, or at any frequency you like that best balances anticipation, attention, and the momentum of regular releases.

Which brings me to, of all entities, Cartoon Network.

Read moreDoes Cartoon Network Hold the Key to the Distribution Paradigm of the Future?

What to Make of the NFL’s Experiment with Putting the Draft on Broadcast

The NFL Draft this past weekend aired on broadcast television for the first time ever. The first two nights of the draft saw NFL Network’s coverage simulcast on Fox, which will be NFLN’s Thursday Night Football partner next season. ESPN, which had long resisted the league’s calls to put its draft coverage on ABC, acquiesced to simulcasting its coverage of the third day on ABC.

For the league, the hope was that this would just be the beginning. The league made noise about the draft potentially being treated as an event on par with the presidential election, with coverage on every network, earning widespread mockery and being held up as more evidence of the league’s hubris. Even at its most popular, the draft has but a fraction of the popularity of election coverage, or even of most regular season games. Simulcasting the Super Bowl across several networks might theoretically make sense, though that would potentially cause it to lose its status as the premier advertising showcase if several different networks were running their own ads, as well as diluting its status as the biggest lead-in of the season. But most networks bail out of putting on anything people might actually want to watch against the Super Bowl; no one ran scared from the NFL Draft, except possibly Fox itself. Besides, splitting the draft across every network is a terrible idea in its own right. The league is highly concerned about tipping picks and pressures reporters not to do so on social media, but the best way to minimize the impact of tipping picks is minimizing the time between when the pick comes in and when it’s announced. That’s already a challenge with two draft productions that need to synchronize their ad breaks and need to have each of their reporters interview draft picks after they come out of the green room. Can you imagine how bad it could be with four or five?

The result of this year’s experiment might give the league pause about its “presidential election” ambitions. The league boasted the most-watched draft ever, but that was mostly attributable to the move to broadcast, and given that the boost in ratings was fairly modest (especially given how top-heavy the first round was with quarterbacks from name schools and the presence of both New York teams picking in the top three). Fox failed to win the night either on Thursday or Friday, which makes any “presidential election” talk seem downright ludicrous, at least for now. Given that, what’s the best path for how the league should handle the draft going forward? The way I see it, there are three broad options, which can be arranged on a scale:

  • The “presidential election” approach with every network broadcasting the draft.
  • Something like the status quo, with ESPN, NFLN, and a broadcast network showing the draft, with the latter either simulcasting an existing feed or providing its own production.
  • Giving the draft exclusively to a single network, like how ESPN handled the draft on its own before NFLN started muscling in.

Let’s look at the ratings for each day of the draft and see what it tells us about what the best approach is for the league going forward.

Day 1: For the night, Fox’s coverage of the NFL Draft drew a 1.1 rating in the lucrative adults 18-49 demo, good for second place for the night behind CBS and barely edging out ABC. If you’re Fox and the league, you point to the fact that, despite one’s expectation that numbers would erode as the night wore on and you got away from the early, star picks, numbers not only remained mostly steady throughout the night but actually rose as the night went on, from a 1.1 at 8 PM to a 1.3 at 10 PM before crashing back down to a 1.0 at 10:30, suggesting more people discovered the draft was on broadcast at all as the night wore on and the numbers earlier on would be higher in future years. Certainly that’s what you say if you want to convince ABC to give up its Thursday night for the draft, including Grey’s Anatomy, which earned a 1.5 in the demo at 8 PM. But it’s hard to imagine CBS giving up its Thursday night, including the wildly popular Big Bang Theory (2.0 in the demo), for the draft without exclusivity. CBS was willing to move BBT to Mondays during Thursday Night Football season, but that was an actual game taking up multiple weeks; pre-empting BBT a single week for something drawing noticeably lower ratings is a nonstarter. If you gave CBS a captive audience for the draft, and the entire 4.04 demo rating the draft drew on all three networks (and possibly also the .04 ESPN2’s college-centric coverage drew), it might be a different story.

The previous week, Fox’s lineup of Gotham and Showtime at the Apollo drew .6 demo ratings, last place among the Big Four, so Fox would seem to be on board with doing it again next year under the status quo.

Day 2: Fridays typically draw a smaller audience than Thursdays, so the inevitable decline in ratings for the second night of the draft wouldn’t necessarily kick it off a broadcast network. Unfortunately, Fox’s .6 demo rating tied it with NBC for second behind CBS, and NBC was propelled by Dateline‘s .7 from 9 to 11 more than Blindspot‘s .5 at 8. NBC would be crazy to air the third round of the draft instead of that, at least not without exclusivity. All three of CBS’ shows outpaced the draft at the same time – MacGyver at 8 only drew a .7, but Fox drew consistent .6’s all night until 10:30 when it slipped to a .5. Even Fox itself might not be happy with these numbers; the previous week, MasterChef Junior actually won the night with a .8. It might make sense for Fox’s proposed refocusing of its network towards sports and news programming once its deal with Disney to sell its studio goes through, but who knows if that would actually herald the departure of a reality show like MasterChef. (It’s worth noting that the numbers are more forgiving in 18-34, where a .4 rating tied for the highest-rated show of the night.)

ABC would seem to be the only network willing to give up its Friday primetime for coverage of the second night of the draft, which raises an interesting prospect. Suppose ESPN tells the NFL it’s willing to put its entire draft coverage on ABC if the league doesn’t simulcast NFLN’s coverage on another network again, or in general gives another broadcast network an in. That could mean putting ESPN’s coverage of the second night of the draft on ABC… and only ABC, leaving ESPN to cover the NBA Playoffs and allowing a third or fourth playoff game that night to air on ESPN2 without getting bumped to ESPNEWS. Of course that’s likely to give ABC marks significantly higher than .6, and the temptation on ABC’s side would be to do the same thing with the first night and make it easier to swallow pre-empting Grey’s Anatomy. By my reckoning, coverage of the second night on ESPN and ESPN2 averaged a .59 for the night, though it’s doubtful all of that would devolve to ABC if NFL Network still had its own coverage, especially with an NBA Playoff game on ESPN2 drawing higher numbers than on ESPNEWS. It does show that giving exclusivity would again be enough to convince any network to show the second night; a 1.2 would be the highest-rated show of the night by a significant margin even before adding NFLN’s .39.

Day 3: The third day of the draft appeals mostly to hardcore NFL nerds who are actually willing to do a deep dive into the remaining players and who’s likely to actually make an impact in the league. It doesn’t have the sort of broad popularity the earlier days do; while ESPN and NFL Network have gotten better at treating the fourth round close to on par with the third, NFLN especially tends to devolve into regurgitating the earlier rounds, presenting offbeat and human-interest stories, engaging in frivolous games with the personalities on set, and generally just killing time until Mr. Irrelevant. ESPN is better, but honestly the best coverage of the third day for those who actually care about who’s still getting drafted might be the live stream NFL Now does on NFL.com; it covers the later rounds almost to a fault, delaying and re-airing the pick announcements if they come during a break rather than simply getting caught up like ESPN would.

There’s a case to be made for airing the first three hours on a broadcast network to take care of the fourth round, but while ABC didn’t have anything else to do the rest of the day and could show the entire final day, CBS or NBC would need to air golf coverage starting at 3 PM ET, and Fox might want to show NASCAR racing as they did this weekend. On this occasion there were actually conflicts earlier, as NBC was showing a Premier League game and Fox was showing Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series qualifying from Talladega.

On this front the verdicts are not good. For the entire day, ABC drew 1.008 million total viewers and just 314,000 demo viewers, less than what ESPN drew for its half of the simulcast. The good news is those numbers are still better across the board than the early competition, except total viewers for the NASCAR qualifying. It’s not as friendly to the later competition, where it lost in both measures to the Xfinity Series race on Fox and the Stanley Cup Playoffs on NBC, and in total viewers to golf on CBS.

Combined, coverage of the third day on all three networks drew 2.914 million total viewers and 1.197 million demo viewers. That would make it the second-most-watched non-NBA sports-related event of the weekend behind the actual NASCAR race on Sunday, and only the NBA would top it in the demo. That doesn’t necessarily mean the other networks would fall over themselves to air the whole day with exclusivity, but it might if the networks could get around existing contractual commitments. Of the late afternoon sporting events, the NHL game did best in the demo with 644,000 viewers, just over half of the draft’s audience, while the Xfinity Series race did best in total viewers with 1.899 million. That suggests the decline as the third day wears on would have to be pretty precipitous for bailing out of exclusive coverage to be the best approach from a pure ratings standpoint, at least in the demo. But it’s hard to see the other networks taking that bargain without using it as a lead-in for an actual sporting event.

Where does the NFL go from here? The notion of treating the draft like the presidential election is probably dead for the foreseeable future, with CBS in particular laughing the prospect out of the room. If the draft ever does become popular enough for all four networks to drop out of their Thursday primetime lineups to simulcast just the first day, it’ll probably be more because of the decline of scripted programming on broadcast than the increased popularity of the draft itself.

The NFL and Fox would probably want to perform the same experiment again next year to establish how popular the draft could be on broadcast if more people are used to it, but depending on where Fox is a year or two from now, they would probably be fine if ESPN and ABC decided to go ahead and put their entire draft broadcast on their broadcast network, with the league preferring the simplicity of not switching networks mid-draft and Fox preferring higher-rated programming on Friday nights. ESPN would lose most if not all of the benefit the draft would provide to its subscriber fees, but those benefits have been neutered anyway with NFLN carrying the draft and now showing it on broadcast without them. But given how much this draft had going for it from a ratings standpoint, I could see them wanting to see at least another year’s worth of numbers before deciding to pre-empt Grey’s for the draft.

The real question comes when the current rights agreements come up for renewal in a few years, when the league will have to consider how best to maximize the popularity of the draft. Ideally, that would involve simulcasting it on as many networks as possible, which would mean maintaining some variant of the status quo. But the days when the league could give the draft to an upstart cable outlet that doesn’t air games because they don’t see how it would make good television are over, so if ESPN decides not to re-up for Monday Night Football, I could see the league taking away the ESPN and NFLN broadcasts of the draft and offering to rotate exclusive draft rights between the three remaining broadcast partners, perhaps going to the network that’s between Super Bowls, so this past draft would still go to Fox since the last Super Bowl was on NBC and the next one will be on CBS, but then next year’s draft would be on NBC, and the one after that would go to CBS. At minimum, the network that gets the draft would have to air the first two nights, but the league could be open to at least allowing the network to show only the first three hours of the third day, with the rest airing on NFL Network (as long as all three networks do the same thing). CBS would take the most convincing to dump BBT (if it’s still on) for its own production, trotting out Jim Nantz, James Brown, Tony Romo, Bill Cowher, Gary Danielson, Tracy Wolfson, and whoever they got to be their equivalent of Mel Kiper Jr., all for something that would get barely double the demo ratings, and the league could just end up handing every draft to Fox or NBC, but given where the state of television is likely to be in a few years it still shouldn’t take much. If the league is honest with itself, that’s a far more honest assessment of the future of the NFL Draft than its ludicrous “presidential election” dreams.

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.

What Happens If Disney Gets Blacked Out On Altice?

If it weren’t for the crappy state of everything else going on in the country (including Ajit Pai seemingly being about to dismantle net neutrality) it would be an exciting time for the evolution of the TV industry, as the cable bundle looks like it’s about to be on its last legs. Earlier this month, reports came out that Viacom, Discovery, Scripps, AMC, and A&E were joining forces to form their own, relatively cheap, skinny bundle called “Philo” – the inclusion of the last of which was very surprising to me, as A&E is co-owned by Disney and Hearst, which also (separately) co-own ESPN, and just the other four companies forming their own skinny bundle is the last thing ESPN wants. But Disney and ESPN have a bigger fight on their hands. Altice, the French conglomerate that now controls Cablevision and Suddenlink, hass Cablevision’s old carriage agreement with Disney expiring after this weekend. Disney has faced contentious carriage agreements with the likes of DirecTV and Dish in recent years, which have gotten certain elements of the media worked up over the possibility of showdowns with companies that had ramped up their rhetoric about the high price of sports and stood up to regional and college sports networks, but in the end the power of ESPN was too much to resist and the companies sucked up and signed up for another round of fee increases and adding the Longhorn and SEC networks. But just days before the expiration of the agreement, there seems to be no end in sight to the Altice standoff, and plenty of signs that Disney’s luck and indispensability has run out, not just with Altice but with other cable operators as well.

Were it not for these two stories, I wouldn’t normally think the decline of the cable bundle has reached a tipping point. Large majorities of people still subscribe to the cable bundle… but they’ve now fallen below the 80% mark, and it’s clear that things have reached a critical moment. Disney trying to add yet another high-priced regional ESPN spinoff, one with significantly less value than the SEC Network, certainly looks like an ill-timed misstep that sent things spiraling down further (and Disney wants Altice to add not only ACC Network to a fairly basic package in New York City, but SEC Network as well). On the other side, Disney has announced the launch of OTT Disney and ESPN services, with the latter being limited to events that won’t hurt the value of ESPN to cable providers too much to lose but the former being stocked by Disney pulling its movies off Netflix a relatively short time after signing a big deal to put them on. Continuing the return of sports to broadcast, Fox will air the majority of next year’s World Cup matches on its broadcast network, meaning if the United States makes it, matches that gave ESPN gerbonkers ratings in the last two World Cups will air on broadcast where they belong, possibly even on weekdays. And while I’m still, in general, skeptical of streaming services’ ability to win major sports rights while also justifying their cost, in the wake of their Thursday Night Football deal, it’s hard for me to argue against the notion that Amazon at least has the potential to overcome most, though not all, of the obstacles I worry about (the fundamental problem of streaming being inferior to deliver live events than real linear channels, which bedeviled Amazon this past Thursday, is in my view ultimately insurmountable) to become a real player for mid- to lower-tier sports events.

There’s also the recent history of carriage standoffs to consider. Before its acquisition by Altice, Suddenlink kept Viacom channels off its systems for nearly three years, with Cable One possibly still leaving those channels off their lineups, and both companies made clear that they were just fine without Viacom’s networks. Viacom is on the expensive end of the non-sports four and, at least at the time, didn’t have as many shows with serious buzz as the others, so it could have been considered more expendable than most other Big Nine members. By dropping Disney channels, Altice would be risking a significantly larger backlash, not only from sports fans but from fans of Disney Channel’s kids shows, especially with the Yankees playing their wild-card game on ESPN Tuesday. But if it coupled dropping the Disney channels with a significant drop in customers’ bills, it could gain more than that in goodwill from non-sports fans.

Meanwhile, sports and Disney fans aren’t as out of luck as in the carriage disputes of the past, thanks to online cable providers like Sling TV. No service carrying ESPN would cost less than the $10-15 that’s likely to be the most Altice would refund customers; Altice’s moves wouldn’t totally break up the cable bundle unless they dropped multiple companies’ programming. But what would hurt Altice, but is likely to hurt Disney more in the long term, is if customers dropped Altice’s TV service entirely in favor of Sling or a more comprehensive service like PlayStation Vue, DirecTV Now, YouTube, or Hulu. Based on listed prices, dropping down from a TV+Internet bundle to just Internet should save $20/month with Optimum for New York customers; throw in fees charged only to TV customers, and that could be enough to justify getting one of the online bundles for $35/month (and that’s assuming they don’t drop Optimum entirely for Verizon FiOS). Sports and Disney fans that drop Altice’s TV services entirely are no longer directly putting pressure on Altice to add them back to the lineup. If that gives Altice enough backbone to leave Disney off the lineup entirely, especially if people with no investment in those networks start telling them not to restore them and threatening to quit if they do (especially once Philo launches), it puts Disney, and ESPN more specifically, in a very tight spot financially, as well as in terms of standing up to other providers, with deals with Verizon, AT&T/DirecTV, and the old Time Warner Cable deals now controlled by Charter looming over the next two years.

In 2011, Dish chairman Charlie Ergen suggested there was room for a cable or satellite operator to position themselves as a cheaper non-sports alternative; today he thinks Altice can survive without ESPN, and he certainly must be rooting for it. If Altice is successful at saying no to Disney and ESPN, it gives other providers, as well as potential future online providers, more confidence to say the same. Altice is not one of the larger providers, but if they manage to weather the storm and spend two years or more without ESPN on their lineup, Disney will suddenly look like an emperor with no clothes, and will find it hard for their demands to be met when they enter negotiations with AT&T, Charter, and further down the line, Comcast and Dish, and will find it especially difficult to get the ACC Network off the ground. Couple that with the pending launch of Philo representing the one thing Disney hoped to avoid by staying shackled to the cable bundle, and suddenly there’s a very real possibility that ESPN goes full-on direct-to-consumer with all of their content before the end of the decade (and indeed A&E’s inclusion in Philo starts to look more understandable if Disney thinks the cable bundle is already collapsing). Sports fans would probably still need Fox, NBC, and Turner’s networks to get all the sports they want and need, at least in the short term, but a successful standoff with ESPN would also allow cable operators to show down with those companies for lower fees and lower penetration for expensive regional sports networks. It’s possible the sports four-and-a-half will start to find that clinging to the old cable bundle model will bring down their smaller and non-sports networks more than prop them up, making a sports-specific bundle an increasingly viable proposition. At that point, Disney might just bail on cable operators and even their would-be competitors and seek to salvage whatever revenue (and data) they can for themselves.

Even if Disney and Altice reach a deal, it could still be bad news for Disney, ESPN, and sports leagues. Disney wants to ratchet up its fees and restore some of the coverage lost when they gave providers flexibility to offer skinny bundles. If Disney takes lower fee increases than they’re hoping for and keeps ESPN at present levels of penetration to avoid the catastrophe of being outright dropped, they’re going to have to budget less money for production and rights fees. Look for more layoffs to come down the pike and ESPN to scale back on what they’re willing to bid for rights as they come up early in the next decade. And the ads Altice has been running have arguably already increased awareness of just how much of their cable bill is being passed on to ESPN regardless of how much or little customers watch it, meaning if a deal is reached without ESPN being dropped, there could be a deluge of customers dropping service.

Keep an eye on how this situation develops over the next couple days, because no matter what happens, it could well mark the point of no return for the sports cable boom, as well as the beginning of the end for the cable bundle as we know it, and the start of shaping whatever comes next.

The Music May Be Stopping for Cable Networks

It feels empty, going back to talking about television and the future of video at a time when it feels like, for a young liberal like myself, we might not have a future of any kind at all, but there was some news this week that made me reflect on one of my older posts and how the television landscape is shifting.

In 2012, Comcast was looking for something to do with its ten-year-old video game channel, G4, which had been dropped by DirecTV two years earlier and seemed to be inexorably on the wane. It eventually decided to rebrand it to the Esquire Network, a joint venture with Esquire magazine. Two weeks before the rebrand was to finally take effect, Comcast, now in control of NBC Universal, decided to rebrand the Style network as Esquire instead, figuring that Style’s female-oriented programming was now redundant with Bravo and Oxygen, and giving Esquire a slot that actually had DirecTV carriage. G4 would remain on the air under that name, endlessly rerunning its back library, until its existing carriage agreements ran out, and it was finally taken out of its misery a little over two years ago.

That Comcast was willing to rebrand Style as Esquire Network without having anything else to do with G4’s space was surprising to me, because as I wrote shortly before G4 was put out of its misery, the trend in the cable business seemed to be to constantly rebrand channels until companies found a format that stuck, holding on to established channel space and using whatever channel hadn’t caught on to launch the next format idea that came to the suits. Which brings me to this week, and the news that came out Wednesday that Comcast will be shutting down Esquire Network’s linear feed later this year, converting it to a digital on-demand service. On one level, that Comcast replaced Style, not G4, with the Esquire Network means they have now effectively killed two channels instead of one. But on another level, there’s no guarantee Comcast wouldn’t be shutting down Style now anyway, if they hadn’t already done so. In that sense, Comcast may have simply been ahead of its time, knowing that it might not have any new channel ideas with which to replace either Style or G4 – for both channels, the alternative to giving Esquire Network a try would be a full shutdown.

The notion of “cable network musical chairs” was from the start rooted in one of the dynamics captured in my book, The Game to Show the Games. As described in Chapter 7, for many years the Big Nine companies that control most of the channels on your cable lineup were able to use their popular channels to bully cable operators into carrying less popular channels. By about ten years ago, it became nearly impossible to launch a new channel from scratch unless you could convince cable operators it would have a built-in audience from the start, and since then the only channels the Big Nine have attempted to launch from scratch have been regional and college-conference-affiliated sports networks. But outright closing a network and giving up its channel space was unheard of. Until G4, the only truly national cable networks to completely shut down since the 2004 closure of CNNfn and TechTV were ABC News Now, which had highly limited distribution to begin with, and SoapNet, which only survived the launch of Disney Junior because of Disney’s inability to get cable operators to swap one out with the other. It made sense to keep a channel around, just to squat on the space, until you came up with a new idea for what to do with it, knowing that unless things became truly dire cable operators would continue to carry it.

Of course, the same phenomenon that keeps companies from launching new channels from scratch also makes it difficult to relaunch existing channels and attract enough of an audience to make up from the audience lost from the old format, especially in the age of cord-cutting where starting up a new linear network seems like a decidedly outmoded, foolish proposition, if you don’t have any of the live events that are the main purpose of linear television going forward, or any established shows moved from other networks. It’s become decidedly obvious to all parties involved that the cable network landscape is badly oversaturated, but I felt that, without cord-cutting accelerating substantially, no one had any incentive to shrink it – so long as the Big Nine could still get cable companies to carry them, they had no reason to shutter any of them and deprive themselves of a revenue stream. Rerunning old content over and over would still bring in more money than losing the space without being able to get it back if you had a better programming idea.

There is some evidence, though, that cable companies are getting more and more empowered to at least try to dump networks they see as worthless, as they look for ways to shrink their packages to deliver more value and more reason for people to sign up for them. As much as online pay-TV services like Sling TV and PlayStation Vue have failed to live up to their promise of slimmed-down channel lineups, instead carrying most of the Big Nine’s entire portfolios, they’ve still placed some pressure on the Big Nine to shrink down what they have to carry, especially coupled with traditional cable companies’ efforts to create truly “skinny bundles”.

It’s hard to say what the tipping point was. By the time A&E Networks followed through with its announced replacement of H2 with the Viceland network in February, it was already widely ridiculed despite the head of Vice boasting that it would “return millennials to cable TV”. The general consensus was that Vice had no illusions of reaching “millennials” by any means other than online, and a linear network would simply broaden who it could reach at very little cost to Vice itself with the potential to bring in additional ad revenue. Al Jazeera America shut down two months later without replacement, despite the efforts of OneAmerica News Network to take over the space, in part because it wasn’t backed by any of the Big Nine. The same goes for the October shutdown of the Pivot network, itself already a merger of the Documentary Channel and Halogen network. The shutdown of Esquire, triggered by both AT&T and Charter looking to dump it, suggests the Big Nine’s bundling practices won’t insulate them from having to cut down on their networks.

To be sure, the Big Nine will continue to play musical chairs for as long as they can – Comcast is reportedly also looking into converting Oxygen into an outlet for crime dramas – but if the shutdown of Esquire is any indication, we may finally be about to see a market correction as the cable network landscape contracts to just those networks that are absolutely necessary, or at least sustainable. Losing Esquire on its own won’t cause anyone to dump cable, but if the trend accelerates fast enough, as more networks shut down there will be less of a reason for those subscribers that remain to keep their cable subscription, and eventually we should reach an equilibrium where cable is priced low enough to actually be worth the cost for those subscribed to it, while the migration of the “lost” content to the Internet, heralded by Esquire’s conversion to a digital platform tied to the Esquire magazine web site, will minimize the damage from the contraction and increase the value of cord-cutting. We could be seeing the start of the formation of the video landscape of the future. Again, assuming there is a future.

How NBC Gets the Olympics Exactly Backwards

Another Olympics has come and gone, and with it another round of hand-wringing over NBC’s tape-delay policy, fueled further this time around by NBC’s historically low ratings for its primetime coverage. NBC’s primetime coverage averaged a 14.4 household rating, dominant over the rest of TV but the second-lowest mark for a Summer Games since at least 1968 and probably ever, beating only Sydney in 2000, with declines especially acute among key young-adult advertising demographics. People are still trying to figure out the reasons for the low ratings, especially since everyone expected numbers much closer to London (the highest-rated non-North American Summer Olympics since 1972), but plenty of wags on the Internet and among sportswriters are pointing the finger at NBC’s long-standing and woefully outdated policy of tape-delaying the marquee events for primetime. This, of course, despite the fact that Rio is only an hour off of the East Coast and many events, including the marquee track and swimming events, aired live in primetime, meaning if anything NBC is likely to come to the conclusion that the Games suffered because they were live, not because they were taped. London had no events live in primetime, while NBC pulled strings to get Michael Phelps’ chase for gold into the morning time slot in Beijing, putting it in primetime on the East Coast. The result: London’s completely taped coverage beat Beijing’s mostly-taped coverage, which beat Rio’s mostly-live coverage. It sure looks like tape delay helps NBC’s ratings rather than hurts them, no matter how much people on social media may whine about it.

Further fueling this attitude is the popularity of the Olympics on the West Coast, where even NBC’s live primetime coverage is delayed, and thus where the whining about tape delays reached a fever pitch, but which is perennially the region where the Olympics are most popular, something NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus pointed out. But the dominance of the West Coast is not what it used to be; Salt Lake City and Denver were the top two markets, but San Diego was the only other market in the Pacific or Mountain time zones to crack the top 20. In Beijing, those three markets were joined by Portland in the top 10, and at least in the first week (when Phelps raced), four more West Coast markets placed in the top 17 with higher-than-average ratings, including every West Coast market in the top 40 except for Seattle (which gets the CBC’s live coverage on our cable systems). Had that held, it would seem to suggest that, even holding the time slot and specific games constant, tape delay only improves ratings. Instead, it raises the question of whether the West Coast, and indirectly audiences in general, really are souring on tape-delayed Olympics coverage.

Of course, since 2012 NBC has allowed people to stream almost all the events live regardless of where they live, albeit with the Olympic international feed’s announcers, and NBC claims that when streaming and cable are added in (for the first time ever, NBCSN and Bravo aired coverage in primetime that cannibalized some of NBC’s audience), the Rio Games trailed only London as the second-most watched ever. Streaming, however, remains only a teeny-tiny subset of total viewing, with the total amount of streaming for the entire games accounting for as much consumption as an hour 45 minutes of NBC’s primetime coverage.

But even though live sports streaming in general has a fraction of the popularity of viewing sports on linear TV, that only gets to the real problem with NBC’s “Olympics as ultimate reality show” approach, namely that it treats the Olympics as a type of programming that is slowly losing its relevance to linear television. Indeed, as “cord-cutting” increasingly emphasizes being able to watch what you want when you want, leaving live events as the sole area where linear television retains a purpose in the face of the rise of the Internet, NBC’s approach of streaming the Games live and delaying events to be neatly packaged for its linear network seems to be exactly backwards. As I’ve said before, streaming is not and may never be well-suited for airing major live sports events, and while complaints about Olympic streaming seemed to be more about the experience of getting through NBC’s authentication and its insistence on delaying the Opening Ceremony even on the stream than the sluggishness experienced in London, if NBC continues to insist on streaming as the only guaranteed method of watching marquee events live, it will only put themselves under more and more strain, or alternately greatly increase the cost of delivering the Games smoothly, as streaming becomes more normalized as a means of watching content. On the other hand, it’s disingenuous for NBC to insist on packaging the marquee events for showing when everyone is at home and then require that those events be shown at the same time for everyone even when they’re not live; after all, not everyone has a 9-to-5 job where primetime is the most convenient time to watch the Games. There is a place for recorded, prearranged programming on linear television, but that place is heavily reliant on social media, and social media was disproportionately represented by those that didn’t like NBC’s current strategy.

By the end of NBC’s current contract running through 2032, I could see NBC’s linear channel(s) (assuming it still exists as such) sticking strictly to airing the marquee events live, while also offering its traditional packaged coverage for streaming online whenever someone wants to start it for those who want the Olympics as “ultimate reality show”. That NBC does not do this already, instead forcing both the sports and reality fans to watch tape-delayed, packaged coverage at a specific time in order to maximize ratings for that specific time and sell ads at the highest price, is a sign both of how far streaming has yet to go to achieve normalcy, and a sign of how slowly linear television is embracing its true nature and the key to its future.

The 200 Most-Watched Live Events of 2014

Yes, this is over a year late. I actually got really close to being far enough along to post this until I let things drop off to pursue other interests and eventually started spending all my time putting the book together.

If, as I’ve suggested, the only purpose of linear television going forward will be to show live events that many people want to watch at the same time, then ratings for live events become a particularly important category to look at, because they form the underpinning of everything else. So here are the 200 most-viewed live programs of 2014 to my knowledge, with the top 50 ranked.

Breaking news outside of primetime and other non-primetime news events are not counted because I couldn’t find any numbers for them. I’m also assuming no other evening news shows had audiences high enough to appear on the chart; I also assumed all non-audition episodes of American Idol were live, but marked the Hollywood and Vegas episodes with question marks. Events in red are news events; in blue are NFL games; in green are other sports events; in orange are awards shows; in purple are reality shows; and all other events are white.

Read moreThe 200 Most-Watched Live Events of 2014

Why the Proposed “Hulu Skinny Bundle” Will Be Set Up to Fail

The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday night that Hulu is developing its own over-the-top “skinny bundle” for release sometime in the first half of 2017. (Note: since the WSJ article is paywalled, most of this info comes from a Mutlichannel News writeup of it.)

According to the WSJ, the bundle would include, at minimum, channels associated with two of Hulu’s co-owners, Disney and Fox, including ABC and Fox owned-and-operated stations and other popular channels they own, including ESPN, FS1, and Fox’s regional sports networks. The reports I’ve seen don’t say whether the service would include channels from anyone else other than the third co-owner, NBC Universal, but one analyst speculated a little over a week ago that it might end up including channels from CBS and Time Warner, both of which have contributed to Hulu’s existing on-demand service (with Time Warner even approached about a stake in the company last year). In other words, it would include the five companies that offer substantial sports content and that, together, keep the cable bundle together. Even if Disney and Fox were only able to get the Turner networks on board, the Hulu service could conceivably be a one-stop-shop for sports fans with every nationally-televised game from MLB, the NBA, and every major college conference, every bowl game of significance, and every NCAA Tournament game not on broadcast television, plus, for fans of local teams, games of any team with an agreement with a Fox network. The main reason to get NBCU on board would be to appeal to NHL, NASCAR, golf, and soccer fans, as well as fans of teams on Comcast’s RSNs. All told, it could well be the biggest step yet towards the breakup of the cable bundle.

Which is precisely why the companies creating it, especially Disney, won’t let it be.

Both the analyst that speculated about this a couple weeks ago and the WSJ report suggest that a Hulu skinny bundle would cost around $40 per month. After slashing the price earlier this year, PlayStation Vue currently offers broadcast stations and a broad selection of popular channels, including ESPN, ESPN2, FS1, FS2, and all three of Turner’s networks that carry NCAA Tournament games, and popular networks from NBCU (but not NBCSN) and all of the non-sports four, for $39.99 a month in the markets where it carries broadcast stations. If you have an antenna and live in one of Vue’s non-broadcast markets, for just $5 more than the proposed Hulu skinny bundle, you can add most of the channels left out of Vue’s base package, including NBCSN, Golf Channel, beIN Sport, ESPNU, BTN, SEC Network, and regional sports networks. Of course, considering PS Vue dropped its price at the same time it added the uber-expensive Disney networks, it may well be operating at a loss in an attempt to spur adoption, and may hike its prices again later. Still, if the Hulu skinny bundle is competing with PS Vue at those prices, not to mention Sling TV currently offering (with the single stream package) all the ESPNs, including SEC Network, plus TNT and TBS for $25 a month or (with the multi-stream package) FS1, the Fox RSNs, and all three Turner networks for $20 a month (suggesting Sling would probably offer all those channels for around $40 once it synchronizes its packages, depending on the effect of adding the Viacom channels), there’s really little reason to sign up for the Hulu skinny bundle unless you really want NBCSN and Golf Channel or you just want to deny the non-sports four your money out of principle.

It’s hard to see who the Hulu skinny bundle would appeal to that wouldn’t be better served with Vue or Sling – which, of course, is probably the point. Disney and Fox don’t really want to do anything that would hasten the breakup of the cable bundle, so it’s not surprising they’d price it to be uncompetitive with Sling and Vue given its selection, even though they could theoretically offer a lower price since they’re not really going through middlemen, potentially setting it up to fail and giving them a reason to claim skinny bundles and going direct-to-consumer doesn’t work. If they did try to competitively price it, Disney likely wouldn’t sign off on launching it unless it had the non-sports four on board, effectively making it the same as Vue, because there’s nothing Disney fears more than cutting the non-sports four out of, and thus motivating them to become independent from, the cable bundle. (Incidentally, that same analyst that speculated about a Hulu skinny bundle, and about a skinny bundle with the non-sports four, suggests that the latter could cost just $9 a month. That’s cheaper than anything I speculated about at the time, though only barely.)

It’s become increasingly apparent that the current batch of “skinny bundles” is more about the Big Nine declaring their independence from cable companies and networks not owned by the Big Nine (not to mention broadcast stations) than from the cable bundle itself, with all of them too scared of the consequences of leaving the others. In that sense, there is some importance to a Hulu skinny bundle that gives Disney and Fox a distribution mechanism independent not only of cable companies but of any middlemen whatsoever. But don’t be fooled by the uncritical pro-cord-cutting media touting it as some sort of landmark development in the breakup of the cable bundle. In the end, a Hulu skinny bundle will do little to benefit the consumer, at least in the short term, only its owners.