Thursday, May 17, 2012

Who is going to disrupt the Pay TV industry?

I've spent the last few weeks having renewed discussions with a variety of people whose opinion I respect in this space, including those in the Twitter-sphere, the blogosphere, and in plain old real life, and with the NCTA Cable Show happening in Boston next week, I think it is the right time to open this debate up again.

The debate is simple: Who is going to disrupt the current Pay TV industry?

A few months ago at the OTT Con in Santa Clara, I had this discussion in spades with many of the participants in the would-be "cable killer" world (most of whom themselves are "cord cutters" or at least "cord thinners").  My take aways after those discussions were that it was incredibly premature to even think about "Over the Top" or "broadband" video killing the established Pay TV operators like Comcast, DirecTV and Verizon because only the metrics had indicated that all of the current players combined had only made a minor dent in TV Viewing (3 hours of online viewing vs. 34 of traditional viewing per week, 2% of the $200B TV advertising spent on "on-line" video) and that so far the only business being disrupted in a serious manner was DVD sell-thru, which was suffering as much from physical Netflix and the shift from purchase to rental as it was from digital Netflix.  My brief conclusion then was simple: Large pay TV operators were bringing in an average monthly bill per household of close to $100 (ARPU) and the would be disruptors were still in the sub-$15 range and those Pay TV operators were "Striking Back" with their own TV Everywhere solutions, so any would-be survivors in the next 3-5 years would have to deliver an incredibly compelling user experience (UX) centered around Discovery (likely on the second screen).

Gigaom tried to articulate this a little more clearly in a recent article (that perhaps started this debate anew) called the 7 ways Comcast is killing the cable killers.  In short, large operators have implemented a multi-pronged strategy of defensive and offensive initiatives including blocking peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic, prioritizing traffic on their network (ie giving their own video priority), implementing data caps and data cap exceptions (for their own TV Everywhere traffic), and unleashing offensive TV Everywhere strategies to counter Netflix and Hulu's impact (StreamPix, authenticated Hulu, HBO Go, etc).

But perhaps we should take a step back and look at the wider "home entertainment" industry and look at what is driving content creators, distributors and consumers to change their business practices and viewing habits.  Despite the recent decline in the physical media segment of the industry (DVDs and Blu-rays), physical media still represents 47% (~$15B) of the "pay for play" video consumption market, while Pay TV has been slowly growing its share at 34% (~$11B, not including sports) and what we would affectionally call "Digital" (including PPV, VOD, SVOD, and EST) represents only 19% (~$6B), though this is the fastest growing segment.  Since it is unlikely that consumers are going to significantly increase the amount of hours of video they watch (who has 37 hours anyway?), we should assume that any further growth in digital will either come at the expense of the physical DVD world or the Pay TV networks.  Since Pay TV has continued to grow during the expansion of digital, it is probably a safe assumption that it will either slow its growth or stay flat in the next 3-5 years while physical media continues to decline.

But when you dig deeper into the economics behind all of this, you find out that the big money makers for the content creators and distributors are Pay TV packages and the sell-thru of movies and the least profitable segments are the subscription digital services and the subscription physical rental services.  Combine this with the sheer weight and power of the major Pay TV Operators (Comcast has 22m subscribers, similar to Netflix, but at nearly 10x the revenue on average) where the top 4 players (Comcast, DirecTV, Dish, and TimeWarner Cable) make up 61% of the US pay TV subscriber market, and you can imagine they have commensurate purchasing power with the content creators to secure the same rights that Netflix and Hulu have without additional costs.

Ok, so what does that mean?

The content creators need to find a way to reduce the impact of the two least profitable market segments on their business.  They need to:

  • convert physical rental to digital rental (where they change their economics from a ~25% split to a ~70% split), 
  • provide consumers a reason to purchase content digitally vs. renting, and 
  • support their large Pay TV customers in their battle with the disruptors who are delivering the most impact on subscription digital rental.  

Practically, this means they:

  • support digital rental windows that are on par with the physical windows by supporting Apple/iTunes, Vudu, Amazon and of course Pay TV Operator VOD while constantly reducing the viability of physical rental distributors (pushing the Netflix and RedBox windows out past the digital rental windows or forcing them to buy from Wal-mart and others instead),
  • put tremendous effort behind UltraViolet and Disc to Digital programs so that consumers can build a digital library of owned titles and attempt to drive household movie purchases per year from the current average of 7 back towards its 2004 zenith of 14, and
  • empower Comcast in their StreamPix efforts, support the TV Everywhere models of DirecTV and Dish's Blockbuster, and consistently ratchet up the content cost for Netflix to acquire their content to a price on par with their subscriber base (meaning they pay the same as Comcast for content deals).

So while I don't believe that the Pay TV Operators will be bankrupted by the digital disruptors in the near future, I do believe the disruptors deliver significant consumer value and will continue to do so in the coming 3-5 years.  Think about it this way:
  • the VOD and PPV offerings from our cable and telco operators were completely abismal until iTunes, xBox, and Hulu launched (and the BBC iPlayer in the UK), forcing the Pay TV operators to improve their own VOD and catch-up channel offerings to combat "churn" (cord cutting, cord thinning), and
  • the success of Netflix has forced those same Pay TV operators to launch their own TV Everywhere strategies including HBO Go and StreamPix.
Since we shouldn't expect those large operators to spend development dollars unless they are increasing their revenue (ARPU) or reducing churn, I would expect the next disruption battle to be centered around Social TV, the Second Screen and Discovery.  Here, disruptors will emerge that will start to impact the ad-supported TV market (including sports), which is at least twice the size of the pay for play video world, and will start to make the transactional rental and sell-thru market more efficient for the consumer (easier to find your content at an appropriate price) while potentially introducing new revenue opportunities for the industry (commerce, advertising, analytics).  

Ultimately, some of those disruptors will find a business model that works in this larger video ecosystem and they will survive or be acquired by the existing large players in the space, but the macro-economics of the ecosystem won't change significantly because of them.  Consumers, will however, benefit from that disruption in an improved user experience (UX).

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