How The New York Times Missed The Story About HBO, CBS, And The Web

Do you think that Big Media companies are about to blow up one of the greatest rackets in American business – one that accounts for the vast majority of their profits? The New York Times apparently does based on its geewhiz front page story this morning (in sync with a lot of trendy commentary this week) pegged to new initiatives by CBS and Time Warner’s HBO to offer some of their programming online to people who pay them monthly subscription fees.

The announcements indicate that a “new era of à la carte television arrived in earnest this week – seemingly all at once and more quickly than many industry executives and television fans had expected,” the Times says. “And with it, the virtual monopoly that cable, satellite and telecommunications companies have had over TV programming is dissipating.” It adds that the “moves signal a watershed moment for web-delivered television….Rapidly fading are the days in which people pay an average of $90 a month for a bundle of networks from a traditional provider.”

The slippery wording keeps it from being technically inaccurate. But the main thrust of these observations represent a fantasy. HBO and CBS want to strengthen the status quo, not help to tear it down.

The companies — and other powers including Comcast, Disney, Fox, Discovery, and Viacom — thrive because they act as an oligopoly. They help themselves, and each other, by insisting that distributors only offer channels in bundles. Consumers justifiably hate having to pay for channels they don’t watch. They grudgingly pay the ever-rising monthly bills because that’s the most efficient way to keep up with news, sports, and the latest entertainment.

Execs don’t want to mess with that: If consumers had the freedom to choose, about half of the revenue in the TV ecosystem, about $70B, “would evaporate and fewer than 20 channels would survive,”  Needham Co analyst Laura Martin concluded in a widely read analysis last year.

Wall Street clearly believes that HBO and CBS are merely launching intriguing experiments. Shares of every major media company would tank if investors agreed with The Times’ view that the companies had lost faith in pay TV as we know it.

So what makes the Times believe that HBO and CBS initiatives are such a big deal? Hard to say. It asserts without evidence that the announcements highlight “how rapidly the balance of power is shifting in the television landscape.” They are “a reaction to the success of Netflix.” Also the companies “are eager to appeal to the fast-growing number of viewers” who just pay for Internet service, which they use to watch videos on relatively inexpensive (e.g. Netflix) or free (e.g. YouTube) streaming services.

But efforts to nibble at Netflix’s business won’t necessarily lead to a la carte television. More than 100M households subscribe to pay TV, and Time Warner execs told the Street this week that they simply want HBO to also reach about 10M who just subscribe to broadband. CBS has been available a la carte since the beginning of television to anyone with an antenna. I doubt we’ll see a stampede to CBS’ online service which charges about $6 a month — just $3 less than Netflix charges new subscribers — to those in 14 markets who want to stream the network-owned stations, without football, and watch previously aired shows on a VOD basis.

Consider what they’d put at risk if they did promote a la carte. Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting bundles TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, truTV, Turner Classic Movies, and Boomerang. They generated nearly $10 billion in revenue last year with a 35% operating profit margin. And execs told the Street this week that the margin will grow on average by low double-digit percentage rates every year through 2018 – even though the operation plans to double its outlays for original programming to $1 billion in 2018. Time Warner could not keep that ambitious promise if it also planned to let HBO encourage consumers to sidestep the pay-TV bundle.

Or CBS. Cable and satellite distributors pay about $2 a month for everyone who watches the network. CEO Les Moonves wants more; he predicts the company will collect $2 billion in these fees in 2020, up from an estimated $550 million this year. That won’t happen if he helps to break up the bundle. Indeed, RBC Capital Markets’ David Bank — one of the Street’s shrewdest analysts — says CBS’ initiative “is less about building a business of selling standalone subscriptions for $6/sub, but rather, driving the retrans fee to closer to $3/sub and justifying higher reverse compensation [payments from affiliates to CBS] — and it just might work.”

Gil Scott-Heron famously said that the revolution won’t be televised. And while Internet video is becoming more interesting and cord-avoidance is growing, it also isn’t being streamed. At least not yet.


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