Yesterday's Wall Street Journal story, suggesting that CBS and Disney may participate in Apple's planned TV subscription service, caused was yet another tremor in the already chaotic video industry. Though Apple's plans are still preliminary, when I consider the numbers the Journal reported, the company's fuzzy math suggests incumbent distributors have little to worry about just yet.
The Journal said that in "In at least some versions of the proposal, Apple would pay media companies about $2 to $4 a month per subscriber for a broadcast network like CBS or ABC, and about $1 to $2 a month per subscriber for a basic-cable network..." Let's assume the mid-points for both: $3/mo for broadcast networks and $1.50/mo for cable networks. With 4 broadcast networks (assuming NBC participates, which under Comcast ownership is itself unlikely), that would be $12 in fees/mo. Say Apple signed up 12 cable networks, that would be another $18 in fees/mo. Together the $30 in fees/mo equals what Apple is reportedly looking to charge consumers. And this package would only deliver 16 channels, which would induce few consumers to cut the cord. And by the way, there's zero chance that one of those 16 cable channels would be Disney's ESPN, which already gets north of $3/mo/sub in all of its existing affiliate deals.
Given the broadcast networks' woes, it's within the realm of possibility that they would be enticed by the $2-$4/mo, considering it's above the $1/mo/sub that is often bandied about in retransmission consent discussions. Yet, Apple is supposedly talking about delivering the programs commercial-free, which means broadcasters' total revenue per month has to equal or exceed what they're already making per month for the plan to be interesting to them. With $60 billion/year in TV advertising revenue at stake, that's a big gamble for broadcast networks to make. Even the notion that consumers would pay for broadcast programs simply because they're commercial-free is speculative. Most research I've seen suggests the opposite consumer preference (they'd rather stomach ads in exchange for free content).
An even bigger challenge for Apple is to get cable networks to play ball. Starting with my post over a year ago, "The Cable Industry Closes Ranks," I've continued to assert that, despite ongoing skirmishes, cable networks and cable operators are joined at the hip in their desire to defend the traditional multichannel subscription model. In the model, big owners of cable networks bundle smaller channels with bigger, more popular ones, and require that cable operators, telcos and satellite operators take these as a package. This is the backdrop for why consumers often grouse that there are lots of channels, but little on that interests them personally. Meanwhile, TV Everywhere is intended to preserve this model as online viewing expectations build.
It stretches my imagination to believe that big cable network owners (Disney included) are going to allow Apple to cherry-pick which cable networks they want and disrupt the traditional model, especially at a time when cable networks want more, not less control. That cable networks would be willing to put Steve Jobs in the driver's seat of their digital futures is very unlikely. Analogies to the music business only go so far: remember, music companies were already under assault from rampant piracy and reeling under financial pressure when Apple came riding to their rescue. Cable networks feel no such urgency; they've been the brightest star in the media landscape as the recession has worn on.
I've learned never to underestimate Steve Jobs or Apple. But based on what's been reported so far, Apple's subscription TV math seems very fuzzy and any service that emerges from it is likely, for the most part, to be non-threatening to incumbent distributors. And that's before getting to the issues of Apple being a closed system and requiring consumers to buy a proprietary Apple TV box to get their programs onto their TVs. In the budding 'over-the-top" sweepstakes, Apple is one to watch for sure. But there are a lot of variables in play here. It will be fun to see if Jobs has yet another rabbit up his sleeve.
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