Today I moderated a spirited discussion panel at CTAM NY’s annual Blue Ribbon Breakfast at Gotham Hall in NYC. The title was "Over the Top TV....Can Broadband Video Be Cable's Newest Opportunity?" We had an amazing group of panelists (click here to see list and listen to podcast) and with 450+ attendees a packed house as well.
A key question we dug into was whether and to what extent cable’s traditional (and highly successful) paid subscription model will be impaired by the rise of broadband video usage. Try as I did to see if any of the panelists believe that it will, none would admit to it. The reasons given included, "some form of a paid model will always exist but will never succumb entirely to a free, ad-supported model" to "cable networks won’t push broadband video distribution of their programs so hard as to upset the current model of receiving affiliate fees from cable operators", to "the low probability that inexpensive PC-to-TV bridge devices will proliferate any time soon" to "viewers have shown that they want a selection of channels to browse."
While I think each of these answers is quite legitimate, my point of view is that we are in the early days of an fundamental transformation in the video (and indeed the media more generally) business that will eventually (though of course who knows when and to what eventual degree) see most, if not all programming get unbundled into a fully on-demand paradigm.
I believe the ultimate answer to how cannibalistic broadband is toward cable ultimately turns on whether consumers believe it’s a "zero sum" game, meaning they choose between EITHER accessing programs via a VOD or DVR offering only available if they’ve bought into a monthly multi-channel video subscription (that’s to say the way the world works today) OR if they opt out of that subscription offering and INSTEAD choose to buy these programs a la carte, or receive them free, courtesy of a highly targeted ad model. The opt out option would of course be available through open broadband video distribution.
All trends point to the latter ultimately prevailing. While cable operators are well-positioned to shift their models to exploit this behavior if they act aggressively, they are also vulnerable to it if they don’t. The most important driver of the "opt out" scenario is that for an increasingly larger portion of our society, their behavior and expectations are formed by the Internet. And the ‘net is a completely personalizable and on demand medium. Especially for most online media, it is also mainly free, or paid on a fully a la carte basis (e.g. iTunes). Users’ expectations are through the roof and only getting higher. As broadband proliferates they will bring these same expectations to their decision-making.
Is it really realistic to believe that in 5 years when today’s MySpace/Facebook/YouTube/iTunes crazed 16 year old kid goes to set up his/her first apartment, s/he is going to embrace the notion of subscribing to a hundred channel package just so s/he can watch a handful of programs on demand? And of course, the ‘net’s behavior change isn’t confined to kids, it’s pervasive across all age groups.
Cable operators have an outstanding opportunity to capitalize on these macro behavioral trends. But doing so will require cable operators to make a significant and risky departure from their traditional subscription-based business models. It’s a classic incumbent’s dilemma. It will be interesting to see if they can do so.