• Broadcast TV’s Role in Skinny Bundles Bolstered by Networks’ Affiliate Deals

    I’ve been a skeptic of skinny bundles, partially because of the huge holes in their channel lineups (what I’ve dubbed the “Swiss cheese” problem) which I believe narrows their appeal. The most glaring hole has been the absence of all the broadcast TV networks except in a handful of the biggest metropolitan areas. Not having all the broadcast networks is a serious drawback because even in the fragmented cable era, they still draw the biggest audiences outside of sports.

    But there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic that this problem may soon be solved. Three of the four big broadcast networks have announced agreements with their affiliate boards which essentially allow the networks to negotiate carriage in skinny bundles on their behalf. NBC was the first to announce its deal, on April 13th. That was followed by Disney ABC on April 24th. And then yesterday, CBS announced its own deal. While FOX hasn’t announced a deal, it has added more affiliates to DirecTV Now, which is a positive sign of progress.

    These agreements matter a lot because the alternative - each skinny bundle attempting to hammer out carriage agreements with more than 200 affiliates per network around the country would have been a painstaking, lengthy process with uncertain results. Having a single point of contact in each of the network’s distribution groups, who can bargain on behalf of affiliates, increases the likelihood of achieving near ubiquitous coverage.

    Beyond the benefit of being able to bolster their channel lineups and the appeal of their services, skinny bundles will also benefit from being able to ultimately present consistent offers nationwide. This is a critical point, because a key driver of skinny bundles’ profitability will be the ability to cost-effectively add and retain subscribers. The skinny bundles are all banking on the same type of economics that SVOD operators like Netflix have used to build to 50 million subscribers in the U.S.

    But an important element of Netflix’s success was that regardless of where you lived in the U.S. you were guaranteed to get the exact same content (note Netflix doesn’t enjoy the same advantage internationally, where rights are all over the board). So Netflix could present a unified marketing message, without any regional discrepancies. Consistent content also meant the Netflix UI could be common for all subscribers and the customer service experience streamlined.

    Today’s reality is there is no consistency of product for skinny bundles across geographies whatsoever. Prospects exploring a skinny bundle service must educate themselves about what broadcast (and cable) channels they’ll actually receive for the alluring low price. Because the content varies so widely, word-of-mouth marketing that helped Netflix only leads to confusion and frustration when it becomes clear that the likelihood of receiving the same level of service is remote. All of this leads to huge friction and reduces the likelihood of ultimate success.

    I observed a very tangible example of this last fall, when Sling TV was promoting on its home page to subscribe in order to watch Game 7 of the World Series. But clicking on the “where available” text below the offer revealed the very few markets where the Fox affiliate was actually carried. And if you didn’t click on “where available” and signed up thinking you’d be able to watch the game, only to learn you couldn’t, you’d be plenty upset. Note, this isn’t to pick on Sling TV; any skinny bundle doing a similar promotion would have the same problem.

    In this context, the networks’ affiliate deals could be pivotal. Of course, the networks still need to actually consummate deals with the skinny bundles, which in and of itself isn’t a slam dunk considering the budget constraints skinny bundles have.

    And while broadcast networks’ absence is the biggest gap for skinny bundles, it’s far from the only one. Each skinny bundle is also missing popular cable TV networks as well, and there’s little rhyme or reason behind which ones are included. Then there’s the issue of expensive regional sports networks, where deals also need to be made for them to be included. Their absence is a turn-off for sports fans considering skinny bundles.

    On top of all this, the true breath of skinny bundles appeal is still unknown. As I said in Variety this week, lots of cord-cutters who aren’t sports fans are likely done with live TV altogether, already feeling more than satisfied by the wide array of great TV shows on SVOD. They’re unlikely to be drawn to skinny bundles, regardless of price. On the other end, would-be cord-cutters will be closely evaluating skinny bundles to see if favorite channels are included. If they’re not, they’ll be turned off too.