In my recent post "Revisiting the Long Tail and Broadband" I explained how broadband is the next step in an evolution of video distribution systems and that now, after many years of growth, cable networks' niche, but collective audiences are exceeding those of the broadcasters.
Several readers emailed suggesting I append an important footnote to this analysis: there is a key business model difference between today's fledgling broadband video providers and cable networks. That difference is that cable networks benefit from monthly "sub fees" or "affiliate fees" that all distributors (cable TV and satellite operators, telcos, etc.) must pay to carry cable's programming. These fees are collected in addition to the advertising these networks sell. No such sub fees are available to broadband video providers (or broadcasters for that matter), at least not yet.
Having been in and around the cable industry for 20 years, I fully appreciate that sub fees matter a lot to cable networks. Since the beginning of the cable industry, they have served as a financial firewall for networks. Sub fees now range from pennies per month to over $3 for ESPN. Even on the low-end a "fully distributed" cable network (reaching approximately 80 million+ U.S. homes) reaps millions of sub fee dollars per month. And remember, that money comes in regardless of how well the network's ratings were that month. (btw, for an explanation of the genesis of sub fees, have a look at "Cable Cowboy," Mark Robichaux's biography of TCI's John Malone).
Cable networks' financial security continues to be translated into improved programming quality. Recently, in "Golden Age for TV? Yes, on Cable," the NY Times' David Carr lamented that broadcast TV seems to be on a degenerative slide to offer "all manner of contests and challenges," yet noted that cable is ascendant with Emmy and Oscar-winning talent dotting its innovative new dramas. No surprise to anyone, financial muscle translates into programming quality.
All this helps to explain why, whenever I moderate a panel including cable network executives, they fall all over themselves to declare their allegiance to their current, paying distributors. Cable networks are stepping gingerly into the broadband era, careful not to upset their enviable business model.
Conversely, broadband upstarts have no incumbent customers to consider. While this frees them to strike creative and wide-ranging distribution deals, as best I can tell, they're going to be totally dependent on advertising for a long time to come. This is why I continue urging that broadband video advertising must mature further, and fast.
While broadband upstarts scramble and broadcasters struggle, cable networks will keep chugging along, nicely fueled by their consistent sub fees.