• Can An Entertainment-Centric Skinny Bundle Succeed?

    Can an entertainment-centric skinny bundle succeed? That question will be answered soon when a new service including TV networks from Discovery, Viacom, AMC, A+E and Scripps launches, according to a recent WSJ report. The service will be called “Philo” which is the same name as the technology provider that will power it.

    Skinny bundles have received a huge amount of attention over the past couple of years as a lower cost approach the pay-TV industry is using to retain would-be cord-cutters. However, skinny bundles have faced the vexing question of whether to include expensive sports networks in their offers, which in turn pressure already minuscule profit margins.

    By avoiding sports networks altogether, Philo would have more pricing and margin flexibility. According to my colleague Colin Dixon, a likely mix of TV networks to be included by Philo might carry an underlying cost of $10 per month (actually a bit higher because Colin didn’t include AMC in his calculations). That would mean Philo could price itself at $20 per month or less and potentially still be profitable.

    “Potentially” is the operative word though, because Philo’s partners would be incurring new costs such as subscriber acquisition, customer service, delivery, technology, etc. that they don’t when distributing through their traditional pay-TV partners. How much all of this would add up to is unclear.

    But a bigger question is just how appealing a service like Philo actually might be. I’ve long believed that there’s a segment of viewers that only care about entertainment and not sports at all. Or they’re such casual sports fans (e.g. they may just watch the Super Bowl) that they wouldn’t miss not having sports TV in their bundle. Look at the success Netflix, Hulu and Amazon have had with their almost exclusively entertainment programming strategies and it’s clear a big market exists for entertainment-only viewers.

    Just because these providers have had success doesn’t necessarily imply that Philo will. Last year, consulting firm Altman Vilandrie did some really interesting research around which TV networks would be “must haves” for skinny bundle prospects. All 4 of the broadcast networks topped the list, with all but Fox cited by over 50% of respondents. Since the WSJ reported Philo will not include the broadcast networks, this would be a major hole and diminish its appeal. And Philo would be entering the market just as skinny bundles are gaining momentum in carrying broadcast networks, improving their attractiveness.

    However, on the bright side, moving past the broadcast networks, the AV research shows that of the next 11 networks considered “must haves,” 6 of them likely would be in the Philo service: History Channel, Discovery Channel, Food Network, Animal Planet, AMC and A+E. Having these networks will help Philo. But underscoring how competitive the landscape is, Sling TV, the most popular skinny bundle, includes all of these 6 networks in its $20/month Orange tier except Discovery and Animal Planet, but it also includes TNT and ESPN, which were among the top 11 that Philo doesn’t look likely to have. In short, Philo will represent yet another choice for cord-cutters about which networks matter to them and which don’t.

    That raises a big question about Philo’s and other skinny bundles’ network-centric approach which contrasts with SVOD providers’ more program-centric approach. Because networks are paid both carriage fees at the network level and organize their ad sales this way, they’re heavily invested in this approach. Conversely Netflix and Amazon, for example, which have neither carriage or ad sales, can be more focused on individual shows resonating with audiences and how they affect subscriber acquisition and retention.

    To the extent that viewers become more focused on programs and subscribing to new services to access them - as opposed to thinking about entire networks they need to have access to, then Philo’s traditional approach may be misaligned with consumers’ new expectations. There’s no doubt many consumers are hungry for lots of entertainment options, but whether an entertainment-centric skinny bundle can succeed is an open question.