The never-ending tussle between pay-TV operators and sports TV networks over escalating carriage fees is back in focus due to the standoff between Comcast and the YES Network, which has the rights to broadcast New York Yankees games, among others. Comcast dropped YES last November, leaving approximately 900K of its New York area subscribers without access to YES. With the Yankees’ opening day one week from today, the standoff is going to gain much more attention.
As with other sports TV carriage disputes, this one boils down to money and audience. Comcast is arguing that YES’s demand for a reported $6 per month per subscriber isn’t justified given its ratings. Last November Comcast said that over 90% of its subscribers didn’t watch the equivalent of even one quarter of the 130 games YES broadcast in 2015. Nielsen said that YES averaged 250K viewers in 2015, a decrease of 44% vs. its peak of 450K in 2007.
National sports networks like ESPN and regional sports networks (RSNs, like YES) have long been on the gravy train of steadily raising their rates, regardless of how the teams they carry actually perform. For a long time pay-TV operators paid these fees, fearing that dropping them would directly lead to subscriber defections.
But since relatively few subscribers actually watched these networks, their high fees (estimated to be 50% or more of a pay-TV operators’ total programming bill), resulted in a “sports tax” paid by ALL subscribers. This largesse funded the 8 and 9-figure free agent signings and drove franchise values into the billions. Because most subscribers don’t closely scrutinize their pay-TV bills, and since specific networks’ costs aren’t broken out anyway, things chugged along, until recently.
In the past couple of years, the rise of SVOD (now in more than half of U.S. homes), omnipresent media coverage of cord-cutting, proliferation of connected and mobile devices to view video and of course ongoing economic pressure many Americans experience, have combined to make pay-TV operators much more attentive to the escalating costs of sports programming. ESPN’s much-publicized loss of 7 million subscribers over the past couple of years highlighted the new pressure sports TV networks are feeling.
Three groups in particular - millennials whose linear TV viewing has steadily trended down, “entertainment-only’s”/non-sports fans who have an ever-expanding choice of inexpensive video choices and economically-challenged viewers attracted to cheaper skinny bundles - are all upper-most in the minds of pay-TV operators.
In the Comcast-YES dispute, there are several particulars that have no doubt emboldened Comcast to take a harder line. First is that with Comcast’s X1 set-top boxes (of which Comcast is now installing 40K nationwide per day), Comcast can now track its subscribers’ actual viewing patterns, rather than relying solely on Nielsen’s estimates.
This is the scenario TV networks have long feared - that their true appeal will be measurable by operators, which will use the data to inform their carriage renewal negotiations. No matter how much YES executives say to the contrary, Comcast knows exactly how much their subscribers watch YES, and therefore how valuable it actually is. For YES, the most expensive RSN in the country, mediocre ratings obviously matter a lot. (No doubt this viewership data helps Comcast value its own sports networks as well.)
Second is that while YES is encouraging Yankees fans to switch from Comcast to other pay-TV operators that DO carry YES (see A-Rod's ad here), the reality is that current industry and product dynamics favor Comcast. After investing billions in the X1, better broadband infrastructure, and yes, even customer service, Comcast’s product is superior to satellite and telco alternatives (when these are even available). Comcast was on a roll in 2015, losing just 36K video subscribers compared to a loss of 194K in 2014.
On top of this, people lead busy lives, so much as YES may think the Yankees are the sun and the moon, in reality only hard-core fans are going to drop everything to switch pay-TV subscribers so they don’t miss a game.
Last but not least, there are many ways to now keep up with a game, without actually watching it. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube clips, etc. all let fans experience what’s happening or what happened. Given baseball’s long, often tedious games, checking in on highlights while instead watching Netflix or Amazon on the big screen is a preferable experience for many anyway.
Disputes between TV sports networks and pay-TV operators are only going to escalate going forward. In the meantime, operators like Comcast are going to continue doing things to offset their costs like adding line items to their monthly bills (Comcast has been charging me a $3/month “Regional Sports Fee” and a $5/month “Broadcast TV Fee” for a while now). With viewership dynamics favoring OTT sources, there will be more pressure than ever on sports networks to get their rate increases through.