Monday, July 16, 2012, 10:26 AM ET|Posted by Will Richmond
One of the big side effects of the current Viacom-DirecTV and Dish-AMC carriage disputes has been a renewed questioning of the durability of the traditional multichannel TV bundle by many industry observers. But while outsiders and consumers may be looking for the pay-TV industry to reinvent the way it packages and prices its services, attending the NECTA cable industry conference last Friday was yet another reminder of how committed the industry is to preserving the multichannel TV model.
To be fair, for many households (particularly heavy viewers), multichannel service is optimal and a great value. But consumers aren't monolithic, and it's time for the pay-TV industry to get real about multichannel's limits. Operators' main approach continues to be promoting an entry level tier of digital TV that has grown ever more expensive (moderator Bruce Leichtman pegs the mean monthly spending on multichannel TV service at $78.63, 7% higher than in 2011). This has, in turn, created a well-documented affordability issue for the industry.
Troubling as affordability is, the larger issue for the industry is that the very nature of packaging many channels that AREN'T watched with a handful that ARE, puts the industry at odds with consumer expectations. In the Internet era, all of us have learned to search for products online, price compare them and then select exactly what we desire. Not only is there no wasted spending, there's a feeling of empowerment and control that results. This is particularly true for younger people, for whom this type of purchasing process is native.
In the multichannel world, none of this exists. Yes, consumers often now have choices of providers (cable vs. satellite vs. telco), but their channel lineups, rates and experiences are remarkably similar. That's not a coincidence because the way that cable networks package and price their programming to distributors incents them to present their lineups similarly.
No pay-TV distributor has yet to truly break out of this paradigm and recognize that for some segments, an a la carte style menu of choices - where each channel can be individually valued and purchased, Internet-style - would be preferable. Such a radical break with tradition is hindered by data showing that multichannel households continue to grow, albeit slowly. No doubt executives managing billion dollar pay-TV P&Ls ask the question, "Why fundamentally change the multichannel model when it isn't fundamentally broken?"
The reason to do so is because the Internet has proven itself ruthless in disrupting business models that were based on artificial, analog-era bundles. Whether it's music, newspapers or books, the pattern has been the same - a combination of new technologies, new approaches and willing consumers has upended traditional models, gutting billions of dollars of value from existing players.
The video industry is not impervious to these same forces. In fact, the foundation of disruption is well underway - widespread broadband deployment allowing on demand access to high-quality video, a plethora of new original programming that fragments audiences and strong adoption of connected devices that enable more user control in the living room than ever. Though the pay-TV industry itself is attempting to harness these same forces through initiatives like TV Everywhere, as I've said before, the reality is that unless you subscribe to the expensive multichannel bundle, they're irrelevant.
Rather than facing up to these realities, many of the executives at NECTA focused on the need to better message the value of the multichannel bundle. This "if we just tell our story better" argument has been made for at least 20 years, back to when I first started in the industry. The problem is that with hyper-educated consumers, companies have less ability to shape consumer opinion than ever. Value is not a function of marketing messages, but of delivering products and services that are in synch with consumers' expectations. For instance, Apple is able to charge a premium for its products because they are easy to use, cool and innovative - attributes that are valued by today's consumers. Apple's marketing simply reinforces those attributes.
If and when someone re-imagines how video services should be delivered (possibly through apps?), I predict the consumer response will be "What took so long?!" Then those that have held fast solely to the multichannel model will scramble to catch up. But as the struggles of RIM and Nokia in mobile devices demonstrate, delayed recognition to change can be fatal. The time for the pay-TV industry to get real about multichannel's limits is now, not when subscribers are heading for the door.