Wednesday, March 18, 2015, 10:49 AM ET|Posted by Will Richmond
It turns out that where's there's smoke there isn't always fire. If you were to believe the media's rampant attention to cord-cutting, you'd think it was poised to skyrocket. But new research from Bernstein reveals that while there's interest in cord-cutting among actual pay-TV subscribers, their plans to actually do so are quite minimal.
In the first of a series of focus groups of pay-TV subscribers, held in New York City, Bernstein surfaced a variety of reasons why pay-TV is stickier than a lot of people may like to believe. Even those participants who had identified themselves as "highly likely to cut the cord in the next 6 months" concluded that doing so would not be advantageous. Practically all the participants currently subscribe to OTT services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon.
The most important reason to hang on to pay-TV was diversity of programming and convenient access to it. As Bernstein notes, pay-TV is a "household" product, not an "individual" product, in the sense that it conveniently serves the multiple and often non-overlapping interests of different household members.
While sports is widely viewed as the "must-have" element of the pay-TV bundle, Bernstein also found surprisingly strong interest in reality programming, especially among women, that spans numerous TV networks and would be missed by cord-cutters. Also surprising was the high interest level in local news, even though participants were 23-38 years-old, much younger than the typical local news viewer.
The focus group also threw cold water on the prospects for "skinny" pay-TV bundles, like Sling TV, and a 25-channel service which Apple is now reportedly pursuing. Once again, the challenge is that participants each had their own preferences for what should be included in the skinny bundle.
For example, when 8 participants were asked to name their preferred 10 networks, they collectively cited 30 unique networks. This is exactly the issue that I raised last fall when I cast doubt on the prospects for so-called Virtual Pay-TV Operators ("vPops") like Sling TV and others. Swiss cheese channel lineups with gaping holes will have very limited appeal.
Standalone, network-specific services like CBS All-Access, didn't fare much better than skinny bundles, as participants quickly concluded that given the diversity of their interests, assembling an a la carte menu of these services would be MORE expensive than their current pay-TV subscriptions. This supports the notion that proliferating OTT services could actually end up being GOOD for pay-TV's all-inclusive value proposition, as I described last Fall.
While Bernstein notes that you can't extrapolate an entire population's behavior from such a small focus group, I believe the sentiments do illustrate the challenges facing all new entrants. Pay-TV is widely viewed as too expensive and customer service is often criticized, but its range of programming and convenient access to it is unparalleled. If you value that choice, it would be hard to do without it.
However, I would also add that for cord-nevers who aren't accustomed to pay-TV, and/or for smaller households - especially those not interested in sports, and/or for those on a budget - new OTT options may well be quite appealing. This is even more the case if on-demand and ad-free viewing are prized. This is partly why I see HBO Now and Showtime Anytime, with their marquee, ad-free programs and hugely valuable catalogs as having a lot of potential.
Topics: Sanford Bernstein