• Subscription Overload is on the Horizon

    One might think that the depths of the worst economic recession in decades would be a lousy time to begin asking penny-pinching consumers for additional payments to access content. Yet this is exactly what many video providers plan to do, as a variety of broadband-delivered video subscription plans are beginning to take shape. Based on conversations I've been having with industry executives and what I've been reading, various subscription plans are now underway. This leads me to think that "subscription overload" is on the horizon.

    Interest in getting consumers to pay has several sources. Many executives have concluded that advertising alone is an insufficient model, even as the cost of delivering broadband video is actually plummeting. Some of this concern relates to the widespread advertising slowdown, where even established players like the big broadcast networks are being forced to accept rate cuts. These declines cannot be made up with greater ad quantity as there's prevailing worry about just how many ads can be loaded into a broadband-delivered program before the viewer gets turned off.

    There is also significant fear of not learning from the demise of the U.S. newspaper industry, which largely adopted an ad-only online business model that hasn't worked (causing some like the NY Times to now consider reinstituting subscription services). Newspapers' woes have become a touchstone in practically every conversation I've participated in recently. Last, but not least, there's no small amount of envy toward cable networks, whose dual subscription/advertising revenue model has allowed them to weather the recession better than most.

    Subscription plans seek some combination of differentiators: offering premium video in better windows, at better-quality, with deeper selection, across multiple devices and with some degree of exclusivity. The thinking is that these enhancements will allow subscription services to be distinguished from and co-exist with free ad-supported services. The implicit bet is that these differences will be understood and valued by consumers.

    Subscription plans are beginning to leak out, as happened last week in remarks by Disney CEO Bob Iger. Many in the industry (including me) anticipate that Hulu will launch a subscription service soon, particularly as it seeks to become a part of cable operators' TV Everywhere initiatives (which themselves seek to enhance the value of current cable subscriptions).

    Other plans are on the drawing board. When I read yesterday, for example, about NBC's Ben Silverman jumping to IAC to form a new video venture, I suspect it's almost a given that the venture will consider some type of premium model. The growth of mobile video is another factor fueling subscriptions. This is what MLB is doing with its new At Bat 2009 subscription app for the iPhone, which builds on its highly successful MLB.TV broadband subscription service.

    With so many subscription services underway, it's inevitable that many of them won't get traction. I mean, is it likely that consumers will pay extra so they can see a program online just hours after it airs, instead of a day later? Or so they can receive 1080-equivalent HD quality online, when 720-equivalent HD is available for free? I'm skeptical, even before factoring in the recession-driven belt-tightening many consumers have adopted. The bar for a subscription service to succeed is very high.

    Still, with broadband allowing video providers direct access to their target audiences, their well-known brands as powerful enablers, and the crummy advertising climate showing no letup, it is no surprise that the pendulum is swinging heavily toward subscriptions.

    What do you think? Post a comment now.