• The Cable Industry Closes Ranks

    First, apologies for those of you getting sick of me talking about the cable TV industry and broadband video; I promise this will be my last one for a while.

    After attending the CTAM Summit the last couple of days, moderating two panels, attending several others and having numerous hallway chats, I've reached a conclusion: the cable industry - including operators and networks - is closing ranks to defend its traditional business model from disruptive, broadband-centric industry outsiders.

    Before I explain what I mean by this and why this is happening, it's critical to understand that the cable business model, in which large operators (Comcast, Time Warner Cable, etc.) pay monthly carriage or affiliate fees to programmers (e.g. Discovery, MTV, HGTV, etc.) and then bundle these channels into multichannel packages that you and I subscribe to is one of the most successful economic formulations of all time. The cable model has proved incredibly durable through both good times and bad. In short, cable has had a good thing going for a long, long time and industry participants are indeed wise to defend it, if they can.

    It's also important to know that the industry is very well ordered and as consolidation has winnowed its ranks to about half a dozen big operators and network owners, the stakes to maintain the status quo have become ever higher. All the executives at the top of these companies have been in and around the industry for years and have close personal and professional ties. There's a high degree of transparency, with key metrics like cash flow, distribution footprint, ratings and even affiliate fees all commonly understood.

    One last thing that's worth understanding is that the cable industry has very strong survival instincts, or as a long-time executive is fond of saying, "Real cable people (i.e. not recent interlopers from technology, CPG or online companies that have joined the industry) were raised in caves by wolves." The fact is that the industry started humbly and experienced many very shaky moments. Yet it has managed to survive and continually re-invent itself (for those who want to know more, I refer you to "Cable Cowboy: John Malone and the Rise of the Modern Cable Business" by Mark Robichaux, still the best book on the industry's history that I've read).

    All of that brings us to broadband and its potential impact on the cable model. As I've said many times, broadband's openness makes it the single most disruptive influence on the traditional video distribution value chain. Principally that means that by new players going "over the top" of cable - using its broadband pipes to reach directly into the home - cable's model is at serious risk of breaking down, once and for all.

    The cable industry now gets this, and I believe has closed ranks to frown heavily on the idea of cable programming, which operators pay those monthly affiliate fees for, showing up for free on the web, or worse in online aggregators' (e.g. Hulu, YouTube, Veoh, etc.) sites. The message is loud and clear to programmers: you'll be jeopardizing those monthly affiliate fees come renewal time if your crown jewels leak out; worse, you'll be subverting the entire cable business model.

    And this message isn't being delivered just by cable operators such as Peter Stern from Time Warner who said on my Broadband Video Leadership Breakfast panel that "a move to online distribution by cable networks would directly undermine the affiliate fees that are critical to creating great content." It's also coming from the likes of Discovery CEO David Zaslav who said on a panel yesterday that "there's no economic value from online distribution," and that "great brands like Discovery's must not be undervalued by making full programs available for free online."

    The issue is, as a practical matter, can the industry really control all this? If there's zero online distribution, then as Fancast's impressive new head, Karin Gilford said on my panel yesterday, "pressure builds up and another channel inevitably opens" (read that as The Piracy Channel). The problem is that if, for example, an operator does put programs up on its own site - as Fancast is doing - they're available to ALL the site's visitors, not just existing cable subscribers, unless other controls are put in place like passwords, IP address authentication, geo-targeting, etc. But these are confusing and cumbersome to users whose expectations are increasingly being set by broadcasters who are making their primetime programs seamlessly available to all comers.

    So what does this closing ranks suggest? Going forward, I think we'll still see cable networks putting up plenty of clips and B-roll video from their programs, maybe the occasional online premiere, some made-for-the-web stuff, paid program downloads (iTunes, etc.) and promotional/community building contests, as Deanna Brown from Scripps described with "Rate My Space" or Zaslav discussed with "MythBusters."

    But when it comes to full cable network programs going online, I think that spigot's going to dry up. That has implications for online aggregators like Hulu, who will continue to have big holes in their libraries until they're ready to pay up for these carriage rights. And it also means that broadband-to-the-TV plays are also going to be hampered by subpar lineups unless these companies too are willing to pay for cable programming.

    By closing ranks the cable industry's making a bold bet that its ecosystem can withstand broadband's onslaught and the rise of the Syndicated Video Economy. In yesterday's post I noted that the music industry tried a similar approach; we know where that got them. There are plenty of reasons to think things could indeed be different for the cable industry, but there are as many other reasons to think the cable industry is massively deluding itself and could someday be grist for a chapter in the updated version of Clay Christensen's "The Innovator's Dilemma," (my personal bible for how to pursue successful disruption), right alongside the inevitable chapter about how the once mighty American auto industry spectacularly lost its way.

    For my part, there are just too many moving parts for me to call this one just yet.

    What do you think? Post a comment now!