• Verizon Sounds An Awful Lot Like It's Throwing in the Towel on Traditional Pay-TV

    The past week has brought some pretty remarkable statements from Verizon executives, suggesting that the company - which has long-trumpeted its FiOS TV service - has all but thrown in the towel on traditional pay-TV. The decision has broad implications for the pay-TV and broadband industries.

    First, at this week’s Ignition conference, Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam said “People do not want 300-channel bundles and the economics won’t work for that.” Instead he’s betting on Verizon’s skinnier “Custom TV” service, which averages between 40-60 channels, and which McAdam said now drives “40% of FiOS’ subscriber volume.” McAdam also talked up Verizon’s Go90 mobile video service as a potential substitute and the company having hired “a couple thousand people” in Silicon Valley.

    I find the level of interest in Custom TV quite surprising since, by the time someone’s done configuring Custom TV, it’s unlikely to actually save them much money. The idea that Go90 - at least as it’s currently constituted - can serve as a viable replacement for the multichannel bundle, is far-fetched. There is little full-length content, it’s mobile-only (and it even counts against a subscriber’s data plan), and by being ad-supported, it will never have the economics to gain access to most cable/broadcast programming.

    But all of that is a story for another day.

    McAdam’s pay-TV comments followed a truly stunning admission last week at the TV of Tomorrow show by FiOS TV director Maitreyi Krishnaswamy that she has “pretty much cut the cord.” Huh? The head of the company’s pay-TV service says she has no use for the very thing she heads up? How's that for a ringing endorsement? It’s surely not every day when you hear that level of candor in public. She too talked up the value of Go90 as the company’s main video strategy.

    The executives’ pay-TV trash-talk comes 5 years after Verizon announced that it would not be adding to its FiOS TV footprint and news that it is finishing up the build-outs it committed to. There are plenty of ticked-off cities along the East Coast (including Boston, right here in my backyard) which never got FiOS, despite it being initially touted as a cable TV slayer. In a further sign of Verizon’s waning interest in FiOS, the company is in the process of selling off its wireline assets in California, Florida and Texas to Frontier Communications. Rumors that it will sell all wireline assets abound.

    Oddly, of the top 11 providers of pay-TV service in the U.S. Verizon appears to be doing the best, at least from a subscriber acquisition standpoint. Through the first 3 quarters of 2015, Verizon has added 158K video subscribers, and is the only top provider that has not only added video subscribers in all 3 quarters this year, but is also net positive video subscribers for the year (by contrast, AT&T U-Verse has lost 63K video subscribers so far in 2015). Note however, that the 158K video subscribers Verizon added in Q1-Q3 2015 is down from the 271K it added in Q1-Q3 2014 and the 444K it added in Q1-Q3 2013 (hat tip to Bruce Leichtman for pointing out).

    As Verizon eases away from the multichannel bundle, cable TV operators (and less so satellite providers) that have had Verizon as a competitor and are innovating with their video services (as Comcast aggressively is doing with X1), will be clicking their heels. While Verizon and AT&T have for years been taking video market share from cable, it now seems things are ripe to turn around, particularly for those cable operators that cleverly bundle broadband service (which by the way, cable is dominating these days as well).

    Verizon’s roller-coaster ride with FiOS TV is yet another example of how rapidly the technology, communications and video industries have evolved over the past 10 years. Whereas Verizon once thought being a next-gen pay-TV provider was its ticket to glory, it’s now focused on mobile, mobile video, and via its recent AOL acquisition, on advertising. It’s a crazy time for all involved.