There was nothing surprising when I read last week’s coverage of FX CEO John Landgraf’s tally of original productions in 2019. According to Landgraf, the number of original dramas, comedies and limited series across all SVOD and TV networks in the U.S. reached a new high of 532 (approximately what he previously predicted). That was up from 495 in 2018, 487 in 2017 and just 182 in the pre-SVOD days of 2002.
This dynamic, which Landgraf has dubbed “Peak TV,” is leading many, if not most, ad-supported entertainment-oriented cable TV networks onto a road to nowhere if their goal is to remain ad-supported entertainment-oriented cable TV networks in the long-term. What is far more likely is that being this type of network will become unviable and so they’ll morph into studios that provide premium original and library content, mostly for bigger platforms (e.g. Amazon, Netflix, Apple, Hulu, etc.) and sometimes for their parent companies’ direct-to-consumer OTT services.
According to new research released today from YuMe and Nielsen, 60% of U.S. homes now have either a smart TV or a connected TV device, with 74% of these owners, or approximately 44% of U.S. homes, using them on a daily basis. Of the 2,410 research participants, 1,465 had a TV connected to the Internet, with 884, or 60% of them using a connected TV device like Roku, Fire TV, etc. and 581 (40%) using a smart TV.
The research also found that smart TV ownership has nearly doubled since 2013. No surprise, the research found that movies and TV shows are the preferred content for large screen TVs, while short-form video is most popular on computers and mobile devices.
Advertising, subscriptions, or both? All video providers are currently grappling with the fundamental question of what business model to pursue. With the cost of producing high-quality video and the challenge of attracting and audience more daunting than ever, deciding which path to follow has taken on increasing urgency.
But if the stakes are higher, so too is the murkiness, especially when it comes to what consumers will pay for. Just because Netflix has 50 million U.S. subscribers doesn’t mean getting to a million is straightforward for an SVOD wannabe.
This morning, FX and Comcast announced FX+, an ad-free subscription video on demand service available to Xfinity TV subscribers for $5.99 per month. FX+ is quite comprehensive, including full current seasons of 17 different FX shows (e.g. “The Americans,” “Atlanta,” “Taboo,” etc.) along with library seasons of 16 current and prior shows (e.g. “The Shield,” “The League,” “Nip/Tuck,” etc.). In all, there will be over 1,100 episodes of FX programming available to subscribers.
FX+ follows the recent announcement of AMC Premiere by AMC and Comcast, which is another ad-free SVOD service, available for $4.99 per month. However, AMC Premiere doesn’t include AMC’s deep library of popular programs, highlighted by “The Walking Dead,” “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” while also including some original digital content. AMC Premiere’s shallow content selection suggests its success will be modest.
Just prior to the holiday break FX released its latest update on “Peak TV” - the name company president John Landgraf coined a couple years ago to describe the exploding number of original scripted TV programs being produced. According to FX, which is tracking Peak TV, in 2016 there were 455 scripted originals, up from 421 in 2015 and 182 in 2002.
In that 14-year time period, the biggest volume contributor has been ad-supported cable TV networks, increasing from 30 shows in ’02 to 181 shows in ’16. But zeroing in on just the last 3 years, it’s the SVOD providers (Netflix, Amazon and Hulu) that have had the biggest impact. The group tripled their output from 24 shows in ’13 to 93 in ’16 while ad-supported cable TV rose from 161 to 181, broadcast TV bumped up from 131 to 145 and premium TV (HBO, Showtime, etc.) was basically flat, from 33 in ’13 to 36 in ’16. Put another way, in 2013, SVOD accounted for just 6.9% of all scripted TV and in 2016 they tripled their share to 20.4%.
Binge-viewing is a bona fide phenomenon that's not only changing consumers' TV viewing behaviors, but also creating fissures in the TV industry. Recently, in "For U.S. Cable Operators, Netflix Partnerships Are Fraught With Risk," I outlined how binge-viewing is driving a competitive dynamic over content rights between Netflix and pay-TV operators' VOD and TV Everywhere plans. Adding further detail, this past Friday, Vulture published an excellent article with specific examples of how this battle is brewing.
According to Vulture, FX and Turner are telling studios from which they obtain TV shows that they need rights to stream the full current season of shows (known as "stacking" rights) not just the most recent 3-5 episodes. Part of the networks' rationale is they need to give late-coming viewers an easy path to watch from the beginning of a season, rather than just enabling existing viewers a way to catch up.
Two questions I like to ask when I speak to industry groups are, "Raise your hand if you'd be interested in 'cutting the cord' on your cable TV/satellite/telco video service and instead get your TV via broadband only?" and then, "Do you intend to actually cut your cord any time soon?" Invariably, lots of hands go up to the first question and virtually none to the second. (As an experiment, ask yourself these two questions.)
I thought of these questions over the weekend when I was catching up on some news items recently posted to VideoNuze. One, from the WSJ, "Turn On, Tune Out, Click Here" from Oct 3rd, offered a couple examples of individuals who have indeed cut the cord on cable and how their TV viewing has changed. My guess is that it wasn't easy to find actual cord-cutters to be profiled.
There are 2 key reasons for this. First it's very difficult to watch broadband video on your TV. There are special purpose boxes (e.g. AppleTV, Vudu, Roku, etc.), but these mainly give access to walled gardens of pre-selected content, that is always for pay. Other devices like Internet-enabled TVs, Xbox 360s and others offer more selection, but are not really mass adoption solutions. Some day most of us will have broadband to the TV; there are just too many companies, with far too much incentive, working on this. But in the short term, this number will remain small.
The second reason is programming availability. Potential cord-cutters must explicitly know that if they cut their cord they'll still be able to easily access their favorite programs. Broadcasters have wholeheartedly embraced online distribution, giving online access to nearly all their prime-time programs. While that's a positive step, the real issue is that cord-cutters would get only a smattering of their favorite cable programs. Since cable viewing is now at least 50% of all TV viewing (and becoming higher quality all the time, as evidenced by cable's recent Emmy success), this is a real problem.
To be sure, many of the biggest ad-supported cable networks (MTV, USA, Lifetime, Discovery) are now making full episodes of some of their programs available on their own web sites. But these sites are often a hodgepodge of programming, and there's no explanation offered for why some programs are available while others are not. For example, if you cut the cord and could no longer get Discovery Channel via cable/satellite/telco, you'd only find one program, "Smash Lab" available at Discovery.com. Not an appealing prospect for Discovery fans.
Then there's the problem of navigation and ease of access. Cutting the cord doesn't mean viewers don't want some type of aggregator to bring their favorite programming together in an easy-to-use experience. Yet full streaming episodes are almost never licensed to today's broadband aggregators. Cable networks are rightfully being cautious about offering full episodes online to aggregators not willing to pay standard carriage fees.
For example, even at Hulu, arguably the best aggregator of premium programming around, you can find Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and "Colbert Report." But aside from a few current episodes from FX, SciFi and Fuel plus a couple delayed episodes from USA like "Monk" and "Psych," there's no top cable programming to be found.
As another data point, I checked the last few weeks of Nielsen's 20 top-rated cable programs and little of this programming is available online either. A key gap for cord-cutters would be sports. At a minimum, they'd be saying goodbye to the baseball playoffs (on TBS) and Monday Night football (on ESPN). In reality, sports is the strongest long-term firewall against broadband-only viewing as the economics of big league coverage all but mandate carriage fees from today's distributors to make sense.
Add it all up and while many may think it's attractive to go broadband only, I see this as a viable option for only a small percentage of mainstream viewers. Only when open broadband to the TV happens big time and if/when cable networks offer more selection will this change.
What do you think? Post a comment now.
For now, there seem to be happy faces all around the cable industry regarding these online premieres. Cable networks argue that online generates upfront buzz leading to higher awareness and ratings for on air. This in turn builds value in multichannel subscription services. This was the point that Bruce Campbell, Discovery's president of digital media made at the recent CTAM NY panel I moderated. Of course, networks are doing the right thing following audiences online, all the while continuing to proclaim that their traditional affiliates (cable and satellite operators) are their most important customers.
Maybe I'm missing something, but I doubt all these happy faces will prevail for long. My guess is that at some point next year the lights are going to go on in the cable operator community that the portals and other new distributors are getting access to programs that operators' monthly affiliate fees pay for in the first place. Of course gone are the days of cable exclusivity, but if and when operators flex their muscles and express their change of heart about online premieres, my bet is they'll stop.
Operators should know that, at some point, the law of "there's only 24 hours in a day" kicks in - so if someone caught the premiere online, they don't actually need to tune in for the on air debut. And of course, do cable operators really want to allow viewers to grow accustomed to seeing high-quality long form programming online and/or through portals?
I think we'll see lots more of this activity until the cable operators call "foul". In the meantime, operators would be smart to start getting some of these premieres on their own portals, to bolster their own online positions.
Tomorrow morning Charter Communications will announce a redesigned version of Charter.net, the company's portal for its broadband Internet subscribers. I got a sneak preview of the press release and the new site along with a briefing with Himesh Bhise, VP &GM of High-Speed Internet for Charter, who oversees the portal.
According to Himesh, this redesign is the first key milestone for three main themes the company is pursuing for its portal: improved functionality and feature accessibility on its home page, increased video availability and more extensive TV listings.
I'm impressed with the direction Charter's taking. Charter's goals of enhancing the value of its bundle of video and online services is right on the money. I've said for a while that cable operators are potentially going to be the biggest beneficiaries of broadband video because they already have longstanding relationships with cable TV networks and video consumers, plus a huge base of broadband subscribers (Charter has over 2.5 million).
Charter's in synch with this thinking. They've done deals with a range of partners from biggies like Nickelodeon, HBO and FX to smaller ones like IFC, ResearchChannel.org and HAVOC. Charter's bringing selected video clips into its portal and will also offer some exclusive premieres of certain programming. Other cable operators like Comcast, Time Warner and Cablevision are already down this road with similar activities. Charter's initiatives add further momentum to this trend.
While I'm a fan of these moves, I would love to see the cable guys step up their broadband video activities even further. For example, Himesh and I engaged in an interested mini-debate about the definition and value of "exclusive" broadband programming. To me there's an terrific opportunity for cable operators to negotiate and obtain the broadband rights, at least for a defined window, for certain programs exclusively for their Internet subscribers. This would mean their subscribers get video they just can't get elsewhere. (Btw, that's kind of the way the cable TV world used to work until Congress stepped in with the "program access rules" in the '92 Cable Act).
Some kind of exclusive broadband programming would differentiate cable's portals from the Joosts and other next-gen broadband aggregators coming into the market. I think it's inevitable we're going to see some jousting for these kinds of rights, especially as things get more competitive.