Topic: Cord cutting
Analyst firm eMarketer has some new numbers out on cord cutting and the impact it will have on traditional TV ad spending. Specifically, it says that later this year there will be over 22 million cord cutting households in the US, up about 5.5 million from 2016, while TV ad spending growth will slow down meaningfully, though it’s still projecting growth over the next few years. I’m in agreement with the broad trend described by eMarketer around cord-cutting: my own analysis has consistently shown accelerating cord cutting behavior, though at a rather slower rate than eMarketer is projecting – far closer to 2 million in the past year than the over 5 million eMarketer is suggesting by the end of this year. On ad spending, I’m also in agreement that growth will slow, but I think it will turn negative soon (it was already negative for the major TV companies over the past year, according to my own data gathering, thanks in part to last year’s strong election-related spending). I think a decline in the traditional TV ad business is inevitable at this point in the coming years, and the results will begin to be felt as traditional TV companies start to reduce spending to bring costs in line, which in turn will have significant effects on the overall industry.
Cable Network Owners Discovery and Scripps in Merger Talks (Jul 18, 2017)
The Wall Street Journal is reporting that two cable network owners, Discovery Communications and Scripps Networks, are discussing a merger, though there seems no guarantee that a deal will actually get done. The two are among the mid-tier cable network owners in the US, similar sized domestically while Discovery has a significant international business too. Combined, they would be the size of HBO domestically, and the size of Viacom including the international business. Each company has several networks which reach the vast majority of US households by being in the basic cable tier, but Scripps also has several less widely distributed networks, and the biggest thing they have in common is their focus on non-fiction, non-sports content, an important slice of overall content consumption but missing arguably the most popular dramas, comedies, and sports content that most people consume a great deal of. There have been recent talks about sports-free pay TV packages involving Discovery, though not Scripps. The reality is that the cable network business is only going to become more challenging in the coming years as subscriber numbers and ratings continue to drop in the face of cord cutting, cord shaving, and shifting consumption patterns driven by online video services like Netflix. Joining forces would boost scale and negotiating power and therefore help somewhat, but even the combined company would be dwarfed by the industry giants like Time Warner, Disney, and 21st Century Fox in the cable network business alone. I could see some standalone streaming services coming out of all this too, especially for non-sports fans, but I don’t see any of this solving the underlying problems cable network owners face today or in the future.
The CDC runs a twice-yearly study to determine how many households use landlines and how many use mobile phones only. That might seem like a strange thing for a government department responsible for studying disease to look into, but it first began doing so to determine whether its surveys needed to start including mobile respondents, as landline-based surveys were going to become less representative of the overall population over time. Well, those landline households are now less than half the overall population, while mobile-only households are now the majority, which has significant implications for polling and especially political polling, where automated dialing often hits only landline households. But the new numbers (and the trend over the last many years) are also a great illustration of how even technology that was once ubiquitous and considered essential can be displaced by something else, even something that on the face of it seems inferior in several respects (in this case, call quality, expense, the need to charge a battery, and so on, though all these things have improved over time). That’s worth remembering when looking at today’s dominant technologies and companies – there’s no reason to believe they’ll stick around forever either.
Comcast reported Q1 2017 results this morning, and in keeping with past trends, the numbers were generally good. It saw another rise in TV subscribers as the cable companies continue to take share from the telcos, despite the overall trend of cord cutting, and it also saw strong growth in broadband subscribers, which now significantly outnumber its TV subs. Interestingly, it also began placing more emphasis on its home automation and security business this quarter, and reported that it has almost a million subscribers, or around 4% of its broadband base. The big theme that’s emerging from this quarter’s earnings reports from these providers is bundling – Comcast continues to see the percentage of customers taking more than one product rise over time (it’s now reached 71%), while AT&T suffered precisely because it can’t offer broadband/TV bundles to DirecTV customers. The wireless-TV bundles it can offer aren’t the ones consumers are looking for, which makes Comcast’s push into wireless somewhat questionable too. At NBCU, we’re seeing many of the same trends we’ve seen before too – subscriber numbers and viewing are down, but contractual rate increases with MVPDs are driving revenue growth anyway (of course those rate increases are rising costs on the cable side). Ad revenue was down in the cable networks business but up slightly in the broadcast business despite lower ratings because prices have been rising, though my analysis across the TV industry suggests the rate of price increases is slowing dramatically. Comcast continues to be a powerhouse across the categories where it competes (which also includes movies through Universal) but it’s facing some significant headwinds in the form of cord cutting, ratings declines, and rising content costs, which are going to take an increasing toll over the long term.
Note: you can see all my earnings posts or all Q1 2017 earnings posts specifically by clicking on the relevant tags below.
ESPN Lays Off 100 On-Air Personalities (Apr 26, 2017)
Best Buy launches cord-cutting campaign with website & how-to video – Rich Greenfield (Jan 10, 2017)
This move by Best Buy is both notable and clever – notable because it swings one of the biggest consumer electronics retail brands behind cord-cutting, and clever because Best Buy is selling far more than just online subscriptions here. It’s using the cord-cutting umbrella to sell lots of gear too, from wireless routers to antennas, and even offering to help with installation through Geek Squad and how-to videos. Stuff like this is just going to accelerate cord-cutting even further, pushing it closer to a tipping point where it will cause enormous disruption in the TV industry.