Friday, October 17, 2014

How soon before we choose our own cable bundle?

The recent announcements by CBS and HBO to start selling content directly to consumers mark the beginning of the end for the bundling of cable TV stations.  Now consumers can choose between different tiers of programming but are locked into all channels within a tier.  Time Warner Cable in Cary NC has starter TV with 20+ channels (mostly local channels and CSPAN), standard TV with 70+ channels and preferred TV with 200+ channels.

The average person ends up paying for lots of channels that are never watched.  Cable cutters have moved to Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime.  These outlets provide plenty of content but they do not include (1) live sports and (2) the latest shows on premium channels.  This is now changing; it will not be long before the other major networks and premium channels match CBS and HBO.

The tough question: will buying the stations you want a la carte save you money?  This WSJ piece argues that the answer will be yes in a single person household where only a few channels get watched.  But in a multi-generational household with varying tastes, the old cable bundle may start to look pretty good.

Another key issue: households still need an internet connection to watch online content, even if they drop cable.  Is there enough competition between cable, DSL and satellite broadband services to keep internet subscription costs down?  If not, cable companies will raise their fees for internet service to make up for lost revenue from cable channels.

Finally, if cable cutting becomes widespread then expect many channels to vanish (will we be able to survive without VH1 Classic?) and others have to raise prices significantly to cover costs. ESPN collects about $5.50 from every cable customer, regardless of whether they ever watch it.  The unbundled version will create pain: either it will end up costing a lot more or college and professional sports may have to learn to get by on less revenue.

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