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Viacom, Booted Off Some Basic TV Tiers, Plans Own $10-20 Non-Sports TV Package

Viacom, which owns cable networks including Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, MTV, BET, and TV Land, will launch a cheap non-sports bundle of entertainment cable networks viewable online for $10-20 a month this year.

Viacom has lost basic cable viewers at an accelerating rate as cable operators drop their networks or repackage them in more expensive basic tiers as Viacom raises wholesale rates cable companies pay to carry the channels.

Viacom CEO Bob Bakish talked about the new service this morning at the J.P. Morgan Global Technology, Media and Telecom Conference in Boston. Bakish said most of the current “skinny cable TV” bundles were priced at around $40 a month, which is too expensive to attract “cord-never millennials” that frequently don’t subscribe to cable television.

“The transformational opportunity is to bring in a new entry segment at a much lower price point,” Bakish said. The cable industry needs “a path to bring in someone who wants high-quality entertainment” but has no interest in expensive sports networks.

That is why Bakish wants to create a cheap entertainment-oriented bundle of networks that omits sports-related channels. But Bakish has also repeatedly stressed he has no intention of giving consumers a comprehensive online alternative to traditional cable TV, telling investors Viacom is “not creating inexpensive opportunities to serve as an alternative.”

Bloomberg News reported Viacom was talking to Discovery and AMC Networks about participating in the new service. The only complication may be a backlash from sports programmers like Walt Disney’s ESPN and 21st Century Fox, Inc., which have contracts requiring providers to include the sports networks in their most popular bundles. Some contracts even limit how many customers are permitted to sign up for a sports-free TV package, according to Michael Nathanson, an analyst at MoffettNathanson LLC.

“It’s meant to dissuade distributors from doing something like this,” Nathanson told Bloomberg. “The issue is how many subscribers they can have before the legal questions appear.”

Bakish may also be trying to remind cable and satellite companies that Viacom can always go direct-to-consumers if operators banish Viacom’s networks off the cable dial or move them to a more expensive tier, although there is no guarantee the new service will bundle all of Viacom’s networks.

Viacom has seen its relationships with cable and satellite providers deteriorate over the last few years under prior management. Some smaller cable companies including Cable One dropped Viacom channels from their cable systems over cost issues in 2014, and many more subscribers have seen Viacom networks temporarily dropped as a result of contract renewal disputes. Bakish has made repairing relations with cable and satellite customers a priority since taking over as CEO in December, but he still has a way to go.

Recently, Charter Communications moved Viacom networks out of its Select basic cable TV package and moved them to its most expensive Gold package for new customers. With only a minority of customers signed up for Gold service, Viacom networks could eventually lose millions of viewers as Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers adopt Spectrum packages in the next few years. If those customers do not subscribe to Gold or refuse to pay extra for a “digipak” of Gold’s basic channels without the premium networks, they will lose access to Viacom channels when they change TV plans.

That issue also concerns Wall Street analysts who believe it could eventually erode Viacom’s viewer base. Bakish made certain to tell investors Viacom was not surrendering to Charter’s “re-tiering.”

“We firmly don’t believe they have the rights to do that,” Bakish said. “We’ve been in discussions with them. We’ve got to get that resolved.”

If it is resolved, those networks may again be available to Select TV customers.

Viacom, AMC, and Discovery are partnering up to offer a $10-20 entertainment-only package on streaming basic cable networks for consumers, as this Bloomberg News story reports. (2:58)

Hulu’s Streaming Live TV Launches; $39.99 for Hulu, 50 Live TV Channels + Cloud DVR Service

Phillip Dampier May 3, 2017 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video, Video 2 Comments

The long anticipated wait for Hulu’s live streaming cable-TV replacement is over with today’s soft launch of Hulu with Live TV, offering 50 cable networks and local affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX in select larger cities.

“Hulu can now be a viewer’s primary source of television,” said Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins. “It’s a natural extension of our business, and an exciting new chapter for Hulu.”

The new service will bundle Hulu’s live/linear TV service with its well-known on-demand package of movies and television shows. The service represents a direct challenge to cable television subscriptions and for Hulu’s owners — Disney, 21st Century Fox, Comcast’s NBCUniversal and Time Warner, Inc., is the first major industry effort to keep subscription fees closer to home, and cuts out the cable middleman.

The lineup includes many, but not all, popular cable networks. There are very significant gaps — notably Viacom networks Hulu says it has no plans to add (Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, MTV). Also missing: AMC, Discovery Networks, HBO/Cinemax and Starz. Showtime is available for $8.99 a month.

The lineup:

Fox
Fox Local Station (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Chicago)
Big Ten Network
Fox Business Network
Fox News Channel
Fox regional sports networks
Fox Sports 1
Fox Sports 2
FX
FXX
FXM
National Geographic Channel
National Geographic Wild

Disney
ABC Local Station (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Chicago)
ESPN
ESPN2
ESPNU
ESPNEWS
ESPN-SEC Network
Freeform
Disney Channel
Disney XD
Disney Junior

Comcast/NBCUniversal
NBC Local Station (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Chicago)
Telemundo Local Station (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Chicago)
Comcast RSNs
NECN
USA Network
Bravo
E!
Syfy
MSNBC
CNBC
NBCSN
Golf Channel
Chiller
Oxygen Network
Sprout

A+E Networks
A&E
History
Lifetime
Viceland
Lifetime Movie Network (LMN)
FYI

Scripps Networks Interactive
Food Network
HGTV
Travel Channel

Turner Broadcasting
CNN
HLN
CNN International
TBS
TNT
TruTV
TCM
Turner Classic Movies
Cartoon Network & Adult Swim
Boomerang

CBS
CBS Local Station (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Chicago)
CBS Sports Network
POP
Showtime ($8.99 per month extra)

(Broadcast stations may be available in certain other cities, but not all network affiliates are included.)

Hulu with Live TV is available on Microsoft’s Xbox One, Apple TV (fourth generation), iOS and Android mobile devices, and Google’s Chromecast. Future support for Roku, Amazon’s Fire TV and Fire TV Stick and Samsung Smart TVs will come later. Oddly, desktop viewing on a Mac or PC is not currently supported.

The new service joins an increasingly crowded marketplace of online cable television replacements, including Dish’s pioneering Sling TV, Sony’s game console-platform PlayStation Vue, AT&T’s DirecTV Now, and YouTube TV — the newest before today.

Hulu’s most formidable competitor in the streaming TV space will likely be AT&T’s DirecTV Now service, which offers a broader range of networks and has become popular for its promotional equipment offers. Hulu plans to counter AT&T with a marketing effort that highlights its existing on-demand service of more than 3,000 TV shows and movies is included with every subscription.

Hulu also comes bundled with its own limited cloud DVR storage service, which will record up to 50 hours of programming. But similar to Google’s YouTube TV, customers will not be able to skip the commercials that are included in the shows they record. In fact, advertisers will be able to dynamically change their advertising spots in recorded shows as long as the customer keeps them in their personal recordings library. Customers will need to upgrade to “Premium DVR” service ($14.99) to enable fast-forwarding through ads. The premium DVR add-on also includes 200 hours of storage, unlimited simultaneous recordings, and the ability to watch recorded shows outside of the home.

Customers signed up to the base package will be able to create up to six individual profiles for the household, which allows each user to track and “favorite” TV shows and movies they enjoy the most. The service will provide recommended shows based on each person’s viewing habits. The feature also allows each family member to choose their favorite sports teams and Hulu will automatically record any available game that includes a favorite team.

Base subscribers get up to two simultaneous streams of live and recorded content. An “Unlimited Screens” add-on ($14.99) removes the limit and allows unlimited home streams and up to three concurrent streams outside of the home. Customers who want both Premium DVR and Unlimited Screens can bundle both features together for $20 a month — a $10 savings.

An introduction to Hulu’s new interface and live TV option. (1:55)

Wide Open West Will Be Wide Open to Merger/Takeover After Launching IPO

Phillip Dampier March 27, 2017 Competition, Consumer News, Editorial & Site News, WOW! 1 Comment

One of America’s handful of cable overbuilders that provide competing cable television service will be ripe for an acquisition or merger after launching an initial public offering that could raise as much as $750 million and make them a juicy target for a takeover.

WideOpenWest, which customers know better as WOW!, provides almost a half-million customers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina and Tennessee with a choice of a second cable company. It has consistently won reasonably high scores in ratings issued by Consumer Reports and often offers better speed and service than incumbent providers. WOW has been quietly and slowly expanding service, but in the last two years has attracted the interest of private equity firms and Wall Street banks. One of those equity firms — Crestview Partners, invested $125 million in WOW 18 months ago. UBS Investment Bank and Credit Suisse have teamed up to manage the IPO.

Jeff Marcus, who also happens to be a partner in Crestview, has been named chairman of WOW. Avista Capital Partners still owns almost 60% of the company.

By entering the public market, WOW could quickly come under pressure from Wall Street analysts to get out of the cable business by selling the company and profiting investors. The drumbeat for mergers and acquisitions has only intensified with a corporate-friendly Trump Administration that has sought to appoint “hands-off” regulators at the FCC and Justice Department. There are several likely buyers — the various cable companies that face direct competition from WOW and would like shut the company down and upstarts like Altice, which has targeted smaller cable operators like Cablevision and Suddenlink.

Marcus has telegraphed he is isn’t in a hurry to spend investors’ money, which could leave WOW flush with cash, something else attractive in a takeover. Multichannel News reports that one of WOW’s “main directives” would be to offer “video, voice, and data services in packages that consumers want,” — hardly a revolutionary concept. In a July interview, Marcus made it clear there was ‘no burning need to increase scale.’ That tells would-be buyers the company hasn’t any immediate plans to spend a lot of money or expand service, things that could drive away some buyers.

“It’s all opportunistic,” Marcus said. “When I started Marcus Cable with 18,000 subscribers, I had no idea that it would get to 1.3 million. One thing led to another and we took advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves. I think that’s what is going to happen here.“

A wealth opportunity for Marcus would be collecting significant proceeds selling the operation. There is a good chance WOW will either buy other companies or be bought itself as the cable industry consolidation wave continues. Other operators about its size — Cable ONE and until recently NewWave Communications, have been considered takeover targets for years. NewWave was acquired by CableONE in January for $735 million in cash, coincidentally slightly less than the potential upper limit of WOW’s proceeds from an IPO.

Comcast Securing Rights to Offer Nationwide Online Cable TV Replacement

Comcast could kick the door open on the traditionally closed cable-TV monopoly.

Comcast has a “Plan B” in case rival online-TV streaming providers start a major wave of cable TV cord cutting: the right to offer its own online cable TV replacement nationwide.

Bloomberg News reports Comcast is quietly acquiring national online distribution rights from cable networks, which gives the cable giant the right to sell cable TV-like packages outside of its cable company service area.

Comcast maintains “most favored nation” clauses in its contracts with cable programmers, which means if those networks agree to online distribution of their programming over online competitors like Sling TV, AT&T DirecTVNow and PlayStation Vue, those same rights are also available to Comcast.

For now, insiders claim Comcast has no immediate plans to start competing outside of its home service areas, but it wants to accumulate the necessary rights to hedge against online rivals.

“When you really try to evaluate the business model, we have not seen one that really gives us confidence that this is a real priority for us,” Matt Strauss, Comcast’s executive vice president for video services, said at a conference in November. “There is significantly more upside and profitability in going deeper and deeper into our base first versus following a video-only offering OTT,” he added, using the industry term for nationwide online video.

Comcast has been gradually picking up online distribution rights as it renews contracts with the networks it carries. A sign Comcast may imminently launch a competing product similar to DirecTVNow would come if it chooses to renegotiate contracts before they expire. Comcast last negotiated with CBS in 2010 and ESPN in 2012. Both contracts don’t expire until 2020. Without renegotiation, any online offering from Comcast would not include networks owned by those two companies.

Comcast is downplaying any interest in breaking the traditional cable television business model, which depends in part on friendly relations with other cable companies and staying out of their territories. The prospect of Comcast selling cable TV service in Charter’s service area would threaten a still lucrative source of revenue if a price war develops. Video represents about 50% of Comcast’s cable sales.

For now, Comcast’s most evident online competitor is AT&T’s DirecTVNow which has added 200,000 subscribers nationwide since launching in November. But that remains just a fraction of Comcast’s 22 million cable-TV customers, a reason why Comcast may be in no rush to enter the online streaming cable-TV business. That may change when two high-profile online video providers get into the business later this year. YouTube and Hulu are both expecting to launch cable-TV alternatives in 2017.

One Down, 70+ to Go: Esquire Network Signs Off Cable TV for Good This Spring

Phillip Dampier January 18, 2017 Consumer News, Online Video 1 Comment

NBCUniversal has discovered fewer viewers than ever care about live, linear television. Fewer still cared about Esquire Network, the studio’s male-targeted cable network you probably never watched.

The cable channel will go dark on your cable lineup for good this spring, according to Advertising Age, and move to the internet on Esquire.com.

Esquire Network launched as a partnership between NBCUniversal and Hearst Magazines, and took over the channel space formerly occupied by the Style network in September 2013. Esquire was supposed to reach young rich guys, among the most difficult audiences to reach. Esquire had an extremely low chance of succeeding, if only because young men in their 20s and early 30s are among the least likely to subscribe to cable television. Men in this age group are also notoriously intolerant of live commercial-laden television, and would be unlikely to treat Esquire’s original shows as worthy of appointment viewing.

Can America live without cable carriage of shows like “Knife Fight?” Apparently so.

Although Esquire Network turned in much better ratings than its predecessor Style, which couldn’t draw flies to a horse barn, NBCUniversal decided to pull the plug anyway after the network averaged only 141,000 primetime viewers nationwide, many outside of the age range advertisers wanted to reach. In 2016, every cable subscriber with Esquire Network paid a portion of their cable bill to keep the network on the lineup, even though it scored less than one-tenth of a single ratings point among adults 18-49 years old. Viewers had as much chance landing on the network by sitting on their remote controls by accident as intentionally selecting the channel. Other channels sharing space in Esquire’s ratings basement include never-heard-of Pop, Reelz, and Destination America.

For the tens of viewers that cannot miss Esquire’s original shows, including  “Edgehill,” an investigative series about a 1998 unsolved murder of a Yale undergrad, no worries — it and other shows including “Borderland USA,” “Knife Fight,” “Brew Dogs,” and “Best Bars in America” will be ready and waiting for on-demand viewing on its website, where it may actually attract a larger audience.

The cable TV lineup comes at an ever-increasing cost for subscribers, and low-rated cable networks that force their way on the dial in bundles with more popular cable networks are partly responsible for the cord-cutting trend. Many customers are finding they can live fine without hundreds of cable channels they pay for and never watch, and as cancellations continue to grow, some studios admit it may be time to slim down the cable package and move low-rated cable channels to on-demand, online viewing instead.

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