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Average Cable TV Bill Now Over $100/Month; “Every Year is a New Record High”

Phillip Dampier September 28, 2016 Competition, Consumer News No Comments

640px-obverse_of_the_series_2009_100_federal_reserve_noteFor the first time, the average American now pays over $100 a month just to watch television.

Leichtman Research Group, which has measured cable television rates annually for years, just released a report finding the average amount paid for cable television is now $103.10 a month. That’s an increase of about 4% over last year, the lowest annual increase in five years. But it’s still a 39% increase from 2011-2015, which is nearly eight times the rate of inflation.

As rates rise, customers are increasingly cutting cable’s cord for good. More than 800,000 Americans said goodbye to cable TV in the second quarter of this year alone, according to cable industry researcher SNL Kagan. eMarketer says the biggest reason customers are leaving is obvious: higher bills.

“About 82% of households that use a TV currently subscribe to a pay-TV service. This is down from where it was five years ago, and similar to the penetration level eleven years ago,” said Bruce Leichtman, president and principal analyst for Leichtman Research Group, Inc. “The rates of those exiting the category, or intending to leave, are actually similar to recent years. The decline in penetration is also due to a lack of those who are coming into the category, and the industry not keeping pace with movers and related rental housing growth.”

Customers are no longer fooled by promotional rates that offer cable TV for $30-50 a month, usually expiring after one year. Once their first bill arrives, they are unhappy to discover growing mandatory equipment fees and bill padding charges for sports programming, local stations, fake official-sounding surcharges like “regulatory recovery fees,” and more.

“Once the XFINITY bill arrives, my $60 television promotion is $104 after the $5 fee for local stations, $3 for sports, additional outlet charges, equipment rental fees, and taxes/surcharges,” said Comcast customer Dan Ho from central California. “You almost have to take the internet and phone service just to feel like you are getting anything of value for your money, because the bundle price seems like a better deal.”

cable-bill

The cable industry argues cord-cutting won’t save consumers much money, but as Fortune magazine reports, those arguments are traditionally based on temporary rates that never tell the whole story,

“Too often, the comparisons quote a low, promotional, or entry-level price for the cost of a cable TV package instead of looking at the real prices people actually pay,” wrote Fortune author Aaron Pressman. “Left out of the superficial analysis all too often are set-top box fees, regional sports network fees, fees dressed up as faux taxes, and actual taxes.”

Fortune adds every year is a new record high for cable television bills.

Leichtman Research reports that once consumers cut the cord, an increasing number never look back, while those still subscribed to cable are often earching for a better deal:

  • Overall, about 3% of TV households last subscribed to a cable/pay-TV service 1-3 years ago, about 6% subscribed over 3 years ago, and about 6% never subscribed to a pay-TV service;
  • 7% of current cable subscribers did not subscribe to a TV service for more than a month at some time over the past two years;
  • 25% of those who moved in the past year do not currently subscribe to a cable TV service — a higher level than in previous years;
  • 12% of cable subscribers are likely to switch from their provider in the next six months — similar to 11% in 2015, and 12% in 2014;
  • 6% of pay-TV subscribers are likely to disconnect from their provider and not subscribe to any TV service in the next six months — similar to 7% in 2015, and 7% in 2014.

Programmer Conglomerates Preparing to Ax Smaller Cable TV Networks

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Is this the future of satellite TV?

Ten years ago, large programmers like NBC-Universal, Fox, Viacom, and Time Warner started bundling new niche channels into their programming packages, forcing pay television providers to add networks few wanted just to get a contract renewal agreement in place for the networks they did want. Now, in the era of cord-cutting, those programming conglomerates are preparing to slim down.

One of the largest — Comcast/NBCUniversal — is the first to admit “there are just too many networks,” to quote NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke.

Burke warned investors back in July that axing networks like Style and G4 was just the beginning.

“You’ll see us and others trimming channels,” Burke said during Comcast’s second-quarter earnings call. “We will continue to invest what we need to invest into our bigger channels, and we’ll continue to trim the smaller ones.”

Cable operators hope that day arrives sooner rather than later as cord-cutting continues to have an impact on cable-TV subscriptions.

For every popular cable network like USA and Bravo, cable operators get stuck carrying ratings-dogs like CNBC World, Centric, Cloo, VH1 Classic, Fox Business Network, and Fuse — all of which attract fewer than 100,000 viewers nationwide at any one time. Fuse barely attracted 51,000 viewers in 2015. But just about every cable TV customer pays for these channels, and many more.

Many cable channels wouldn’t survive without subscription fees because advertisers consider them too small to warrant much attention.

cable tvWhile Burke’s prediction has yet to slash the cable dial by more than a few networks so far, it has slowed down the rate of new network launches considerably. One millennial-targeted network, Pivot, will never sign on because it failed to attract enough cable distribution and advertisers, despite a $200 million investment from a Canadian billionaire. Time, Inc.’s attempts to launch three new networks around its print magazines Sports Illustrated, InStyle and People have gone the Over The Top (OTT) video route, direct to consumers who can stream their videos from the magazines’ respective websites.

Fierce Cable this week opined that forthcoming cord cutter-targeted TV packages streamed over the internet from players including DirecTV/AT&T and Hulu, among others, will likely start a war of cable network attrition, which may make the concept of a-la-carte cable a thing of the past. Editor Daniel Frankel believes the future will be a finite number of cable networks delivered primarily over IP networks, which are expected to dramatically pare down the traditional cable TV bundle into fewer than 100 channels. Only the most popular networks will be included in a traditional cable TV lineup, and some of these providers expect to deliver a bundle of fewer than 50 channels, including local stations. Those booted out of the bundle may still find life from viewers going OTT, if those networks can attract enough people to watch.

AT&T is hoping for the best of both worlds as it prepares to launch an internet-based package of networks under its DirecTV brand called DirecTV Now. Sources told Bloomberg News AT&T is hoping DirecTV Now will attract more subscribers by 2020 than its satellite service. At some point in the future, it may even replace DirecTV’s satellite television service.

directvDirecTV Now is expected by the end of this year and will likely offer a 100 channel package of programming priced at between $40-55 a month, viewable on up to two screens simultaneously. The app-based service will be available for video streaming to televisions and portable devices like tablets and phones. No truck rolls for installation, no service calls, and no equipment to buy or rent are all attractive propositions for AT&T, hoping to cut costs.

Since AT&T has taken over DirecTV, it has lost over 100,000 satellite customers. The threat to AT&T U-verse TV is also significant as customers increasingly look for alternatives to cable TV’s bloated and expensive programming packages. AT&T no doubt noticed the impending arrival of Hulu’s cable TV streaming platform next year and other services like Sling TV. Deploying their own streaming alternative with AT&T’s volume discounts from the combined subscribers of DirecTV and U-verse means AT&T can sell its streaming service at a substantial discount.

If consumers find the offerings from DirecTV Now and Hulu a credible alternative to traditional cable television, cord cutting could dramatically accelerate, provoking a response from cable operators likely to offer their own slimmed-down packages. So being among the 100 or so networks carried on DirecTV Now, or among the 50 or so networks Hulu is planning to offer, could be crucial to the future survival of any cable network. Those stranded in the 500-channel Universe of today’s cable television packages could be forced off the air or to an alternative means of reaching an audience such as OTT.

The lesson learned by the cable television industry is that customers are tapped out and unwilling to pay ever-rising cable TV bills for dozens of networks they’ve never watched and don’t intend to. The longer term lesson may be even more scary for some networks. Live, linear television as a concept may have seen its time come and go, at least for entertainment programming. While viewers are always going to seek live television for sports and breaking news, alternative on-demand viewing of everything else, preferably commercial-free, is a growing priority for many, especially if the price is right.

Charter Official Tells Berkshires He Doesn’t Know How Much Their Set-Top Boxes Actually Cost

charter-rumsfeld

Charter channels Don Rumsfeld

A Charter Communications executive told a western Massachusetts cable advisory board he had no idea how much Charter’s set-top boxes cost the company.

The question was just one of many asked by concerned public officials and residents worried cable bills could skyrocket as much as 50 percent after Charter takes over for Time Warner Cable early next year in the region.

Charter will require all cable television subscribers to rent a set-top converter for each connected television that will cost $6.99 a month each after a two-year grace period. The Five-Town Cable Advisory Committee that represents the interests of residents of Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox, Sheffield, and Stockbridge, Mass., call that illegal, claiming it violates a 10-year agreement signed in 2013 with Time Warner Cable and transferred to Charter in 2015.

Charter promised officials there would be no changes after taking over Time Warner Cable’s 10-year contract, but officials and some residents are now pushing back against the cable operator after learning customers paying $14 a month for 20-channel basic service will now have to pay at least $21 — a 50% rate hike — to keep cable service after Charter Spectrum arrives.

charter spectrum logoThe Berkshire Eagle covered an open meeting held last night at the Great Barrington Firehouse, where residents and officials wondered why they could only lease a cable box from Charter, and asked the company to share how much the set-top box actually costs the company.

Charter representative Tom Cohan and his lawyer responded they did not know the cost of the equipment and added Charter’s upgrade, which will digitally encrypt all cable television channels, would have happened with Time Warner Cable as well.

Cohan also declared that since Charter views the encrypting of cable channels as “an upgrade,” that means they are not in violation of the agreement with the towns, and they have no say in the matter anyway.

“As the cable operator, we have authority over what technology we use,” said Cohan.

Town officials pointed out there has not been a case of prosecutable cable theft over the last five years, making encryption unnecessary.

“It’s not proper to make us pay for something we don’t need and don’t want,” said Linda Miller, the committee’s chairwoman. “We don’t want to file a lawsuit, but we will if we have to.”

Walmart Educating Consumers on How to “Cut the Cord”

Phillip Dampier September 14, 2016 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 3 Comments

walmartWalmart is recommending customers consider cutting off cable television for good with a step-by-step guide advocating an end to high-priced bills for hundreds of channels you’ll never watch:

When you sign up for cable, you are sold on the possibly hundreds of channels you will have access to, but how many do you actually watch? Most people find that they have, at most, a couple dozen channels that carry all of their favorite shows, while the rest are just filler. Unfortunately, whether you watch them or not, you’re still paying for all of those extra channels. Part of the tremendous savings (an average of $80 a month) in cutting the cord is moving to services that offer a smaller set of channels representing only what you want to watch. Not only do you just have the channels that you actually want, but streaming services are far more convenient, since they’re geared towards on-demand delivery of content. You watch what you want when you want. Most are month-to-month, meaning you can switch it up anytime rather than being stuck in a long-term contract.

The guide gives Walmart the obvious opportunity of selling customers on new televisions and equipment to enhance their streaming experience, and they don’t forget to mention how to hook up an antenna they just happen to sell to get local stations back on your cable-less television.

Walmart also uses its “cord-cutting” guide to upsell customers on VUDU, an often-forgotten pay-per-view streaming service Walmart just happens to own.

FCC Chairman Announces Compromise Set-Top Box Reform; Free ‘Apps’ for One and All

explorer 8000[Editor’s Note: Federal Communications Commission chairman Thomas Wheeler today released a compromise proposal hoping to get the cost of set-top box equipment down for millions of Americans forced to lease equipment to watch cable television.

Wheeler originally proposed requiring an open standard for set-top box equipment that would open the market to competition by allowing manufacturers to directly sell equipment to consumers and compete for their business. Cable operators, programmers, and various special interest groups that depend on financial contributions from those operators immediately launched an unprecedented pushback claiming set-top box reform was racist, anti-minority, promoted copyright theft, and was illegal and unconstitutional. Small cable operators claimed they might be driven out of business, and programmers claimed companies like Google might fundamentally change the channel lineup on new equipment that would leave them in a disadvantaged position.

In fact, the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue earned by cable operators charging the same price for equipment fresh out of the box or handed down in beat up condition to the fifth customer in eight years was more likely the driving factor.

Mr. Wheeler capitulated and released a more modest proposal promising cable operators would be forced to offer free “apps” for devices like Roku and Apple TV. But cable operators will likely own and manage those apps and have direct control of authentication methods and anti-piracy measures that are likely to be proprietary. Still, apps like TWC TV which covers Time Warner Cable’s lineup on devices like Roku have allowed consumers to ditch expensive set-top equipment and irritating Digital Adapters that don’t function well and have almost tripled in price since their introduction. Making sure these apps provide comparable functionality with set-top boxes and are released to a variety of devices will be key to whether Wheeler’s proposal, delivered in full below courtesy of the Los Angeles Times, has a measurable impact on cable bills.]

FCC chairman: Here are the new proposed rules for set-top boxes

There’s never been a better time to watch television in America. We have more options than ever, and, with so much competition for eyeballs, studios and artists keep raising the bar for quality content. But when it comes to the set-top-box that delivers our pay-TV subscriptions, we have essentially no options, creating headaches and costing us serious money in rental fees. That makes no sense, which is why I’m sharing a proposal with my fellow commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission to change the system.

Wheeler's compromise

Wheeler’s compromise

Ninety-nine percent of pay-TV subscribers currently lease set-top boxes from their cable, satellite or telecommunications provider, paying an average of $231 a year for the privilege, according to a recent analysis. The collective tab is $20 billion annually in rental fees. In a recent study, 84% of consumers felt their cable bill was too high. What they may not realize is that every bill includes an add-on fee for their set-top boxes. We keep paying these charges even after the cost of the box has been recovered because we have no meaningful alternative.

Pay-TV providers will be required to provide apps — free of charge — that consumers can download to the device of their choosing.
Earlier this year, the FCC launched a process to unlock the set-top-box marketplace. We were motivated by the desire to give consumers relief, but we were also mandated to take action by Congress and the law, which says that consumers should be able to choose their preferred device to access pay-TV programming.
Over the past seven months, the Commission conducted an open proceeding where we heard from pay-TV providers, programmers, device and software manufacturers, consumers groups, and, most important, the American people. We listened.

Now, I am proposing rules that would end the set-top-box stranglehold. If adopted, consumers will no longer have to rent a set-top box, month after month. Instead, pay-TV providers will be required to provide apps – free of charge– that consumers can download to the device of their choosing to access all the programming and features they already paid for.

appletvIf you want to watch Comcast’s content through your Apple TV or Roku, you can. If you want to watch DirectTV’s offerings through your Xbox, you can. If you want to pipe Verizon’s service directly to your smart TV, you can. And if you want to watch your current pay-TV package on your current set-top box, you can do that, too. The choice is yours. No longer will you be forced to rent set-top boxes from your pay-TV provider.

One of the biggest benefits consumers will see is integrated search. The rules would require all pay-TV providers to enable the ability for consumers to search for pay-TV content alongside other sources of content. Just type in the name of a movie, and a list will come up with all the places it is scheduled for broadcast and where it can be streamed (like Amazon Prime or Hulu).

Integrated search also means expanded access to programming created by independent and diverse voices on the same platform as your pay-TV providers. Consumers will more easily find content even if it’s not on the pay-TV service to which they subscribe.

These rules will open the door for innovation, spurring new apps and devices, giving consumers even more choice and user control.

While our primary focus during this proceeding was to promote consumer choice and fulfill our congressional mandate, we recognize that protecting the legitimate copyright interests of content creators is also key to serving the public interest. To ensure that all copyright and licensing agreements will remain intact, the delivery of pay-TV programming will continue to be overseen by pay-TV providers from end-to-end. The proposed rules also maintain important protections regarding emergency alerting, accessibility and privacy.

Large pay-TV providers, which serve more than 90% of subscribers, will have two years to fully implement the new requirements.  Medium-sized providers will have an additional two years to comply, and the smallest providers would be exempt.

This is a golden era for watching television and video. By empowering consumers to access their content on their terms, it’s about to get cheaper — and even better.

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