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Lionsgate Studio Buys Starz in $4.4 Billion Deal

Phillip Dampier June 30, 2016 Consumer News, Online Video No Comments

starzPremium movie channels Starz and Encore have been sold to Lionsgate in a $4.4 billion cash and stock deal.

Originally created as a counterweight to increasingly expensive premium movie channels, John Malone wanted a cheaper in-house alternative and launched Starz in 1994 on many of his Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) cable systems nationwide. The movie channel never proved to pose a significant threat to Time Warner (Entertainment) or CBS/Viacom, which own HBO and Showtime respectively.

Malone maintained an interest in Starz and the mini-pay Encore Movieplex even after selling TCI cable systems to AT&T (which in turn sold most of them to Comcast) under his Liberty Media holding companies until 2013, when Starz (and Encore) were spun off as an independent company.

lionsgateThe sale was not a surprise and was expected for months.

Lionsgate gains a dependable outlet for its content and Starz and Encore gain access to 16,000 movie and TV shows and a studio to help it produce original content. Lionsgate is already known for its productions including Mad Men and Nurse Jackie. In a media release, Lionsgate says it currently produces 87 original series for 42 different American networks and has earned $7 billion in revenue from its movie releases in the last four years.

Starz continues to be the lesser known premium network, with 24 million subscribers. But many of those subscribers receive the premium movie channel for free or at a profoundly discounted rate as a promotion from their pay television provider. Encore, dubbed a “mini-pay” channel — a reference to the fact it costs about half the price of HBO and other premium channels — has a larger viewer base with 32 million subscribers.

Lionsgate is expected to be less committed to protecting the integrity of the cable television bundle and will likely broaden independent distribution of Starz and Encore through online video outlets and direct sales to consumers.

Slow Broadband = Low Usage, Finds New Study

kcl-logoHow much you use the Internet is often a matter of how fast your broadband connection is, according to a new study.

King’s College London researchers found a clear correlation between bad broadband and low usage rates, as customers avoided high bandwidth apps like online video because they were frustrating or impossible to use. One analyst said the findings show rural areas are being “deprived of the full benefits of broadband.”

One of Britain’s most used apps is the BBC iPlayer, which streams live and on-demand programming from multiple BBC radio and television networks. It is a well-known bandwidth consumer, using a significant proportion of a customer’s broadband connection to deliver up to HD-quality video streams. The study found users in South Ayrshire, Ards, the Isle of Wight, the East Riding of Yorkshire, North Down and Midlothian were among the areas where people used iPlayer the least. It wasn’t because they didn’t want to. Those areas were identified by Ofcom, the British telecom regulator, as receiving some of the worst Internet speeds in the UK. Conversely, areas with robust broadband, including London, south Gloucestershire and Bristol, showed above average usage.

Dr. Sastry

Dr. Sastry

“It is clear that high-speed broadband is an important factor in the use of bandwidth-intensive applications such as BBC iPlayer,” said Dr. Nishanth Sastry, a senior lecturer at King’s College London and the lead researcher. “With technological advancements, it is likely that more services important to daily life will move online, yet there is a significant proportion of the population with inadequate broadband connections who won’t be able to access such services.”

Ian Watt, a telecommunications consultant with the analyst Ovum, said broadband speeds must get higher to assure users can watch HD video and simultaneously share their Internet connection with other members of the household.

“Recent Ovum research indicated a speed of 25Mbps was an appropriate target access speed to provide a high quality experience for video services,” Watt said. In the United States, 25Mbps is the current minimum speed to qualify as broadband, according to the most recent FCC definition.

The findings may also explain why U.S. broadband providers only capable of delivering relatively low-speed Internet access report lower average usage than those capable of providing service at or above 25Mbps. Those offering the fastest speeds are also the most likely to attract higher volumes of Internet traffic as customers take advantage of those speeds.

Spring 2016: An Update and Progress Report for Our Members

stcDear Members,

We have had a very busy winter and spring here at Stop the Cap! and we thought it important to update you on our efforts.

You may have noticed a drop in new content online over the last few months, and we’ve had some inquiries about it. The primary reason for this is the additional time and energy being spent to directly connect with legislators and regulators about the issues we are concerned about. Someone recently asked me why we spend a lot of time and energy writing exposés to an audience that almost certainly already agrees with us. If supporters were the only readers here, they would have a point. Stop the Cap! is followed regularly by legislators, regulators, public policy lobbyists, consumer groups, telecom executives, and members of the media. Our content is regularly cited in books, articles, regulatory filings, and in media reports. That is why we spend a lot of time and energy documenting our positions about data caps, usage billing, Net Neutrality, and the state of broadband in the United States and Canada.

A lengthy piece appearing here can easily take more than eight hours (sometimes longer) to put together from research to final publication. We feel it is critical to make sure this information gets into the hands of those that can help make a difference, whether they visit us on the web or not. So we have made an extra effort to inform, educate, and persuade decision-makers and reporters towards our point of view, helping to counter the well-funded propaganda campaigns of Big Telecom companies that regularly distort the issues and defend the indefensible.

Four issues have gotten most of our attention over the last six months:

  1. The Charter/Time Warner Cable/Bright House merger;
  2. Data cap traps and trials (especially those from Comcast, Blue Ridge, Cox, and Suddenlink);
  3. Cablevision/Altice merger;
  4. Frontier’s acquisition of Verizon landlines and that phone company’s upgrade plans for existing customers.

We’ve been successful raising important issues about the scarcity of benefits from telecom company mergers. In short, there are none of significance, unless you happen to be a Wall Street banker, a shareholder, or a company executive. The last thing an already-concentrated marketplace needs is more telecom mergers. We’re also continuing to expose just how nonsensical data caps and usage-based billing is for 21st century broadband providers. Despite claims of “fairness,” data caps are nothing more than cable-TV protectionism and the further exploitation of a broadband duopoly that makes it easy for Wall Street analysts to argue “there is room for broadband rate hikes” in North America. Stop the Cap! will continue to coordinate with other consumer groups to fight this issue, and we’ve successfully convinced at least some at the FCC that the excuses offered for data caps don’t hold water.

Dampier

Dampier

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s broadening of Charter’s voluntary three-year moratorium on data caps to a compulsory term as long as seven years sent a clear message to broadband providers that the jig is up — data caps are a direct threat to the emerging online video marketplace that might finally deliver serious competition to the current bloated and overpriced cable television package.

Wheeler’s actions were directly responsible for Comcast’s sudden generosity in more than tripling the usage allowance it has imposed on several markets across the south and midwest. But we won’t be happy until those compulsory data caps are gone for good.

More than 10,000 Comcast customers have already told the FCC in customer complaints that Comcast’s data caps are egregious and unfair. Considering how unresponsive Comcast has been towards its own customers that despise data caps of any kind, Comcast obviously doesn’t care what their customers think. But they care very much about what the FCC thinks about regulatory issues like data caps and set-top box monopolies. How do we know this? Because Comcast’s chief financial officer this week told the audience attending the JPMorgan Technology, Media and Telecom Broker Conference Comcast always pays attention to regulator headwinds.

“I think it’s our job to make sure we pivot and react accordingly and make sure the company thrives whatever the outcome is on some of the regulatory proposals that are out there,” said Comcast’s Mike Cavanagh. We suspect if Chairman Wheeler goes just one step further and calls on ISPs to permanently ditch data caps and usage billing, many would. We will continue to press him to do exactly that.

Stop the Cap! supports municipal and community-owned broadband providers.

Stop the Cap! supports municipal and community-owned broadband providers.

Other companies are also still making bad decisions for their customers. Besides Comcast’s ongoing abusive data cap experiment, Cox’s ongoing data cap trial in Cleveland, Ohio is completely unacceptable and has no justification. The usage allowances provided are also unacceptably stingy. Suddenlink, now owned by Altice, should not even attempt to alienate their customers, particularly as the cable conglomerate seeks new acquisition opportunities in the United States in the future. We find it telling that Altice feels justified retaining usage caps on customers in smaller communities served by Suddenlink while denying they would even think of doing the same in Cablevision territory in suburban New York City. Both Suddenlink and Cablevision have upgraded their networks to deliver faster speed service. What is Altice’s excuse about why it treats its urban and rural customers so differently? It frankly doesn’t have one. We’ll be working to convince Altice it is time for Suddenlink’s data caps to be retired for good.

We will also be turning more attention back on the issue of community broadband, which continues to be the only competitive alternative to the phone and cable companies most Americans will likely ever see. The dollar-a-holler lobbyists are still writing editorials and articles claiming “government-owned networks” are risky and/or a failure, without bothering to disclose the authors have a direct financial relationship to the phone and cable companies that don’t want the competition. We will be pressing state lawmakers to ditch municipal broadband bans and not to enact any new ones.

We will also continue to watch AT&T and Verizon — two large phone companies that continue to seek opportunities to neglect or ditch their wired services either by decommissioning rural landlines or selling parts of their service areas to companies like Frontier. AT&T specializes in bait-n-switch bills in state legislatures that promise “upgrades” in return for further deregulation and permission to switch off rural service in favor of wireless alternatives. That’s great for AT&T, but a potential life-threatening disaster for rural America.

We continue to abide by our mandate: fighting data caps and consumption billing and promoting better broadband, regardless of what company or community supplies it.

As always, thank you so much for your financial support (the donate button that sustains us entirely is to your right) and for your engagement in the fight against unfair broadband pricing and policies. Broadband is not just a nice thing to have. It is an essential utility just as important as clean water, electricity, natural gas, and telephone service.

Phillip M. Dampier
Founder & President, Stop the Cap!

Charter Completes Time Warner Cable/Bright House Merger Today

charter twc bhAmerica has a new second largest cable conglomerate with 17 million customers and a new name.

Charter Communications formally completed their $55 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks today, creating a new cable giant that more closely rivals number one Comcast in size and scope.

The approval came despite warnings from a team at the FCC assigned to review the impact of the merger.

The Deal is Likely to Trigger an Abusive Money Party at the Expense of Customers… Merger Approved

“We conclude that the transaction will materially alter [Charter’s] incentives and abilities in ways that are potentially harmful to the public interest,” an FCC report about the impact of the merger states.

The FCC concluded the deal could become an enormous money-maker for Charter and its investors through the eventual metering of online usage. There are strong incentives, according to the FCC, for Charter “to impose data caps and usage-based prices in order to make watching online video more expensive, and in particular more expensive than subscribing to a traditional pay-TV bundle” after its voluntary commitment not to impose data caps expires.

Existing Charter customers warn this isn't the cable company you are looking for.

Existing Charter customers warn this isn’t the cable company you are looking for.

The FCC is also certain Charter will enjoy considerable pricing power with its near broadband monopoly at speeds of 25Mbps or higher. That means one thing: substantial rate increases unchecked by competition.

Despite the gloomy prospects, FCC commissioners found a “compromise” that will impose consumer-friendly conditions on the merger, but will expire between 5-7 years from today. After that, in the absence of robust competition from a player like Google Fiber, it will be open season on broadband customers.

Consumer advocates were less than pleased.

“There’s nothing about this massive merger that serves the public interest. There’s nothing about it that helps make the market for cable TV and Internet services more affordable and competitive for Americans,” said Free Press president and CEO Craig Aaron. “Customers of the newly merged entity will be socked with higher prices as Charter attempts to pay off the nearly $27 billion debt load it took on to finance this deal. The wasted expense of this merger is staggering. For the money Charter spent to make this happen it could have built new competitive broadband options for tens of millions of people. Now these billions of dollars will do little more than line the pockets of Time Warner Cable’s shareholders and executives. CEO Rob Marcus will walk away with a $100 million golden parachute.”

[Image: WSJ.com]

In fact, the golden parachutes will extend far beyond retiring Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus. According to a regulatory filing, Marcus’ contract was written to allow him to sell the company and effectively be “terminated without cause,” which activates the equivalent of a Powerball Powerplay. Marcus will automatically qualify to receive several years’ worth of his original salary, expected bonuses, and compensation in stock for showing himself to the exit. That alone is expected to exceed $100 million. Marcus’ ancillary benefits also add up, and will be eventually disclosed in future filings with the Securities & Exchange Commission.

Marcus’ colleagues won’t leave empty-handed either. The chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Time Warner Cable could each get $32 million in compensation. The general counsel of Time Warner will retire with around $22 million and some mid-level executives could leave with around $18 million each.

Familar names on Wall Street will also enjoy proceeds worthy of Donald Trump Lotto. Everyone’s favorite financial casino Goldman Sachs is sitting pretty with millions in fees advising Charter on both its acquisitions of Bright House and Time Warner Cable. UBS helped lead the financing of the whopping $55 billion deal on behalf of Charter and is the sole financial adviser to Advance/Newhouse, which owns Bright House. That means big bucks for the Swiss bank.

fishThe Small Swallow the Big

Charter was a much smaller, and not well-regarded cable company before it financed the acquisition of two of its non-competing rivals. In fact, Time Warner Cable was already the country’s second largest cable operator before the acquisition, and Charter will have to contend with managing a cable operator much larger than itself. Charter executives have hinted it will take many months to manage that transition, with the eventual retirement of both the Time Warner Cable and Bright House brands, in favor of Charter and its Spectrum product suite.

Those not already Charter customers will be subjected to a publicity campaign to manage the introduction of Charter in the best possible light, despite the fact current Charter customers rate the cable operator as mediocre in consumer surveys. Its reputation is well-known, especially in the middle of the country where many Charter systems operate.

Charter will continue to be led by CEO Thomas Rutledge, who will also hold the titles of president and chairman of the board. But the man behind-the-scenes expected to have a substantial amount of influence in how Charter is run in the future is ex-Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) CEO Dr. John Malone through his entity Liberty Broadband, which will control three seats on Charter’s board of directors, including one for Malone himself. Malone advocated for Rutledge to become CEO of Charter after the cable company emerged from bankruptcy reorganization in 2009.

makeoverHow to Remake Your Image: Change the Name

Renaming Time Warner Cable isn’t likely to fix the scandalously low regard its customers hold the company. But it couldn’t hurt either.

“It’s not surprising Charter wants to rebrand Time Warner Cable,” said David VanAmburg, managing director of the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which regularly rates Time Warner Cable (and often Comcast trading places) the worst companies in the country. “Charter has scored better than Time Warner Cable in recent years, so it could bode well for Time Warner Cable customers. But the data suggests leaps-and-bounds improvement could be difficult.”

ACSI graded Charter 57 in 2015. Time Warner Cable managed a 58 — both effectively failing grades on a scale of 0-100.

What kinds of services Charter is now compelled to offer is dependent on the state of the cable system serving each area and if regulators extracted concessions on the state level to guarantee better service. The state that worked the hardest to compel upgrades and insist on a more customer-friendly transition is New York, where the Public Service Commission forced concessions to upgrade all of the state and allow customers to keep their current Time Warner Cable plans if they wished.

“On Day One, customers of (Time Warner) won’t really see any changes,” Charter spokesman Justin Venech told the Albany Times Union. “Time Warner Cable and Charter Spectrum will continue offering their current suite of advanced products and services to customers in their markets.”

“As we go all digital market by market, we will launch the Spectrum brand product, pricing and packaging, and Charter will also launch Spectrum in those markets in which (Time Warner has) already gone all digital,” Venech said. “We will be communicating directly with customers, letting them know when they will start seeing the Spectrum brand. In addition, when our Spectrum packages launch, if a customer likes the package they are currently in, they will be able to stay in that package.”

Analysis: FCC, Justice Dept. Ready to Approve Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House Merger

charter twc bhThe Justice Department and FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler are prepared to accept a massive $55 billion merger between Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks, but at a cost of stringent conditions governing the creation of America’s second largest cable conglomerate.

In a joint agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the FCC, Charter executives have agreed to do nothing to harm online video competition or implement usage caps or usage-based billing for at least seven years. Charter will also be forced to broaden its cable service to reach at least two million additional homes, some already served by other providers, setting the stage for potential head-to-head competition between two closely-matched competitors.

The deal will directly affect 19.4 million customers of the three companies, which will eventually combine under the Charter Communications brand name and marketing philosophy — selling customers simplified television, phone, and broadband packages that reduce customer options. Little is expected to change for the rest of 2016, however, with Time Warner Cable and Bright House likely to continue operations under existing packaging and pricing until sometime in 2017. Technicians told Stop the Cap! earlier in April they were told not to acquire new outfits with the Time Warner Cable logo and branding, and the cable company is also making preparations to gradually repaint its massive fleet of vans and service vehicles with the Charter logo.

President Obama Expected To Nominate Rep. Mel Watt For Director Of The Federal Housing Finance Agency

Wheeler

Most of the concessions seemed to have originated from FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler, who has been one of the strongest proponents of online video competition, improved broadband, and direct head-to-head competition between cable operators. The Justice Department focused its attention on challenging the cable industry’s almost-united front against online video competition. Under former CEO Glenn Britt’s leadership, Time Warner Cable was considered “the industry leader” in contract language that guaranteed it would share the lowest price negotiated by any other cable, satellite, telephone company or online video provider. Those agreements also often included clauses that restricted programmers from putting streamed programming online for non-subscribers. That explains why cord-cutters frequently run into barriers watching networks online unless they can prove they are already a pay-TV customer.

Under conditions from the Justice Department, those sections of agreements with Charter, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks will become invalid and unenforceable. But that doesn’t mean restrictions will disappear overnight. Comcast, Cox, Cablevision, and other cable companies also enforce similar conditions which will be unaffected by the Justice Department decision, at least for now. But the precedent has sent shudders across an industry concerned about protecting its still-profitable cable TV business, under assault from increased programming costs and a greater reluctance by consumers to tolerate annual rate increases.

analysisGene Kimmelman, chief executive of consumer interest group Public Knowledge, told the Wall Street Journal the conditions were “a clear signal to the content industry and entertainment companies that the enforcement agencies are giving them a green light to grow online video and experiment as a direct competitor to cable, and they will prevent cable from interfering.”

Of greater interest to consumers are the deal conditions proposed by Chairman Wheeler. As Stop the Cap! reported almost a year ago, sources told us the FCC would “get serious” about data caps if companies like Comcast imposed them on customers nationwide. At the moment, Comcast is testing caps affecting just under 15% of their total customer base, already generating thousands of customer complaints with the FCC in response. Although Charter promised three years of cap-free service, Wheeler and his staff obviously felt it was important to send a message that they agree with cap opponents that data caps are more about preventing competition than technical need. By making long term data cap prohibition a core part of a settlement agreement with Charter, Wheeler sends a strong message to Comcast that the FCC isn’t drinking cable industry Kool Aid about the rationale for usage caps and usage billing.

Some consumer groups worry Charter has overextended itself in debt over-acquiring other cable companies.

Some consumer groups worry Charter has overextended itself in debt over-acquiring other cable companies.

“New Charter will not be permitted to charge usage-based prices or impose data caps,” Wheeler said in a statement. “Second, New Charter will be prohibited from charging interconnection fees, including to online video providers, which deliver large volumes of internet traffic to broadband customers. Additionally, the Department of Justice’s settlement with Charter both outlaws video programming terms that could harm online video distributors (OVDs) and protects OVDs from retaliation– an outcome fully supported by the order I have circulated today. All three seven-year conditions will help consumers by benefitting OVD competition. The cumulative impact of these conditions will be to provide additional protection for new forms of video programming services offered over the Internet. Thus, we continue our close working relationship with the Department of Justice on this review.”

Wheeler is also intent on proving there is a viable market for cable operators overbuilding into new territories. To prove that point, Wheeler has gotten an agreement that Charter will introduce service to one million new customers where it will intrude on another operator’s service area and directly compete with it. The other provider has to already offer service at 25Mbps or greater. That could mean Charter competing directly with a cable company like Comcast or building service into an area already served by Verizon FiOS, AT&T U-verse, or another provider offering something beyond traditional DSL.

Copps

Copps

Another million customers just outside of areas served by the three cable companies may also finally get service, as Charter will be compelled to wire at least another million homes for cable service for the first time.

Despite the conditions, many consumer groups and former public officials remain unhappy the merger won approval.

“Creating broadband monopoly markets raises consumer costs, kills competition, and points a gun at the heart of the news and information that democracy depends upon,” said Michael Copps, a former Democratic commissioner at the FCC and a special adviser to the Common Cause public interest group. “FCC approval of this unnecessary merger would be an abandonment of its public interest responsibilities.”

“There’s nothing about this massive merger that serves the public interest. There’s nothing about it that helps make the market for cable TV and Internet services more affordable and competitive for Americans,” said Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press. “Customers of the newly merged entity will be socked with higher prices as Charter attempts to pay off the nearly $27 billion debt load it took on to finance this deal. The wasted expense of this merger is staggering. For the money Charter spent to make this happen it could have built new competitive broadband options for tens of millions of people. Now these billions of dollars will do little more than line the pockets of Time Warner Cable’s shareholders and executives. CEO Rob Marcus will walk away with a $100 million golden parachute.”

Wheeler’s draft order is likely to receive a final vote in the coming days before the Commission. The only remaining holdout is California’s telecom regulator, which is expected to reach a decision by May 10.

FCC Prepares to Approve Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House Merger

mergerDespite clamoring for more competition in the cable industry, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler is reportedly ready to circulate a draft order granting Charter Communications’ $55 billion dollar buyout of Time Warner Cable, with conditions.

The Wall Street Journal reported late last night the order will be reviewed by the four other commissioners at the FCC and could be subject to change before coming to a vote.

Wheeler’s order is likely to follow the same philosophical approach taken by New York State’s Public Service Commission — approving the deal but adding temporary consumer protections to blunt anti-competition concerns.

Most important for Wheeler is protecting the nascent online video marketplace that is starting to threaten the traditional cable television bundle. Dish’s Sling TV, the now defunct Aereo, as well as traditional streaming providers like Hulu and Netflix have all been frustrated by contract terms and conditions with programmers that prohibit or limit online video distribution through alternative providers. The draft order reportedly would prohibit Charter from including such clauses in its contracts with programmers.

fccCritics of the deal contend that might be an effective strategy… if Charter was the only cable company in the nation. Many cable operators include similar restrictive terms in their contracts, which often also include an implicit threat that offering cable channels online diminishes their value in the eyes of cable operators. Programmers fear that would likely mean price cuts as those contracts are renewed.

Wheeler has also advocated, vainly, that cable operators should consider overbuilding their systems to compete directly with other cable operators, something not seen to a significant degree since the 1980s. Cable operators have maintained an informal understanding to avoid these kinds of price and service wars by respecting the de facto exclusive territories of fellow operators. Virtually all cable systems that did directly compete at one time were acquired by one of the two competitors by the early 1990s. It is unlikely the FCC can or will order Charter to compete directly with other cable operators, and will focus instead on extracting commitments from Charter to serve more rural and suburban areas presently deemed unprofitable to serve.

gobble-til-you-wobbleMost of the other deal conditions will likely formalize Charter’s voluntary commitments not to impose data caps, modem fees, interconnection fees (predominately affecting Netflix) or violate Net Neutrality rules for the first three years after the merger is approved. As readers know, Stop the Cap! filed comments with the FCC asking the agency to significantly extend or make permanent those commitments as part of any approval, something sources say may be under consideration and a part of the final draft order. Stop the Cap! maintains a cable operator’s commitment to provide a better customer experience and be consumer-friendly should not carry an expiration date.

It could take a few weeks for the draft order to be revised into a final order, and additional concessions may be requested, a source told the newspaper.

Meanwhile, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is still reviewing the deal. News that the FCC is prepared to accept a merger is likely to dramatically reduce any chance California regulators will reject the merger out of hand. Stop the Cap!’s Matthew Friedman is continuing discussions with the CPUC to bolster deal conditions to keep usage caps, usage-based billing, and other consumer-unfriendly charges off the backs of California customers. New York customers will automatically benefit from any additional concessions California gets from Charter, as the PSC included a most-favored state clause guaranteeing New Yorkers equal treatment. Any conditions won in California and New York may also extend to other states to unify Charter’s products and services nationwide.

An independent monitor to verify Charter is complying with deal approval conditions is likely to be part of any order approving the transaction, although critics of big cable mergers point out Comcast has allegedly thumbed its nose at conditions imposed as part of its acquisition of NBCUniversal, and only occasionally punished for doing so.

CBS All-Access Not Exactly a Runaway Success; Discounts Coming

Phillip Dampier March 9, 2016 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 5 Comments

cbs all accessAttempts by CBS to get consumers to pay the network $5.99 a month to stream ad-filled network shows, classics, and local affiliates has proven less compelling than the network originally thought.

CBS chairman and CEO Les Moonves admitted to investors “All-Access” has not met the company’s expectations, even after CBS added options to watch several of its network affiliates around the country.

Speaking at the Deutsche Bank Technology, Media & Telecom conference in Palm Beach, Fla., Moonves said CBS was considering discounting the service, especially if customers bundle it with Showtime’s standalone online video service, now priced at $10.99 a month.

Moonves

Moonves

Instead of relying entirely on other companies to create so-called “skinny bundles” of pared down video packages offered as an alternative of one-size-fits-all cable TV, CBS has kept some of its online video offerings in-house under the All-Access brand, which launched in October 2014.

But convincing the public to pay $6 a month for ad-laced shows is proving as much of a challenge for CBS as it had been for Hulu’s Plus option. Moonves suggested CBS is considering adding a premium ad-free option like the one Hulu offers now, for an additional $4 a month, and is also trying to get the National Football League to allow NFL game streams on All-Access in the future.

CBS’ best chance of success for its subscription service may come from offering original shows exclusively to subscribers, particularly a new Star Trek series premiering in January. Moonves predicted that would help make All-Access an “extraordinary success.”

“Next year it’s going to add substantially to our bottom line,” he added.

Moonves called cord-cutting “inevitable,” as consumers gravitate away from traditional cable television packages.

“Someone is going to figure out how to do this and how to give people what they want […] and not for $100 a month,” Moonves said. “It will [sell] for $35-39 dollars a month [and] you’ll get the 12 to 15 or 18 channels that you care about, and not the Karate Channel for 25¢ a month. That doesn’t make sense anymore.”

Netflix’s $5 Billion Budget for Content Guarantees Program Spending Arms Race

Phillip Dampier March 3, 2016 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 2 Comments

Total-Cable-Rate-increase-FCC6Years of broadcast and cable networks relying on cheap reality TV fare, game shows, and lurid news magazines to save money are coming to an end as media companies realize the only way to stop the viewing shift to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon is to create better programming viewers want to see.

With online video services like Netflix spending millions to create original content like House of Cards and Fuller House, viewers are becoming disenchanted with shoveled reality fare and reruns littering basic cable networks.

A decade ago, cable networks started pushing the envelope on their programming lineups to boost ratings. Sober educational history documentaries on The History Channel began to make way in 2008 for reality shows like Pawn Stars and Ax Men, along with dubious pseudo-documentaries like Ancient Aliens and UFO Hunters. Consistent weather forecast information on The Weather Channel often had to wait for various weather chasing reality shows and other long form programming. Even The Learning Channel ditched educational programming as early as 2001 to feature “lifestyle” shows maligned and lampooned by critics as “freak show” television.

Broadcast networks suffering through an interminable advertising recession increasingly ditched scripted dramas for much cheaper reality and game shows. Even though some of these shows are considered popular, the total number of households viewing them have been in decline for years.

With the advent of series and movies created and funded by online video providers, traditional television networks and cable outlets have realized they can no longer rely on Law & Order reruns and shows like The Real Housewives of Dallas to keep viewers. They have to spend more money to create quality new shows.

bill shockBloomberg News reports networks hit the panic button after learning Netflix intends to spend almost $5 billion this year alone on programming, far more than any broadcast or cable network would ever consider.

The new strategy in response: spend, spend, spend.

“All these companies have been raising the amount they’re spending on programming pretty consistently,” said Doug Creutz, an analyst with Cowen & Co. “TV is losing audiences, and you’re trying to have new stuff to keep audiences engaged with your programming.”

Discovery Communications, Viacom and Starz are among those planning spending boosts to deliver better programming to compete. Although that may be great news for television aficionados, consumers are likely to be handed the bill in the form of higher cable rates to cover the “increased programming expenses.”

The large broadcast networks, movie studios, and cable networks may have created this problem for themselves after they began dramatically boosting the cost of licensing movies and TV shows for ventures like Netflix, in hopes of limiting its growth while also profiting handsomely from their deep content libraries. In response to growing restrictions on licensing content, Netflix embarked on a plan to create some of their own exclusive content instead. Many entertainment executives did not take Netflix seriously until the arrival of House of Cards, a series that could easily have been created and financed by any major network.

Other online video companies quickly followed suit, often using the British TV model of creating affordable, high quality mini-series that might include 8-10 episodes per season instead of the usual two dozen common on American networks. Co-productions with content-starved networks abroad also helped share expenses, secure talent, and move into something beyond conventional programming.

Cable networks have also had increasing success creating shows not just for the American market, but also for export to the rest of the English-speaking world, particularly Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, and Canada.

discoverySome Wall Street analysts like Rich Greenfield at BTIG Research have gone as far as predicting the traditional cable TV bundle is threatened with extinction as cost conscious viewers continue to abandon linear/live television for on-demand content like that offered by Netflix instead. That has delivered a three-way punch: pressures on revenue as program creation spending increases, growing cord-cutting, and cable rate inflation cable executives are increasingly desperate to control.

The day the 500 channel cable package model falls apart may not be too far off. The cost of programming at Discovery’s cable networks, other than sports, has grown 55% from 2013 to 2016, according to projections from researcher MoffettNathanson.

Discovery is using the money to push aside some of its near-endless reality TV fare for scripted programming, developing 10 shows with Lions Gate Entertainment. Viacom, another major cable programmer, saw expenses rise more than 25%, in part to create a new night of programming on VH1, doubling animation at Nickelodeon, and budgeting for more special events programming on BET. Some smaller cable operators were not impressed with the asking price and dropped all of Viacom’s networks from their cable systems.

Starz-LogoStarz, dwarfed by HBO and Showtime, is spending $250 million on its own original programming including Outlander, Survivor’s Remorse and Power. Subscribers who want more will get it as Starz increases budgets enough to allow producers to create 80-90 original episodes this year, up from 75 in 2015. To introduce subscribers to the shows, Starz commonly offers cable subscribers free trials as part of ongoing cable company promotions.

If you run an entertainment studio, are employed in the entertainment field, or can act, these are good times. In fact, demand for scripted shows may be outpacing the capacity of studios to produce them.

John Landgraf, CEO of Fox’s FX Networks, asserted there’s “too much TV,” noting over 400 scripted shows were filmed last year.

Until the late 1980s, most of the demand for scripted shows came from NBC, CBS, ABC, and the then-new FOX, because they were the only ones with enough money to afford the high production costs. Today, cable subscribers foot the bill for most cable network original shows, causing cable rates to spiral. With Netflix ready to spend at least $11 billion on programming over the next five years, the days of rate hikes are far from over.

Sanders, Warren Raise Doubts About Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House Merger

Sens. Sanders and Warren

Sens. Sanders and Warren

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind.-Vt.) has expressed serious doubts about the claimed consumer benefits of a multi-billion dollar cable company merger between Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks.

In a joint letter with Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Sanders told FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and Attorney General Loretta Lynch the deal would create a “nationwide broadband duopoly, with New Charter and Comcast largely in control of the essential wires that connect most Americans to how we commonly communicate and conduct commerce in the 21st century.”

The senators explained that “broadband service is not a luxury; it is an economic and social necessity for consumers and businesses.”

The five Democrats believe the merger could have negative effects on consumer choice, competition, and innovation in broadband and online video. With Comcast and New Charter controlling at least two-thirds of the high-speed broadband lines in the country, Sanders and his colleagues are concerned this will allow Comcast and New Charter to raise rates while reducing broadband innovation, allowing the United States to fall even further behind other industrialized nations with superior broadband.

The senators asked the Department of Justice and the FCC to carefully evaluate how the proposed deal could impact the marketplace.

“New Charter must not only prove that this deal would not harm consumers, but they must also demonstrate that it would actually benefit them and promote the public interest,” the senators argued.

This week, New Jersey regulators approved the merger transaction in that state, leaving California as the last major challenge for Charter executives. Federal regulators are not expected to rule on the deal until the spring or summer.

Bad Karma: Sprint and Data Caps Kill Neverstop Plan; Customers Claim Bait & Switch

Karma's very expensive $150 startup equipment package.

Karma’s very expensive $150 startup equipment package.

After customers spent $150 on a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot device promising unlimited LTE wireless Internet access for $50 a month, Karma – the company offering the service – has put a stop to its “Neverstop” plan four months after introducing it.

“Karma is a bitch,” complained one customer who spent $250 with Karma trying to find a replacement for Clear’s now discontinued WiMAX service for his rural home. “After spending hundreds for nothing, it should be obvious to everyone why Karma turned off the comment section on its website.”

Neverstop customers have been through a rough ride during the brief life of the service, which started last November. Customers were promised unlimited 5Mbps service for $50 a month, after buying the $150 in required hardware. But not long after the plan was introduced, customers discovered their speeds were throttled to as low as 1.5Mbps to discourage customers from excessively using the service.

Insiders tell us the likely cause of the plan’s demise is Sprint, the wireless company Karma contracts with to offer the service. Sprint reseller contracts are closely guarded, but there is a clear track record of wireless companies taking action against resellers that place unexpected burdens on their networks. Millenicom, a similar provider that won customers largely through word-of-mouth, saw its unlimited offerings curtailed long before Karma announced its Neverstop plan, because wireless companies didn’t appreciate the fact some Millenicom customers relied entirely on the service for Internet access in the home.

Karma-Neverstop

Karma sold a plan that encouraged heavier data usage and then punished customers for using it.

Karma officials claim most of their customers never exceeded 15GB a month, but apparently enough did to get Sprint’s attention. Karma’s own internal research found that despite its insistence Neverstop was not a home broadband replacement, at least 60% of their customers used it exactly for that purpose. A handful of customers ran up hundreds of gigabytes of usage from online video, cloud storage/backup, and file trading. But a larger percentage used the service because they had no access to DSL or cable broadband, and used about as much data as the average household – an amount deemed by Sprint and/or Karma as “unsustainable.” Karma quickly moved to impose universal speed reductions on the service, dropping from 5Mbps to 1.5Mbps in an effort to curtail usage.

“Bait and switch,” complained Shannon Krakosky on Karma’s Facebook page. Many of the company’s earliest customers found the throttles arrived just as their 45-day return window for the expensive equipment expired, saddling them with a $150 paperweight. The company’s Black Friday offer inspired still more customers to sign up at a discount, only to find the equipment backordered, arriving at around the same time the traffic reduction speed throttles were announced.

Just one week before the speed reductions took effect, new customers were enticed with a year-end signup offer, further increasing traffic loads. Then customers received this:

[We] were surprised to learn how many of you are also using it heavily at home. We’ve seen lots of you binge watch Netflix in HD all day, back up your hard drives over the internet, and even connect your Xboxes through ingenious means. It’s a glimpse of how the internet should be, and we love it… but it’s putting a strain on the service and it’s not what the product is meant for today.​

After spending $150 on hardware for $50 unlimited LTE service, less than four months later these are your new choices.

After spending $150 on hardware for $50 unlimited LTE service, less than four months later these are your new choices.

But usage should have never surprised Karma, considering the firm marketed Neverstop in November and December as the perfect answer for “heavier usage, streaming, downloading….”

Only after imposing a speed throttle — later increased to 2.5Mbps — came changes in how Neverstop marketed its service. In early January, Neverstop was now sold as the perfect solution for “daily usage, worry-free browsing, on-the-go work, travel, occasional streaming, and more.” Also gone was the marketing that promoted unlimited usage. The new message to customers: lay off.

Many customers were unhappy about the sudden changes and have filed false advertising complaints with the Better Business Bureau and several state attorneys general.

Karma continued to modify its Neverstop plan later in January, claiming to relent on speed throttling and moving to impose a 15GB usage cap on Neverstop instead. The company claimed the usage cap would allow it to restore 5Mbps service, but most customers complained their speeds remained slow. In effect, customers were being asked to continue paying $50 a month for a shadow of the service originally advertised.

As of late last week, Karma revisited customers again to announce the once unlimited wireless data experience of Neverstop was being stopped… permanently.

van Wel

van Wel

Karma CEO Steven van Wel told Verge the company came to the realization that Neverstop was unsustainable after observing a month of customer usage following January’s adjustments. Even with the restrictive throttling, half of Neverstop customers reached the 15GB cap before the end of their billing cycle, and there was no way for them to easily continue high-speed service, whether by changing plans or paying overage fees. Just one month earlier van Wel told Verge only a few customers were likely to exceed their 15GB cap.

“You bait and switched us again,” came a chorus of complaints before Karma switched off public comments on all but its Facebook page.

“Poor business at best,” added Daniel Frisch. “Sell a customer one thing and then switch it to something completely different. You sold me an unlimited data device at a reasonable price and now you have gone from throttling that data to a high-priced limited data plan like everybody else.”

Karma’s latest plan is called Pulse and Neverstop customers will gradually find their existing Neverstop service transitioned to the new plan over the coming month, which will sell 5GB of service for $40 a month. Many complain there are better deals available elsewhere.

Stop the Cap! will continue to seek out options for rural or on-the-go customers who depend on wireless Internet access where DSL and cable broadband are not available. For now, we cannot recommend Karma because of the company’s unstable service plans and the high upfront cost of equipment.

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  • Josh: Wow, great article! I'm feeling nostalgic, and kind of weirded out by VHS going away, and the realization we're (once again) likely to lose a giganti...
  • Jeno: My family and I had Verizon for years, and it was just fine, no problem. It seems almost as SOON as Frontier came into the picture, our internet was ...
  • Sharon: I too have gotten taken by Verizon, and they are continually trying to add more costs to my plan; daily. This number did call today, showing as a Ver...
  • Josh: I need PBS and The CW...I can't believe those aren't on here! I'd want BBC America too. I'd really want a much longer DVR too...28 days isn't good...
  • Len: I have a 25MB/s CenturyLink connection (internet only) that costs $83 / month. I have a "discount" that brings it down to $53. These guys at Century...
  • Josh: Having to pay to get your bill is just an hilarious low :-D And I'm sorry about those people :-( Somehow I doubt they're not needed......
  • Len: 100 MB/s....... For ONLY 300 Euros a month! OK, sarcasm here, but you see what I'm getting at. MB/s is only part of it. It makes no difference...
  • Mike D.: There are giant delicious pies being feasted upon and Comcast isn't able to gorge themselves. That will end soon, and unless customers drop them like ...
  • Josh: Glad you mentioned that. Yeah, I'm nowhere near Chicago and am affected....
  • BobInIllinois: Just a note to explain what Comcast means by the "Chicago Region". It is a Comcast regional market designation for more territory than just the Chica...
  • Josh: This is just an excuse to raise bills by at least $50/month (or more, if you go over without realizing you have to *CALL* to add this $50/month fee). ...
  • 7879878: And why isnt the FCC getting Involved? The fact there is NO OPT OUT and a $35+ option to get back what you had before should be a huge red flag to an...

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