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Montana’s 3 Rivers Communications Getting Out of the Cable TV Business On Oct. 31

After years of increasing costs for video programming, the disadvantages of not being large enough to qualify for lucrative volume discounts, and a declining customer base, a Montana cooperative says it is calling it quits on cable television service later this year to focus on its broadband business.

3 Rivers Communications, a rural telecommunications cooperative based in Fairfield, Mont., this week announced it was discontinuing television service on Oct. 31, 2019, inviting its members to choose a streaming TV provider (DirecTV Now, YouTube TV, etc.) instead.

The co-op serves 15,000 customers across two significant service areas in Montana. Only 1,800 still subscribe to cable television service — a number that has dropped steadily since the introduction of streaming TV alternatives. Most cable networks and local stations charge a sliding scale fee to carry their programming, with substantial volume discounts offered exclusively to large providers like Comcast, Charter, AT&T, DirecTV and Dish Networks. Small, independent companies are at a disadvantage because they must charge substantially more to cover their higher wholesale costs. Many have attempted to mitigate these high fees by pooling resources and buying programming through a national cooperative, but even that arrangement cannot keep costs low enough to prevent subscribers from canceling service after each rate increase.

Local TV station rate inflation, along with sports programming price hikes, have made offering cable television untenable for a growing number of small cable operators. As an example, 3 Rivers customers in Big Sky pay $32.99 for a basic cable TV package of 23 channels, including C-SPAN, Local Access, three religious networks, three home shopping channels, and around a half-dozen digital multicast TV networks. A comprehensive digital cable TV package costs $104.99 a month, just for television.

The 3 Rivers Communications television lineup for Big Sky, Mont.

In the last ten years, 3 Rivers has been focused on expanding its fiber to the home network, now reaching 65% of its customers. But the costs to provide service in rural Montana remain high, and internet packages remain costly. A 10 Mbps unlimited internet account costs $74.95/mo, 20 Mbps costs $94.95/mo, and 30 Mbps costs $114.95 (add around $10/mo for voice service). Offering television service originally boosted the average revenue received from each subscriber, but now that costs have skyrocketed, 3 Rivers now feels it should focus its investments on better broadband service.

“With all the new streaming options available, [including] Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime, in addition to traditional satellite providers like Dish and DirecTV, we just can’t really compete anymore,” 3 Rivers marketing director Don Serido told KRTV News. “We’re getting out of the TV business and we’re really going to focus on providing the best broadband we can to all of our cooperative members. That’s really what people want and need.”

Serido also said the company’s lack of support for pay-per-view and on demand programming also hurt its TV business. As a convenience to members, 3 Rivers is waiving all early termination fees and will continue to honor its promotional agreements until service is ended on Oct. 31.

The biggest impact will likely be felt by Montana TV stations that will lose retransmission consent revenue from 3 Rivers. Only a handful of streaming providers offer TV stations from the Great Falls market, forcing many cord-cutters to depend on on-demand viewing from services like Hulu and over-the-air antennas to pick up local stations.

As a member-owned cooperative, 3 Rivers returns all of its profits to members through capital credits. At the end of each fiscal year, the cooperative allocates a percentage of the margins to each patron on a pro-rata basis according to the total amount paid or produced for services. These allocations to patrons are known as capital credits. Upon approval of the Board of Trustees, these allocations are refunded to cooperative patrons. As a result, 3 Rivers has no incentive to overcharge its customers. Instead, it often invests its funds in improving service for its customers. When the cooperative was formed in 1953, it was the only provider of telephone service in north-central Montana. It has offered internet service for the last 20 years, with television only becoming a part of its menu of offerings a decade ago.

3 Rivers Communications will get out of the cable television business this fall, reports KRTV News in Great Falls, Mont. (1:05)

WarnerMedia’s Streaming Service Will Cost $16-17 and Bundle HBO/Cinemax

WarnerMedia’s forthcoming streaming service will showcase HBO and Cinemax at the heart of a one-size-fits-all streaming package priced at $16-17 a month, featuring premium movies and Warner Bros. vast movie and TV show collection.

AT&T plans to begin beta testing of the service later this year, with plans to sell the service to consumers as early as March 2020, according to the Wall Street Journal.

John Donovan, CEO of AT&T Communications, signaled AT&T’s “radical reshape” of television on a Credit Suisse Communications conference call event on Wednesday.

“The streaming strategy, whether you call it an OTT or IPTV or thin client, we’re going to transform our product,” Donovan said. “It is the consumer product I am most excited about since the iPhone. It radically reshapes what your concept of television is.”

The “new concept” is a radical departure from AT&T’s earlier plan to offer “good,” “better,” and “best” price points, varying the amount of content depending on how much subscribers were willing to pay. Instead, Donovan proposes one price point for every subscriber, with access to an unprecedented amount of content produced by one of the country’s largest Hollywood studios. Warner Bros. has produced thousands of movies and series since the early days of television in the 1950s and the advent of commercial filmmaking in the early 20th century.

Donovan

“The idea of three tiers never made much sense and is too complicated to fly in the marketplace,” analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson told the newspaper.

Despite the potential of an enormous library of streamed content, consumers may balk at WarnerMedia’s asking price, especially if they have no interest in HBO or Cinemax. Netflix’s most popular two-stream plan costs $12.99 a month and second place Hulu is available for $5.99 a month with ads or $11.99 a month without. Most niche streaming services like MHz Choice, CBS All Access, Acorn Media, BritBox, and other similar services are all under $10 a month. AT&T proposes to set its price higher than traditional premium movie network services like HBO, which usually costs $14.99, to protect the relationships and revenue it earns from cable, satellite, and telco TV providers. But AT&T’s new service may be a tough sell, especially considering forthcoming streaming services like Disney+ plans to launch Nov. 12 at $6.99 a month, and Viacom’s Pluto TV and Sinclair’s STIRR are ad-supported and free. In fact, most of the newly announced streaming services yet to launch are targeting much lower price points, fearing consumers may be nearing their budget limits for more content.

AT&T warns it may adjust pricing before the service launches next year, and there may eventually be a cheaper, ad-supported version, making the service comparable to Hulu. AT&T has also not disclosed how much original made-for-streaming programming it plans to include in the venture, which may be an important consideration to attract price-sensitive customers not interested in watching repeats and movies they can watch elsewhere. Consumers may also be overwhelmed and fatigued by the amount of content already available to watch through established players like Netflix and Hulu, so WarnerMedia may find their streaming service a difficult sell, especially as cord-cutters find prices for streaming live TV services already rising as fast as their old cable TV subscriptions.

Internet Only Customers: Average Usage: 395.7 GB; 1 TB+ “Power Users” Double in One Year

Phillip Dampier May 23, 2019 Consumer News, Data Caps, Online Video No Comments

Online video-driven broadband usage has reached an all-time high, increasing 27% in just one year, with internet-only customers now consuming an average of 395.7 GB — almost double the average 209.5 GB consumed by households that still have traditional cable television.

The OpenVault Broadband Industry Report, issued quarterly, reports that significant differences in usage between households with a traditional cable TV package and those that have cord-cut make it clear online video is driving much of the increased usage.

“Cord cutting behavior is impacting bundling and bandwidth consumption,” OpenVault explained. “Service providers rode a significant wave over the past ten years with triple and double-play bundling of services. There is evidence to suggest that wave has crested, as more consumers opt for internet-only packages.”

The results suggest the one effective tool providers still have to curtail heavy video streaming is mandatory data caps or consumption-based billing. An internet provider with a low data cap deters online video streaming, protecting traditional cable television revenue.

In the last year, the number of “power users” (those using 1 TB per month) doubled to 4.2% of all subscribers, with “power users of the future” (2+ TB of usage a month) more than doubling from 0.16% last year to 0.38% this year. “Power users” of 1 TB or more account for 6.5% of all internet-only households vs. 2.2% in homes still subscribing to a bundle of TV and internet service.

The clearest evidence of how data caps deter usage is found among “power users” that use 1 TB or more of data each month. With several large providers enforcing a 1 TB data allowance, OpenVault found dramatic differences in usage patterns between uncapped and capped customers. As customers become wary of exceeding their 1 TB cap, many “power users” ration usage out of fear of incurring overlimit fees, especially towards the end of a billing cycle.

Subscribers treat an assigned “data allowance” more like a hard data cap. OpenVault found that with flat-rate/unlimited plans, the percentage of power users is 32% greater than those with usage-based billing, and the percentage of subscribers using over 2 TB is 76% greater on unlimited plans where customers don’t have to fear using up their allowance.

Spectrum’s First Original Show, “L.A.’s Finest” Is Out of Touch and “Tonally Disastrous”

Spectrum TV subscribers are the only ones in the country that can watch Charter Communications’ first original Spectrum-exclusive production, “L.A.’s Finest,” available only on demand, on a channel somewhere in the thousands, if you or anyone else can find it.

A Variety review suggests a search to find the hour-long drama isn’t worth the effort:

“L.A.’s Finest” isn’t just a cop show. It’s a gambit — a bet placed by cable provider Spectrum that by providing not just access to HBO and HGTV but original programming of its own, it’ll stand out. The series, a Jerry Bruckheimer production set within the universe of his “Bad Boys” film franchise, is the beginning of a stream of on-demand Spectrum Originals programming that will also include, eventually, a comeback for “Mad About You.”

The idea of providing some added value to subscribers through original programming is a reasonable enough one (why not get in a game with so many players already?). But this particular show seems ill-suited to its format: Meant to live on an on-demand platform, this drama seems oddly unlikely to have been specifically demanded by anyone at all. A tonally disastrous half-comedy, half-melodrama about policing that draws in cartel politics and family angst, “L.A.’s Finest” seems designed to be vaguely, generically acceptable to have on in the background — which makes it a strange choice as the launching point for a set of programs that would seem to require viewers affirmatively choosing to tune in.

As cord-cutting grows epidemic, cable companies are looking for ways to keep you hooked to your cable TV package, and after watching Netflix and Hulu produce original series, why can’t cable companies do it too? Charter’s first original production stars Gabrielle Union and Jessica Alba as two female cops that sometimes take matters into their own hands in the cause of justice, while balancing family and relationships. Sometimes a drama, sometimes a comedy, the show feels like a network series reject from 20 years ago. It’s not the traditional police procedural that de-emphasizes the home life and character development of its stars, a-la Law & Order. Instead, it occasionally reminds viewers of the interwoven drama of NYPD Blue, a series now long gone.

Spectrum’s effort rubs against the grain in another way: although offering the first three episodes for immediate viewing, future episodes will be rationed out a little at a time, defeating today’s streaming reality of binge watching. The next two episodes are due May 20. Spreading out the nine episodes of season one could be a dangerous idea for a mediocre show that will require viewers to come back again and again to catch up. Many won’t. Others may never find the show in the first place, lost in cable TV Channel Siberia. Your best bet is to find the On Demand channel on your Spectrum lineup and it probably will be there. If you fall in love with the show, bookmark its streaming home page. You will get regular updates about future episodes.

If you do not have a Spectrum TV subscription, tough luck — no L.A.’s Finest for you. But considering the caliber of Spectrum’s first foray into original productions, that probably is not much of a loss.

A trailer for Spectrum TV’s original production, L.A.’s Finest. (1:48)

Cable One: A Regime of High Prices and Data Caps

Cable One has the highest average revenue per customer of any publicly traded cable company in the United States, with the average customer paying Cable One $70.80 a month, mostly for internet access.

The company’s first quarter earnings growth of 5.5% reflect the company’s recent price increases and regime of low-allowance data caps, which have pushed 10 percent of its customers to pay an extra $40 a month to bring back unlimited access. Others are upgrading to costlier, faster tiers with more generous usage allowances.

“During the first quarter, we saw roughly 50% of our new customers choose our 200 Mbps or higher speed service and nearly 10% of our new customers opted to purchase our unlimited data plan,” said Julia Laulis, Cable One CEO.

Laulis

Cable One’s 200 Mbps plan (with a 600 GB data cap) costs $65 a month after promotions expire. A DOCSIS 3.0 modem lease fee of $10.50 applies. A $2.75 monthly internet service surcharge may apply. If a customer wants unlimited access to avoid overlimit fees, there is an additional charge of $40 a month (a 5 TB cap applies to the “unlimited plan”). Customers choosing a 200 Mbps broadband-only package with unlimited data will pay up to $118.25 a month.

Cable One’s broadband customers are concerned about staying within the data caps to avoid overlimit fees. While Comcast and Charter Spectrum customers consume over 300-400 GB of data per month (Comcast has a 1 TB cap, Spectrum only sells unlimited service), Cable One customers use an average of 290 GB, with usage growing at a 30-35% annual rate. Many Cable One customers have little choice either. Laulis noted that Cable One’s DSL competition is not very relevant when customers want to watch streaming video. Speeds are often so slow, customers do not have a good experience streaming HD video over DSL.

 

Cable One is also shedding its video customers in record numbers, with just 305,000 of its cable TV customers left. More than 29,000 departed year over year, and that number continues to rise as consumers rebel against the company’s high prices and unwillingness to negotiate.

MoffettNathanson warned that Cable One’s high pricing may eventually price itself out of broadband growth, as consumers elect to sign up with telephone companies instead. But many of its service areas are still served by low-speed DSL, and despite Cable One’s high cost, the company added 10,600 new internet customers in the last quarter.

In addition to raising prices, the company also plans to spend between $9-11 million to change its name from Cable One to Sparklight over the next two years.

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