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WOW! Lays Foundation to Ditch Selling Cable TV; Starts Offering Streaming Alternatives

Cable system overbuilder WideOpenWest, better known to customers as WOW!, has begun offering its customers subscriptions to streaming video competitors fuboTV, Philo, Sling, and YouTube TV, in what could be a gradual move away from selling its own video packages.

WOW!, like every cable operator, is losing cable television customers to cord-cutting. As of the end of 2019, the company had just 381,000 video subscribers remaining, down another 6,300 in the last three months. Because of its small size, WOW! does not qualify for the steep volume discounts offered to cable television and satellite TV companies that have tens of millions of video customers. As a result, it either has to continue to raise prices or watch its cable television packages become unprofitable. WOW! has apparently decided it is smarter to partner with nationwide video streaming providers, if only to keep its broadband and television customers from switching to a competitor.

“WOW! has always put a high value on offering choices to consumers,” said WOW! CEO Teresa Elder. “This is one more way we’re empowering customers to determine when, where and how they consume information and entertainment. Our robust broadband network is the natural choice for high-speed data customers […] who want to access streaming services on their terms.”

WOW! specializes in providing service in communities already served by another cable operator. Many of its systems are in the Midwest, where it competes with Charter Spectrum, Cox, or Comcast.

WOW! will offer customers one free Amazon Fire TV Stick and a $25 rebate that can be used to buy other set-top boxes that will support streaming TV alternatives.

If successful, it may not be too long before WOW! stops selling cable television altogether, to focus on its broadband business.

Another Cable Company Drops Cable TV

Phillip Dampier January 23, 2020 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video No Comments

Another independent cable company is dropping cable television service.

Rainbow Communications of Everest, which serves customers in northeastern Kansas, has set a “TV End” date for customers of June 30, 2020, after which it will only sell broadband and phone service:

As your local communications provider, we strive to bring innovative solutions for both entertainment and business purposes. Now a high-quality and less-expensive technology exists for watching TV by using an internet connection. In fact, most of our customers have chosen this route because watching video now accounts for 80% of our internet network traffic. Therefore, we have decided to focus our efforts on delivering the best internet experience possible, and end our TV service offering.

Rainbow TV service will end on June 30, 2020.

Rainbow, like many smaller cable operators, faces spiraling costs for video programming without the benefit of the volume discounts large national cable companies routinely receive. As streaming live TV video providers expand, they can now out-compete many independent cable companies by delivering a lower cost lineup of video channels. As a result, a growing number of small cable companies are deciding to exit the video business, concentrating on selling broadband and, to a lesser extent, phone service to their customers.

Rainbow claims customers will save up to $600 a year dropping its cable TV service in favor of a streaming video package from providers like YouTube TV or Sling. As large streaming providers continue to add local over the air channels to their lineups, many consumers can get the same or better lineup from a streaming provider at a lower cost.

The move will also allow Rainbow to dedicate all of its cable bandwidth towards data services, including digital phone service. That could allow the company to boost broadband speeds.

Charter Spectrum Planning Major Fall Rate Increase: $70 Internet, $94 Cable TV

Phillip Dampier August 26, 2019 Charter Spectrum, Competition, Consumer News 43 Comments

Charter Spectrum TV customers will pay at least $94 a month for cable television starting this October, thanks to a sweeping rate increase that will hike the cost of TV packages, internet service, equipment, and fees. Internet customers will soon face a base price for internet service of just under $70 a month.

Cord Cutters News quotes an anonymous source that claims the rate increases will begin in October, and will impact just about every plan except phone service.

The most striking increase is the Broadcast TV Fee, charged to recover the costs imposed by local TV channels. After increasing the price by $2 earlier this year to $11.99, Spectrum customers will now be required to pay $13.50 a month — almost $1.50 more. The Broadcast TV Fee alone will soon amount to $162 a year, just to watch TV stations you can receive over the air for free. Just a year ago, the average Spectrum customer paid a Broadcast TV Fee of $8.75 a month.

A Spectrum receiver is considered required by most customers, and starting this fall, it will cost $7.99 a month to lease one (up about $0.50 a month).

Cable TV packages are also getting more expensive:

  • Spectrum TV Select: $72.49 a month (was $64.99 a month)
  • Spectrum TV Silver: $92.49 (was $84.99)
  • Spectrum TV Gold: $112.49 (was $104.99)

Internet customers will not escape Charter’s rate hikes either. The entry-level package — Spectrum Standard Internet (100 or 200 Mbps in some areas), will increase $4 a month to $69.99. If you use Spectrum’s equipment for Wi-Fi service, your price is increasing $5 a month to $75.99.

Although the rate increases are significant, they are not outlandish when compared with the regular internet-only prices charged by other cable providers:

  • Comcast: 150 Mbps (a 1 TB cap applied in most areas) costs $80 plus $13 gateway rental fee = $93/mo
  • Cox:  150 Mbps (a 1 TB cap applies in most areas) is priced at $84 a month plus $11 modem rental fee = $95/mo
  • Mediacom: 100 Mbps (a 1 TB cap applies) costs $95 a month plus $11.50 modem rental fee = $106.50/mo

Note: Gateway/Modem Rental Fee can be waived if you purchase your own equipment. Prices are lower when bundling, and you may get a better deal threatening to cancel or agreeing to a term plan.

One Wall Street analyst, New Street’s Jonathan Chaplin, predicted in 2017 that the cable industry would use its market power to nearly double rates consumers paid just a few years ago, which for most would mean an internet bill of at least $100 a month.

“We have argued that broadband is underpriced, given that pricing has barely increased over the past decade while broadband utility has exploded,” the researcher said in 2017.

Customers should watch their September bills for Charter Spectrum’s official rate increase notification. Customers on promotional or retention plans are exempt from increases except the Broadcast TV Fee and equipment charges until their promotion expires.

Customers that bundle multiple services will pay slightly lower prices as a result of bundling discounts, but the overall price increase will still be noticeable to most customers.

Cord-cutting is likely to accelerate dramatically because of Spectrum’s TV rate hikes, as customers reassess the value of a basic cable television package that is nearing $100 a month.

Altice Struggles With Video Programming Costs That Eat 67% of Video Revenue

The reason why many cable companies are no longer willing to cut deals on cable television with customers looking for a better one is that the profit margin enjoyed by cable operators on television service is shrinking fast.

Researcher Cowen found that smaller cable operators are particularly vulnerable to the high costs of cable programming because they do not get the volume discounts larger operators like Comcast, Charter, DirecTV, and Dish are getting.

Researcher Cowen found that programming costs are increasing fast at smaller cable companies. (Image: Cowen/Multichannel News)

Altice USA, which divides about 3.3 million cable TV subscribers between Optimum/Cablevision and Suddenlink, says it paid $682.4 million for cable TV programming during the first quarter of 2019. That amounts to 67% of the company’s total video revenue. If Altice offered complaining customers a 40-50% break on cable television, it would lose money. Cable operators already temporarily give up a significant chunk of video revenue from new customer promotions, which discount offerings for the first year or two of service. Many operators consider any video promotion to be a loss leader these days, because programming costs are exploding, particularly for some local, over-the-air network affiliated stations that are now commanding as much as $3-5 a month per subscriber for each station.

Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator, unsurprisingly also gets the best programming prices. With volume discounts, Comcast reports its programming costs consume about 60% of revenue. Charter Spectrum and Dish report about 65% of their video revenue is eaten by programming costs. Both are seeing dramatic declines in video subscribers as cord-cutting continues. The more customers a company loses, the less of a discount they will command going forward.

According to Cowen, just three years ago Comcast gave up 53% of video revenue to cover programming costs. With programming rate inflation increasing, many smaller cable companies are considering exiting the cable TV business altogether to focus on more profitable broadband service instead.

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)

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