Lessons from Vegas: The Realities of Online Video


At the recent CES conference, there was much discussion of 3-D TV, mobile devices and tablet PCs. But there was also a great deal of talk about the future of television and about alternatives means of delivering entertainment and information to consumers.

On this blog, I have many times written about so-called “cord cutters” – people who have canceled their cable subscription in order receive movies and television shows over the Internet. CES was filled with talk of Netflix’s deal with Warner Bros, the Boxee box, the introduction of VUDU Apps, and more. Sessions with titles like Rethinking the Future of Creative Works and Defining Internet TV focused on emerging models for the distribution of content.

What struck me at CES – as I have also been reading in the blogosphere and the mainstream press for over a year – is that we’re moving away from the current model, where 85% of U.S. households get video through a Multichannel Video Distributor, to a new disintermediated world, where you’ll get content over the Internet directly from content creators. To hear some talk about it, the current model is a dinosaur and the sooner that the cable industry can figure that out and move on, the better.

But let’s note again that 85% of U.S. households get their television from cable, DBS (DirecTV & DISH) or from the phone companies (AT&T’s U-verse & Verizon’s FiOS). In December, NewTeeVee noted that Nielsen reports that “99 percent of video is watched on a TV in the U.S.”

Americans spent 129 hours and 16 minutes per month watching TV in the latest 3-month period, seven hours and 12 minutes watching time-shifted TV, and three hours and 24 minutes watching online video.

Things will undoubtedly change. But what might account for everyone not rushing to cancel their cable today?

One possible answer can be found by looking at the example of noted blogger Ben Drawbaugh. I don’t mean to pick on him, because he’s a nice guy, but when I last wrote about cord-cutting in December, he posted this comment:

For the most part I agree with the premise of your post, the notion that more than a small percentage of people will cut the cord and use legit streaming services is just crazy.

That being said, I do cancel my cable service in January and don’t feel the need to add it back until August. So yes, I pay $50 a month to Verizon to watch ESPN and the NFL Network — because college and pro football is worth $50 a month to me — but the rest of the crap on cable can wait. What I mean is that instead I subscribe to Netflix and wait another 5 months for Netflix to mail the first Burn Notice Disc to me. So in other words, Discs and OTA HD have everything I need for much less money.

Fair enough.

This week, though, Drawbuagh wrote a post entitled, “Canceling cable: the failed experiment.” He says that he needs to a subscription for work purposes, since he writes about cable technologies. Then, he says this:

The bottom line is that I love me some football in HD, so I can’t ever see myself going without cable year round, and with the hassle involved in canceling and signing back up, the $327 a year ($62 for 7 months minus $110 savings for signing a contract) I’d save just isn’t worth it… I suspect for many it just isn’t worth it either. Sure there is lots of content out there available via other legal means, but the bottom line is that when it comes down to it, cable really isn’t that bad of a deal considering all the HD viewing options you get for the price.

As I’ve said before, cord-cutting proponents love to suggest or outright claim that you can substitute online video for cable service, but there is much you can’t get online. One of those big categories is sports.

The Return of the Subscription Model

But all this discussion may be for naught, because some new developments suggest that online video may be moving to a subscription model anyway, which puts us right back where we are today. Hulu may soon be charging a subscription fee for some of its content, as may Boxee. Brian Barrett at Gizmodo added up the numbers for your access to even get online, plus the subscription for services like Netflix, and concluded that you might end up paying “hundreds of dollars a month,” perhaps “nearly $1,000 a month.” Nicholas Carr, in a colorfully-titled post, also looks at the numbers and asks, “Now somebody remind me how we all came to think that information wants to be free.”

And yet, on that previously mentioned Rethinking the Future of Creative Works panel, the speakers couldn’t think of what the role of service providers (such as cable operators) might be in our connected future. The panel didn’t really answer an audience question on how all the content will be paid for. They didn’t really answer a question on why service providers would invest in infrastructure.

On another panel, Mitch Berman of ZillionTV said that claims that production values for movies and TV won’t be there without subscription model are overblown. On an FCC panel, Commissioner Robert M. McDowell reminded us that quality content costs money and that right now, the ways to cover those costs are through advertising or subscriptions. Even the NY Times has now announced a new plan to require some sort of subscription.

So, we may be moving to a Bright New Future a little more slowly than some are claiming. And it may be that subscriptions serve a purpose after all.

Time will tell.

  • Ben

    Nice post, you make some good points, but fail to predict where you think we are headed. Perhaps we agree?

    I predict that the great channel expansion will end soon (of course I’m shocked it is still growing) and instead we’ll see more free VOD offerings like Comcast and FiOS are doing. The lack of advertising dollars will continue to eat at the free OTA TV model until the only thing left is news, talks shows, reality TV and major sporting events (which apparently is just football and a few others). At the same time telcos and traditional cable providers will continue to enter into each other’s entrenched markets until true competition is achieved. At this point competition between communications providers and content providers will drive the price down. I think this will take at least 10 years and while streaming content providers will play a role, they’ll never be able to compete with the economics of broadcast (including cable etc here) TV. Which of course means that cable providers will take less of a cut than they do now.

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