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My streaming TV service is a confusing mess


When I read my colleague Tara Lachapelle’s column on Wednesday about how the “great unbundling” of cable television could turn into the “great re-bundling,” I had to chuckle. It was inevitable that once consumers got a taste of what an unbundled world looked like, they would begin to appreciate some of the virtues of the once-despised cable bundle.

Yet not many people realized that a decade or so ago, when talk about a-la-carte television (as unbundling was then called) was all the rage. Back then, it seemed so simple. As cable bills grew more expensive, consumers questioned why they were forced to take — and pay for — 300 channels when they only really watched 9 or 10. Wouldn’t it make more sense to just get the stations they cared about? More to the point, wouldn’t it be cheaper once they were rid of the 290 stations they didn’t want? Obviously, the bundle was the problem.

In Washington, two successive Republican chairmen of the Federal Communications Commission, Michael Powell and Kevin Martin, were big advocates of a-la-carte television back in the 2000s. Gene Kimmelman, an executive with Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, told me in 2007 that a-la-carte television “would create marketplace pressure to reduce prices.” I wrote about cable television frequently in the mid-2000s, and the reader feedback was almost unanimous. “What we really need is a la carte TV,” one reader wrote. “That way I can buy what I want rather than what someone forces into my TV.”

The one person I knew who never bought the hype was a Wall Street analyst named Craig Moffett. Today, Moffett is a partner at MoffettNathanson LLC, a research boutique he co-founded in 2013. When I first got to know him, he was with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. LLC covering the telecom and cable industries. I recently went back and looked at his old research — not only because it has turned out to be prophetic, but because a-la-carte television is a good example of why we should be careful of what we wish for.

What Moffett understood, and unbundling’s proponents didn’t, was that the economics of cable was, in one important sense, illusory. Cable companies paid stations based on the number of total subscribers — not on the number of people who actually watched. This system had two big benefits. It allowed niche stations without a lot of advertising to reap enough revenue to make a go of it. And it allowed the more popular stations to charge more for advertising than if they were unbundled.

Without the cable bundle, Moffett said, many of the niche channels wouldn’t survive. And the bigger ones would have to charge so much that it wouldn’t be long before consumers were paying more for their 10 channels than they had for 300.

One example he used in a note to clients in 2007 was Black Entertainment Television. Without the cable bundle, Moffett estimated that BET would need to raise its subscription price by 588% to maintain its revenue at the time — and that would have only been possible if every African-American household in the U.S. subscribed. “If just half opted in — a wildly optimistic scenario — the price would rise by 1,200%,” he wrote.

Moffett saw early on that streaming, barely a blip on the horizon, would disrupt the bundle. During this past decade, millions of American households have cut the cord. Perhaps more important, according to one survey, almost three-fourths of all U.S. households subscribe to at least one streaming service like Netflix or Hulu.

Streaming obviously has a lot of upside. The quality of a typical, streamed TV show today is superior to the vast majority of shows the networks used to offer. Being able to watch on demand is a blessing. The fact that shows on Amazon Prime or Netflix have no ads, well, who doesn’t love that?

But there have also been downsides, just as Moffett predicted. Let’s face it: you’re not really saving money. I pay $15.99 a month for a Netflix premium subscription, $11.99 for Hulu premium (which means no ads), $14.99 for HBO NOW, $11 for Showtime, and $4.99 for the new Apple TV service. If I decide to add Disney+ that’ll be another $6.99 a month.

Because I’m a sports fan, I need a way to get ESPN and ESPN 2, which remain tethered to the bundle because their costs are so enormous they would simply be unaffordable as stand-alone streaming services. I’ve been using PlayStation Vue’s mini-bundle, which costs $54.99. Sony Corp. recently announced it will be ending the service at the end of January, so I’ll have to find a replacement. But they’re all in the same basic price range.

When you add it all up — something I’d avoided doing until I wrote this column — it comes to $113.95. A month. Ouch. And that doesn’t include the $12.99 a month I pay to be an Amazon Prime member, which gives me access to shows like “Fleabag” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

Here’s another data point. Remember Moffett’s prediction about what would happen if BET left the bundle? We now have the proof. Cable subscribers pay 27 cents a month for BET, according to research from Kagan, a media research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence. A subscriber to its spanking new streaming app, BET Plus: Try $9.99. So much for all the money we were going to save.

The other problem, as Tara noted in her column, is the frustration that has come with dealing with all these different services. It means “knowing which TV programs and movies reside where, having to toggle among those different apps — which isn’t as smooth as simply channel-surfing — and managing multiple monthly subscriptions,” Tara wrote.

Wouldn’t you know it: Moffett saw this coming too. In 2006, he wrote a tongue-in-cheek note to clients from sometime in the future. Streaming, he predicted, had become a burden:

The complexity was overwhelming. Forgotten passwords. Balky navigation. And lord, were the subscription fees astronomical, what with the average consumer having to sign up for six or seven different companies’ offerings in order to satisfy all the different members of the family.

The solution, Moffett projected, would come from a clever entrepreneur with a once-in-a-lifetime idea:

What if we could aggregate all the channels in one place? Disney, Fox, Turner, ABC, NBC, YouTube, CBS, MTV, the whole works, accessible from a single source. For one monthly subscription, we could bring viewers all of this amazing content, smoothly and easily! One navigation framework. A single interface. One bill. All the channels at your fingertips. And even huge libraries of content, available on demand!

We’re not there yet. But we’re heading in that direction. It won’t be cheap. But I have my own prediction: This time around, nobody’s going to be complaining about the bundle.

Now read: Netflix can’t kill DStv’s Sunday night movie

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