Traditional TV Enters Its Final Death Spiral

from the dysfunction-junction dept

For the better part of the decade, even Wall Street stock jocks have acknowledged that the current pay TV ecosystem simply isn't sustainable. Broadcasters continue to demand higher and higher rates for the same programming, driving up costs for consumers. Those consumers are then fleeing to the exits in record numbers; either migrating to new streaming video alternatives or over the air antennas. Many executives' response to the problem? Mindlessly double down on most of the behaviors that brought them here, namely, mindless consolidation and price hikes.

Most cable and broadcast executives seem to believe they can just nurse this dying cash cow until retirement, at which point it's somebody else's problem. But the problem itself remains, and analysts like Doug Dawson quite correctly note that 2020 may be the year the entire fracas finally starts to unravel and the real "death spiral" truly begins:

"As a whole, traditional cable TV has probably now entered what economists call a death spiral. Most programming contracts are for 3 – 5 years and the cable TV companies already know of the big programming cost increases coming for the next few years. As cable companies keep raising rates they will lose more customers. The programmers will likely try to compensate by raising their rates even higher, and within a short number of years, cable TV will cost more than what most homes are willing to pay."

AT&T, for example, has already been losing customers hand over fist, and things are about to get worse. Despite having spent hundreds of billions on DirecTV and Time Warner mergers with an eye on dominating the TV sector, AT&T began 2020 with 15% fewer TV subscribers than it started with in 2019.

It now has to strike new contracts with a large number of programmers that will collectively trigger prices to soar even higher. At the same time, companies like AT&T now face growing competitive pressure from broadcasters themselves, who are all rushing to offer their programming direct to consumer via their own streaming platforms. Meanwhile, AT&T's saddled with so much debt from its mindless mega-mergers, the company has been forced to drive up consumer costs to even try and maintain equilibrium. Again, you can probably see how this entire mess isn't sustainable.

As Dawson notes, the need for quarter over quarter improvements has trapped both cable providers and broadcasters (often one and the same) between a rock and a hard place:

"It’s no longer good enough for corporations to make money, they are expected to increase bottom line quarter after quarter, year after year. We’ve only been talking about cord cutting for a few years, but the industry has been declining for over a decade. In 2010 there were nearly 105 million subscribers of traditional cable TV, and that number dropped to just over 83 million by the third quarter of 2019. It’s easy to think of cord cutting as a recent phenomenon, but the industry has been quietly bleeding customers for years. Sadly, the programmers are still denying the reality that they exist in a dying industry and are likely to continue to raise rates like Fox just did."

Of course while many see streaming improving things, the same problems still exist. Programmers still demand their pound of flesh (aka more money for the same content), so they're slowly driving up the cost of streaming services as well, driving even more viewers (especially younger) to platforms like YouTube or TikTok where production costs are negligible. In turn, cable providers who are starting to lose money on traditional TV are either leaving the TV business or just abusing their monopoly over broadband to jack up the costs of basic connectivity.

It's a mess, and if the cycle of dysfunction continues unabated, people might even start reading books again.

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Filed Under: cable, death spiral, pay tv, tv


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  • identicon
    christenson, 23 Jan 2020 @ 6:34am

    Elephant in the room -- the picture is much too rosy!

    Heya Carl,

    What happens when I can get low-latency satellite broadband from SpaceX, probably 1Q 2021???

    And two or three more competitors over the next five years???

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 6:48am

      Re: Elephant in the room -- the picture is much too rosy!

      While those systems can serve rural/low population density areas, they cannot replace fibre/cable/copper in metropolitan areas. Bandwidth per connection says how fast the system works, but maximum number of connections decides how many people can be served, spread out over the whole world. It is the difference between one fibre equivalent per city block, and how many fibres do you want run into that apartment building.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 8:49am

      Re: Elephant in the room -- the picture is much too rosy!

      Back in the day when cable was new, I happily paid for access to shows and movies that did not have ads. It was nice while it lasted.

      Within a few years there were a few ads followed by many. The price increased at rates double inflation or more and included the much hated contract.

      So, it was welcome news when I read about the new satellite tv companies that were launching satellites, I looked forward to better service at lower prices.

      And now, we see a new competitor entering the market with the same promises. Why should I believe that the same thing will not happen again? Certainly you are not claiming this new participant will behave themselves.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Great_Scott (profile), 23 Jan 2020 @ 1:39pm

        Re: Re: Elephant in the room -- the picture is much too rosy!

        I don't think we need to worry about streaming services going the way of Satellite TV.

        It's simple economics - people can't afford to pay a lot any more.

        One way, or another, people won't be paying. You can't squeeze blood from a stone.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 1:48pm

          Re: Re: Re: Elephant in the room -- the picture is much too rosy

          christenson was addressing low-latency satellite broadband from SpaceX, I responded to that with some history.

          Streaming is a different animal, subject to similar sourcing problems tho. It has a chance of surviving but that is diminishing every day.

          It is funny that some execs think people need 24/7 access to the over priced and over hyped content.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 24 Jan 2020 @ 6:21am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Elephant in the room -- the picture is much too

            The problem is that SpaceX's proposed service (pure-play broadband) is of a rather different nature than the priors you referred to (pay-TV, with the broadband coming much later)

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 24 Jan 2020 @ 8:24am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Elephant in the room -- the picture is much

              Point being ... they blow smoke up yer ass for the first few months/years and hope you like it enough to endure the following price increases.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 24 Jan 2020 @ 4:39am

      Re: Elephant in the room -- the picture is much too rosy!

      "What happens when I can get low-latency satellite broadband from SpaceX, probably 1Q 2021???"

      Assuming starlink actually works. For it to properly work at scale it will require technical specifications well beyond what SpaceX has released - and beyond theorist expected limits as well.

      And even if it does work as expected, stretching the technical specs by a few orders of magnitude, the SpaceX business plan is overestimating the revenue potential by a similar few orders of magnitude.

      Right now it's more credible for Musk to claim the red roadster he launched into space will have Mars terraformed and ready for colonization than it is for SpaceX to even start building starlink in reality.

      "And two or three more competitors over the next five years???"

      More likely it'll be a starlink beta test launching a hundred or so cubesats after which no one will mention satellite constellations again within this century.

      It's a nice idea in theory but is about as likely as trying to invent the iPad in 1920.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 24 Jan 2020 @ 6:26am

        Re: Re: Elephant in the room -- the picture is much too rosy!

        While I'm not expecting gigabit-fiber performance from them, I'd be more than happy with Starlink providing a 25Mbps down, 2-5Mbps up service at 100ms pings, and there are plenty of folks in low-density or otherwise neglected areas who'd find that an upgrade from their current ISP. Also, LEO constellations are already a working thing (ask Matt Desch sometime -- in fact, the existing Iridum NEXT constellation provides data service equivalent to a low-grade DSL line anywhere on the globe, albeit for a stiffer pricetag than what SpaceX is targeting).

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    AZsubparVet, 23 Jan 2020 @ 6:44am

    You can count me in as one of those that left DirecTV last year, after being a loyal customer since 2000. I tried SlingTV, but left them when the dispute with Fox took place. I'm currently with Hulu + Live TV but their recent price increase has me debating leaving that platform once football season is over. These companies have driven me back to finding free streams online, after having gone "legit" for the last few years, and I'm not ashamed to say that I don't feel one ounce of regret doing that again.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Chuck Sod, 23 Jan 2020 @ 8:54am

      Re:

      You ever feel like some sort of addict or something?

      I wonder if anyone calls those addiction help places complaining of a video addiction.

      Is quitting like cold turkey? Sweating, convulsions ... just like on tv.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ed (profile), 23 Jan 2020 @ 7:06am

    Don't knock OTA

    We have a simple antenna on the roof of the home. We get over 50 channels in crystal clear resolution. All the major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CW, PBS) plus all the independant and subchannels with various content. We even get Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, and Vietnamese channels. There is such a wide variety, we don't need cable TV. For the rest, we can use Netflix or Youtube.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 7:22am

      Re: Don't knock OTA

      Where are you located?

      Here all we get is ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox.

      And! They are all bad; 90% commercials.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 7:39am

        Re: Re: Don't knock OTA

        You seem to be in a bad spot. I get between a dozen and 18 channels most of the time with a wall mounted antennae.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 9:00am

        Re: Re: Don't knock OTA

        Even the ads have ads! - LOL

        The network news is almost all ads. You tune in wanting the weather or traffic and you get some bullshit about a new product or service looking for a market - and this is news.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 23 Jan 2020 @ 8:41am

      Re: Don't knock OTA

      "We even get Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, and Vietnamese channels"

      Sounds like you're probably in a major metropolitan area with a lot of local choice in a number of different areas of culture. That's probably not the experience a lot of people have.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 9:02am

        Re: Re: Don't knock OTA

        That is correct.
        Joe cattle puncher out in BFE will not have access to such diversity, perhaps that explains their ignorance?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    anonymous coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 7:16am

    Bravo for Books

    As for the traditional cable television model, as well as most OTA broadcasting, good riddance to bad trash.

    For those of us who are or aspire to be something better than a vulgar, coarse and low anthropoid ape, the content of both cable and OTA is lousy to offensive. The only useful content is the local weather radar imagery.

    Good on books, if you are old enough to read (>40). I've said it before, public domain audio books are as good an evening's entertainment as anything on video.

    As for those under 40, sorry 'bout that. Perhaps it might be time to learn to read.

    It just might be time to resurrect the old video store option.

    Perhaps people who are good at story telling can sell live story telling services to groups. Imagine a social evening among a group of friends: drinks, snacks, comfy chairs and a good live story teller. Anyone remember Scheherazade?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Stephen T. Stone (profile), 23 Jan 2020 @ 7:30am

      Imagine a social evening among a group of friends: drinks, snacks, comfy chairs and a good live story teller.

      A good library would (and maybe even should) provide all those things to adults after the average workday is done. Libraries should be social hangouts, dammit.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 8:14am

      Re: Bravo for Books

      Speaking as one of those <40 folk, I have one problem with the library system where I am: they don't carry the reading materials I generally seek out, and probably never will, especially not for checkout. Heck, the university library doesn't carry them, either. (As an example: we're close to the 2020 NEC coming out, but the latest Handbook the libraries where I am at have is the 2014. And that's an easy case: go try to check out a copy of some UL standard sometime.)

      Not all that much their fault, though: it mostly has to do with how insane the prices on standards materials are (an artifact of when they actually had to be expensive due to their limited audience).

      Sincerely,
      --someone who was reading car ads...back in their high-chair days.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 11:21am

        Re: Re: Bravo for Books

        As an example: we're close to the 2020 NEC coming out, but the latest Handbook the libraries where I am at have is the 2014.

        It's ridiculous that copyright law makes these legally binding documents so hard to get. Is this what you want?
        https://archive.org/details/gov.law.nfpa.nec.2017

        For other safety codes, browse the tag/collection/uploader links from there, or try here:
        https://law.resource.org/pub/table01.html

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 12:53pm

          Re: Re: Re: Bravo for Books

          I'm familiar with the work of PRO in digitizing the actual legally binding Codes (and am a fan :); however, note that I'm talking about a couple different degrees beyond that, first with the NFPA's commentary on the NEC (which is what the NEC Handbook is, and something they have every right to hold copyright over; also, the NEC is unique among NFPA code/standard work, AIUI, in having the Handbook as a separate document, vs. as an appendix to the published standard itself), and secondly with the reference to UL's standards, most of which are enforced indirectly by the requirements for NRTL listing present in various places in the NEC, as well as directly in the OSHA electrical safety regs...

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 9:07am

      Re: Bravo for Books

      Your exaggerations are not helping your cause.

      For example, claiming that anyone younger than forty years of age is incapable of reading is ..... well, ignorant.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 12:58pm

      Re: Bravo for Books

      Imagine a social evening among a group of friends: drinks, snacks, comfy chairs and a good live story teller.

      So your saying you want more people playing D&D?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    bhull242 (profile), 23 Jan 2020 @ 7:36am

    Honestly, while most of these problems could have been solved or were of the companies’ own making, I feel the need to point out one major flaw in the way modern businesses are structured: in every industry, virtually all major companies are obligated to not just make a profit but to increase that profit every single year. Regardless of the business you’re in, and regardless of what tactics you use, that’s simply not sustainable over the long-term. There is a finite number of potential customers in any given year, and the amount of wealth available globally is also finite. In other words, there is a maximum demand. In addition, raising prices (the only other way to increase profits) will inevitably reduce demand. Eventually, every business in every industry—no matter how large or small—will eventually hit an unbreakable ceiling on their profits that cannot be exceeded by any means without expanding the business to include other industries (which has its own risks) or selling to new locales. And eventually, even that expanded business will hit another ceiling. Even if you had one business that was in every industry selling various products and services to collectively suit every (legal) need or want of every person in the world, there would still be an unbreakable ceiling that no amount of price changes, improvements to the different products or services, sneaky tactics, or marketing tricks could possibly breach. We have a system where success is defined by constant growth, and that simply cannot be maintained forever, or even the estimated remaining time that Earth will remain habitable for human life. It’s impossible, and it’s absurd that the market values stable growth so much more highly than stable profits. Cable and satellite TV may be succumbing more quickly to this due to various missteps and outside factors, but the fact is that this requirement for indefinite, unceasing growth will eventually claim all businesses in all industries no matter what if nothing is done about this short-sighted way to measure success. It’s only a matter of time.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 9:11am

      Re:

      "that’s simply not sustainable"

      I agree and have wondered about their motivations. Perhaps they simply do not care as it is not a family business and they will retire before the collapse. Maybe that division is a loss leader, use to evade taxation. More likely the operation is being run by the incompetent and over compensated.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Dave, 23 Jan 2020 @ 9:32pm

      Re:

      Hey, that exponential growth in profits that capitalism expects out of every corporation is really just a 2-D cross-section of a 3-D pyramid scheme. It'll eventually collapse, and investors will lose all the money they put into it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 8:16am

    Comcast called me yesterday because a few weeks agoI had them remove cable TV from my service (although I did upgrade to their gigabit ethernet service). I told them exactly why I cancelled it. I just couldn't justify spending $130 a month for something I was clearly using less and less every month. And now that I've been without it for a few weeks, I don't miss it at all.

    And yesterday I went into my Apple subscriptions and cancelled Disney+ and signed up for CBS All Access. It took me just a few minutes to do. I suspect I'll cancel CBS All Access after Picard finishes. Even with Britbox (which I subscribe to their Amazon prime) can be cancelled with just click. It really is a better way to consume TV.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 23 Jan 2020 @ 8:43am

      Re:

      "I suspect I'll cancel CBS All Access after Picard finishes"

      International licensing is always amusing. You guys had to sign up for a special streaming service to access new Star Trek. Where I live, Star Trek Discovery is on Netflix, while Picard is on Amazon Prime. I didn't have to lift a finger. Meanwhile, I have to jump through semi-legal hoops to access the Criterion Channel's content...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Improbus (profile), 23 Jan 2020 @ 10:50am

      Re: Cable TV

      If I can download it or stream it I don't watch it. For Disney+ and CBS All Access I use torrents and I don't feel bad about.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 8:20am

    AT&T, for example, has already been losing customers hand over fist, and things are about to get worse. Despite having spent hundreds of billions on DirecTV and Time Warner mergers with an eye on dominating the TV sector, AT&T began 2020 with 15% fewer TV subscribers than it started with in 2019.
    It now has to strike new contracts with a large number of programmers that will collectively trigger prices to soar even higher. At the same time, companies like AT&T now face growing competitive pressure from broadcasters themselves, who are all rushing to offer their programming direct to consumer via their own streaming platforms. Meanwhile, AT&T's saddled with so much debt from its mindless mega-mergers, the company has been forced to drive up consumer costs to even try and maintain equilibrium. Again, you can probably see how this entire mess isn't sustainable.

    In other words, the Death Star is in that part of the movie where "Stand by" is being repeated over the PA system and the Rebels are racing away from it at top speed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 8:21am

    When greed drives unsustainable growth, the government should be limiting corporations' bottom line.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 10:08am

    I've always been one to demand value for the money. Back in the day, I paid for cable because I was paying for no commercials. Well, that didn't last.Then the ads came, then more came, and soon it was as polluted as OTA tv.

    I saw movies that would some years later become OTA tv fodder. But then rerun city started and the same movie would be on day after day for various viewing times for a couple of weeks. Then they'd swap and HBO would carry what Showtime had been carrying, while Showtime did the same. Why pay for both when you could pay for one and see the same inside the month?

    Then the programming went down hill. The movies and features became dumber and dumber. Things I was interested in became fewer and fewer as reality tv came to be. Suddenly with all these channels there was nothing to watch.

    So I dumped it all. No sense in paying for what you aren't enjoying and getting value for your money over. Finally I had no use for a tv so dumped that too. I found not being bombarded by ads, by news that led because it bled, and all the hype that went with this crap left too. The household became calmer, less hectic.

    Now I have tv again after over a decade without one. I rarely watch it, mainly reserving it for weather events or the like. The antenna is just fine but I will never go back to paying to watch tv.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Jan 2020 @ 10:34am

    driving even more viewers (especially younger) to platforms like YouTube or TikTok where production costs are negligible

    Cost often has nothing to do with it. My kids (20 and 18) watch YouTube and other non-traditional sources because that's where the stuff they want to see is. They have logins for our Netflix, Hulu, HBO (via Hulu), Disney+ accounts and can watch our DirectTV stuff remotely. 80% of the time when they want to watch video, it's on YouTube. The rest of the time it's a pretty even mix of the other services.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      urza9814 (profile), 23 Jan 2020 @ 11:53am

      Re:

      Yeah, there's one or two series that I still keep up with (The Expanse being the main one) but 99% of what I watch is probably YouTube and spinoffs (ie, Nebula, Floatplane, Patreon pages, LBRY...stuff I found through YT but now watch elsewhere). There's more stuff that I'd like to watch posted in a day than I could ever hope to actually watch. Nothing's ever out of date, nothing is ever a re-run, and when I DO tune in to something that's already halfway over (because for some odd reason, YouTube does that a lot lately), I can rewind and start where I want.

      The only thing that really annoys the crap out of me is these people who still try to do live shows and scheduled premieres and stuff...just post the freakin' video and let me watch it when I want. Nothing worse than getting a notification for a live feed that looks great, only to realize it started nearly an hour ago and you'll have to wait for the recording if you actually want to have a clue what's going on anyway. But then you can't tell when it's actually been posted because YT won't give another notification if you dismiss the first one, but the first one will still say it's "live" even two days later...I just wish at least one of these other services could figure out playlists and feeds

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Dave, 23 Jan 2020 @ 8:54pm

    But traditional pay TV will probably continue to reign supreme for a few more years in Canada.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Jan 2020 @ 8:23am

      Re: Canada

      I thought México was bad, with Televisa owning much of everything and Azteca owning what's left. Then I looked at Canada. What a dumpster fire - the same companies who control the cable/phone duopoly (or businesses under common control with them) own the broadcast networks, and the networks own most of the stations outright... and are taking them off the air at an ever-increasing rate in all but the largest cities. CBC/Radio-Canada used to be a viable alternative, but its funding was gutted by a previous government in 2012 and the signals which were taken off the air in that era were never replaced. And the CRTC? An embarrassment of regulatory capture by Bell and Rogers that makes the US FCC look like a shining beacon of northern charm and southern efficiency by comparison. Put up an antenna in Corner Brook (or anywhere in Newfoundland except St. John's) and there's nothing but static. Nothing.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Jan 2020 @ 12:51am

    There is a bight side...

    Picture it, USA, 2021.

    AT&T enters bankruptcy and is acquired by the company formerly known as Bell Atlantic for a song. The now nearly fully reformed Ma Bell is known as, you guessed it, AT&T. A disaster for consumers follows.

    On the bright side, we never have to hear or read that focus group failure, Verizon, ever again.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Jan 2020 @ 8:08am

      Re: There is a blight side...

      More likely it will be Bell Atlantis, because there's no limit to how far they'll sink...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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