It's a rock-and-a-hard place, a Catch-22. The new digital pay-TV services are having a tough time making money.
Whether it's AT&T's(T) - Get Report DirecTV Now, Sling TV, or Sony's (SNE) - Get Report PlayStation Vue, all have had to operate businesses caught between profitability and consumer expectations. Newer services from Hulu and YouTube TV are likely to suffer the same fate.
"The price point at which there is a lot of demand, they're losing money," said Shahid Khan, founder of Mediamorph, a digital content supply-chain software company backed by Liberty Global(LBTYA) - Get Report and Advance/Newhouse. "Conversely, the price at which they'll have reasonable margins, the demand is quite low, too low to offset losses in traditional TV."
For pay-TV operators and network owners, that's a worrying proposition. DirecTV Now, which launched in November, offers a package of 60 channels for $35 as well as a 100-channel bundle for $60. Khan estimated that the cost paid to network owners to carry their programming exceeds services priced at $35, including Google's YouTube TV, or even $40.
Alternatively, a $60 package is more likely to attract cost-conscious cable TV subscribers than consumers who have sworn off pay-TV altogether, the so-called cord-nevers who are more likely to have a subscription to comparatively low-priced video-on-demand services such as Netflix(NFLX) - Get Report and Amazon(AMZN) - Get Report Prime.
"We're living in age of experimentation where it's very clear that more and more people are looking for new and different ways for getting the content that they want -- on their own terms," said Stephen Beck, founder of cg42, a management consultancy, who has studied cord-cutting. "And they're voicing their displeasure with the old model by voting with their feet."
When AT&T launched DirecTV Now in late November, it heavily marketed its new digital service, winning over more than 200,000 subscribers by the end of 2016.
But as it became clear that DirecTV Now was cutting into AT&T's satellite and phone-line TV services, the company pulled back on its marketing. Selling too many subscriptions at $35 was hurting the bottom line. Making matters worse, DirecTV could see that subscriptions to its digital TV offering were being shared by multiple users, prompting more cord-cutting.
In the good old days for cable TV operators (but not necessarily consumers), each and every home required a separate subscription with its own (for rent) cable TV box. With mobile devices, that's no longer the case.
"AT&T seems to be trying to figure out the right way to market DirecTV Now without taking an undue toll on its own DirecTV [satellite] subscribers," Ian Olgeirson, an analyst at Kagan, a media research firm, said from Denver. "They've stepped back to try to recalibrate that marketing approach to work out on a better mix."
DirecTV wouldn't comment on its subscriber count or on the issue of profitability.
While confirming the pullback, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said earlier this month that DirecTV Now was meeting the company's expectations. Nonetheless, Stephenson wouldn't divulge a subscription number beyond the more than 200,000 at the end of 2016. Kagan estimated that the service has about 400,000 subscribers. The same goes for Sony's PlayStation Vue: about 400,000 subscribers.
All told, the new digital pay-TV services have roughly 2.2 million subscribers, Olgeirson said, with the largest of the bunch being Dish Network's (DISH) - Get Report Sling TV at roughly 1.35 million.
The additions in digital pay-TV come as subscriptions to traditional cable and satellite TV are declining with the steepest decline ever coming in the first quarter. Pay-TV operators lost 732,000 customers in the first quarter, according to media analysis firm MoffettNathanson. And if history is any guide, each of those subscribers pay well north of $100 per month for packages that include an Internet connection.
So even though digital pay-TV services counted 477,000 new subscribers in the first quarter, those customers are paying much less per subscription for a digital pay-TV platform despite having to pay the network owners -- Disney(DIS) - Get Report , Fox(FOXA) - Get Report , CBS(CBS) - Get Report , NBCUniversal(CMCSA) - Get Report -- the same fees to carry their programming. Longer term, Khan said the digital pay-TV providers will have to work out better terms with the network owners.
"They're offsetting the decline in traditional cable by offering a product that loses money, and that's not a sustainable business," Khan said. "For them, it's about acquiring customers today and figuring out how they can renegotiate the pricing."
Ironically, when Dish Network CEO Charlie Ergen was asked in February whether he would reveal the number of subscribers to his online multichannel pay-TV offering, Sling TV, he was unequivocal. "No," Ergen said.
Media executives have been more than a bit reluctant to reveal subscriber numbers to the wave of new digital pay-TV services that media conglomerates are hoping beyond hope can reverse worrisome trends in TV consumption.
Yet Ergen may be the one media executive best positioned to reveal subscriber numbers without inciting investor concerns. That's because Ergen's Sling TV has gained some traction, albeit with sizable turnover. It's the only digital pay-TV offering that could qualify as a skinny bundle, having kept its price point low at $20 while offering fewer channels.
Sling TV is betting on personal niches, which speaks to the overarching demand of the modern day consumer: the ability to create a bundle to meet their particular tastes. For example, it offers a variety of ethnic-focused packages, such as its Hindi Premium, long a strength of Dish's satellite offering.
To be sure, it's very early in the transition to digital pay-TV. Sling TV, which was the first to offer a subscription package of cable TV networks, only launched in February 2015. And though PlayStation Vue is also two years old, it initially was only available for owners of Sony's popular game console. After much preparation, Hulu's Live TV only began operating earlier this month.
Concurrently, consumers also are becoming more comfortable with testing the new services, subscribing for a short while and then cancelling, something that was exceedingly cumbersome with cable TV. But time isn't a guarantee for the new pay-TV services. It's likely that they, too, will have to tweak their offerings to better meet consumers eager to find their perfect bundle.
"Every quarter that goes by, every year that goes by, it gets a little easier for people to act on the frustration that they have with their cable provider," said Beck of cg42. "It's come down to control, and only paying for the things that you want. And until the providers meet those demands, they'll have a hard time winning subscribers."
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