Tuesday, October 29, 2013

I want my... I want my HBO part II

Our second story this week is local. Canada's regulator, the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission), has started consultations to un-bundle TV channels for cable and satellite payTV. In essence, the regulator asserts that TV bundling of channels might be consumer-adverse and that forcing someone to pay for basic cable/satellite + digital channels + movie package + HD + HBO in order to watch Game of Throne is not in the consumer's best interest.
Already both sides of the discussion are engaging in strong arguments. On one hand, it is true that bundling has allowed consumers to discover new content that might not have been their initial choice when selecting their channel line up. In many cases, you are drawn to a new show or a new series by a combination of peer recommendation, preview / advertisement and pure chance. If you did not select the channel to start with, you are removing a large part of the discovery opportunity and I do not see how that can benefit the consumer , the programmer or the announcer. There are already rumors that some US channels could just pull out of Canadian airwaves rather than bend to Canadian pick-and-choose TV which could set a precedent in the US.
On the other hand, TV bundling and prices have gotten out of hand in Canada. It is not unusual to pay over 100$ per month for TV programming which is a high price if, when all is said and done, you watch in average maybe 15 channels in your fixed rotation. Unbundling could certainly cut dramatically in cost to the consumer if they are allowed to select their channel individually rather than in bundles. That's if the MSOs practice a fair price, which is a big if in Canada. Coopetition has been the operating model rather than aggressive competition and prices for unbundled channels could end up being more expensive than bundled, which would end up damaging the consumer's wallet, angering the US right holders and precipitate OTT exodus.

I am in favor of unbundling, but it has to be done in a very careful fashion. It can be beneficial to the consumer only if:

  • It leads to more choice rather than less (US channels need to stay)
  • It is easy to add and remove channels, with no subscription longer than month to month and no penalty.
  • Individual channel selection is not sub-bundled (you have to subscribe to channel x in order to pay extra for channel xHD). I should be able to select only HD channels if I want and not have to carry both SD and HD. It is ok to pay more for HD than SD.
  • Catch up TV, time shifted and a la carte one demand offering could be bundled with individual channels (for instance, AMC SD 1$, HD 1.5$ with on demand 3$...).
  • It is ok to have public programming as a bundle part of the basic subscription package.

In this manner, the successful channels will reap the bulk of the consumer money, but special interest channels will still reach their audience. Channels that have no audience will not be artificially sustained by bundled package. Channels will be able to compete on a series by series, show by show, encouraging original programming and exclusive rights, allowing true competition for premium content.

These two stories illustrate perfectly the risks and opportunities of OTT vs payTV. The business models are not settled yet, major players are announcing new moves every week. It is an exciting time to work in this industry.

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