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ESPN Says Skinny Bundles Are Big. Comcast Says They're Not. The Future of TV Is Confused.

Are you going to pay less for TV -- or not at all?

Shutterstock / Luis Carlos Torres
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Conventional wisdom in the TV Industrial Complex: We’re moving into an era of “skinny bundles” — where people still subscribe to pay TV but they pay less and get less.

Just how big the bundles will be and which channels will be in them and how much they’ll cost is up for debate (Apple, for one, is having a hard time figuring it out). But everyone seems convinced that the future of pay TV will be thinner.

That theory gained more credence last month, when ESPN boss John Skipper said the sports programmer had seen subscriber losses in part because of “people trading down to lighter cable packages” that don’t include his network.

Then yesterday, the picture got fuzzier, when the country’s biggest pay TV provider indicated that it was getting people to pay for more, not less, TV.

During Comcast’s* earnings call, cable boss Neil Smit told analysts that skinny bundles “are actually a very small percentage of our overall video customer base,” and that 75 percent of the company’s growth in video subscribers last quarter had come from people paying for “higher-end packages.”

That led some people to conclude that 25 percent of the company’s video growth came from skinny bundle subscribers, which would be interesting. But while Comcast won’t say how many people are signing up for skinny bundles, a rep says the remaining 25 percent of its growth isn’t from skinny bundles alone but from a range of different packages.

Got it? No? Join the club. At the very least, we can say that there’s a disconnect between what ESPN and Comcast are saying: If the move to skinny, or skinny-ish, bundles is big enough to show up in ESPN’s subscriber base of 90+ million, you would think it would show up in Comcast’s video subscriber base of 22 million.

Figuring this out may be very important to the TV Industrial Complex. If the skinny bundle theory turns out to be reality, it will have big ripple effects throughout the industry as programmers scramble to make sure they’re included in the new bundles, and the ones who get left out will be screwed.

But skinny bundles are still more comforting to the TV Industrial Complex than a world without bundles at all. Because that might mean that people don’t pay for conventional TV at all, or simply dip in and out of a la carte channels like HBO Now.

One thing we can say: We’ll be able to ask Skipper about this ourselves at our Code/Media event in a couple weeks, where he’ll be one of our featured speakers at our Feb. 17 and 18 conference about the future of media. You join us yourself by signing up here, or stay tuned to Re/code for full coverage.

* Comcast, via its NBCUniversal unit, is a minority investor in Vox Media, which owns this site.

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