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The fight for the bundle is the war for the future of TV

The TV guys want to keep selling you TV you don’t watch. It won’t work.

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.

We are weeks away from the last episode of the last season of Game of Thrones. Expect dragons, death, and dismemberment — and eyeballs: HBO says more than 38 million people watched the first episode of its blockbuster’s final season (about half on regular TV and the rest streaming or on-demand) and those numbers seem sure to rise with the body count.

In the days before the internet, that audience size wouldn’t be remarkable. In 1986 — when TV viewing was basically confined to ABC, NBC, CBS, and the newly launched Fox Network — the top 10 TV shows routinely averaged tens of millions of viewers per episode. The Cosby Show alone averaged 30 million households per week — a full third of the TV-watching audience.

NBC’s “The Cosby Show” was the highest rated show in the US, in 1986.
NBC’s The Cosby Show was the highest-rated show in the US in 1986.
NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Now, of course, we have many more choices about what we want to watch each evening, and the audience has splintered accordingly: This year, the top 10 broadcast TV shows average between 6.6 million and 11 million viewers on live TV.

That audience has been declining for years, but the people who made and sold TV shows didn’t seem to worry about it, with good reason: Even if the audience for individual shows was dropping, people were still paying for the networks that delivered those shows, because they didn’t have a choice. For most people, watching TV meant buying a bundle of channels from a pay TV distributor like Comcast. And pay TV distributors sold the same bundles to everyone, regardless of what they actually wanted to watch.

Now the bundle, the crucial piece of the TV business architecture, is going away, too, despite the best efforts of the Television Industrial Complex to keep it around. As the bundle breaks up, TV viewers will have more choice about what they watch and what they pay for, at least in the near term. And it is having a profound effect on the companies whose business model depends on that bundle.

If you’ve ever paid for cable TV, you know what the bundle is, even if you don’t think of it as such: Leichtman Research Group says you pay an average of $107 a month for an average of 214 channels, no matter how many of them you watch.

The upside for consumers, beyond simplicity, is access to a dizzying array of TV. The downside is that you don’t want that array: Most Americans only watch a sliver of the channels in their package. The downside is even worse if you don’t care about sports, because live sports and the channels that show them are the most expensive part of your bundle: Disney’s ESPN channels alone account for $9 of a bundle; throw in other networks like Fox’s FS1 and local sports and that total easily passes $20 per month (and upward of $30 a month in expensive media markets like New York City).

For years, the conventional wisdom about big TV was that the bundle wouldn’t budge. That stayed true even as the internet began to give people the opportunity to watch TV in unconventional ways, like downloading individual episodes of Lost from iTunes — or, more worryingly for the TV guys, to simply not watch at all, and spend their time on the internet’s infinite number of free options.

And for years, the conventional wisdom seemed correct: Even as TV viewing declined, the number of households paying for TV bundles remained constant. Then suddenly, it wasn’t: Since 2012, the number of households subscribing to pay TV bundles has dropped by 10 million viewers, to 89 million, and is falling every month: AT&T alone lost another 800,000 subscribers in the first three months of this year.

TV networks are still catching up with the times

It took the TV guys several years to acknowledge the change but they eventually did, via two major announcements less than a year apart: In November 2014, Time Warner said that it would start selling HBO to anyone with a broadband account — no pay TV subscription required. A few months later, in August 2015, Disney CEO Bob Iger acknowledged that his ESPN network had suffered “some subscriber losses” as pay TV customers cut the cord or looked for bundles that didn’t include ESPN.

In case both of those events now seem like commonsense water-is-wet announcements, understand the context: Selling HBO a la carte over the web, was a major shift for Time Warner, which had traditionally relied on distributors like Comcast and Charter to market HBO to their customers, almost always by attaching the service to a bundle. For years, Time Warner management had insisted there wasn’t a market for people who wanted to buy HBO but didn’t want to pay for traditional TV. (Three years later, HBO’s broadband-only option had more than 5 million subscribers.)

And for years, ESPN, which was able to charge distributors more for its channels than any other TV programmer, had been the most valuable part of Disney, in large part because it was impossible to imagine a world where ESPN wasn’t in every TV household. Now, Disney was acknowledging, ESPN wasn’t a must-have for everyone — and that people were either not signing up for pay TV or seeking out hard-to-find pay TV options that didn’t include sports.

Disney CEO Bob Iger introduced his upcoming Disney+ service during the company’s Investor Day event on April 11, 2019.
Disney CEO Bob Iger introduced his upcoming Disney+ service during the company’s Investor Day event on April 11, 2019.
Walt Disney Media Center

Now Disney, like every other big TV programmers, is facing a dilemma: How do they give customers the thing they want — the ability to pay for the shows or networks or packages of networks — while continuing to sell the things Disney would prefer they buy? The answer differs from network to network, but most of the solutions are some sort of half-measure: Find a way to make some stuff available outside the bundle while keeping most of the must-have stuff inside the bundle.

Take, for instance, Disney’s recent blockbuster announcement of its Disney+ streaming service: For $7 a month, it will give consumers many of Disney’s most valuable properties, like Marvel blockbusters, Disney’s most-loved animated movies, and, courtesy of its Fox acquisition, The Simpsons.

But none of that, for now, involves taking anything outside of Disney’s core cable properties, like ABC or the Disney Channel — and, most crucially, ESPN. Disney is selling an ESPN+ streaming service for $5 a month, but that is explicitly not an ESPN replacement — it’s an ESPN add-on for die-hard fans of niche sports like Italian Serie A soccer and college lacrosse. If you want ESPN, you need to subscribe to a ... bundle.

Just about every other network is experimenting with similar attempts to sell extra content to consumers on the internet while keeping their core stuff locked inside a bundle. AMC Networks sells its Shudder streaming service to horror fans. But anyone who wants to see its zombie blockbuster series The Walking Dead needs a pay TV subscription. Comcast (which is an investor in Vox Media, which owns this site) is going to launch its own streaming service next year; expect that one to feature TV shows it has already run on its conventional, bundle-bound TV networks.

Other programmers have experimented with keeping the bundle but shrinking it down a bit: In 2015, for instance, Disney worked with Dish Networks to launch Sling TV, a service that gave subscribers access to a small bundle of channels, most notably CNN and ESPN, for $20 a month. So if you were a news and/or sports junkie, you could buy two of your channels, at a discount, and ignore the rest.

The Sling TV display booth at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, on January 7, 2017.
The Sling TV display booth at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, on January 7, 2017.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

It’s easy to see why the networks want to keep the bundle intact: They are much more likely to generate more revenue from a fixed package everyone has to buy instead of letting people pick a handful of things they care about. There’s a line of argument that says consumers must want it, too: Witness the moves by the new group of “skinny bundle” streaming services, like Hulu, YouTube, and DirecTVNow, which initially offered slimmed-down packages of pay TV but have been adding more networks to their core packages over the last year (while raising prices at the same time).

But interpreting TV distributors’ moves to bulk up their bundles isn’t a sign of strength for the bundle — it’s a sign of weakness. While Sling, Hulu, and other internet TV services grew quickly in their first few years in the market, that growth has come to a halt in the last year at around 4 million subscribers.

This makes sense, because while those offerings provide some advantages to traditional TV bundles — they’re easy to buy, don’t require specialized hardware, and they’re also easy to turn off — they’re still a ... bundle.

Adding additional channels is an attempt to restart that growth, by convincing someone who didn’t subscribe to YouTube TV to sign up because the Food Network is now available on YouTube TV. It’s theoretically possible.

Much more likely, though, is that people who were interested in subscribing to a smallish set of TV networks will be less interested in paying more money for a larger group of channels. Tease that out a few years and it spells real trouble for the Food Network and a very long list of TV networks that have camped out on your TV grid — whether you wanted them or not.

The internet is coming to eat their lunch

Every day that the TV networks keep their bundles intact is another day for the internet to undermine the bundles. Some of that comes through direct competition: Netflix remains quite disinterested in producing live TV and sports programming, but short of that they have a little bit of everything — just like your old cable TV subscription. And CEO Reed Hastings is selling his version of a bundle for $13 a month. He has 149 million subscribers and counting.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings delivers a keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, on January 6, 2016.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings delivers a keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, on January 6, 2016.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Then there’s indirect competition for attention: Facebook would very much like to draw viewers to its TV programming instead of NBC’s, but in the end it doesn’t matter to Mark Zuckerberg whether you’re watching Red Table Talk, Jada Pinkett’s Facebook Watch show, or flipping through blouse pictures on Instagram — it’s all time spent on Facebook.

Meanwhile, note that Amazon, Apple, and Google, given all their wealth and resources, aren’t yet directly attacking the cable bundle but rather nibbling around the edges: They’ll sell you HBO subscriptions, just like traditional TV bundlers, but they aren’t selling standalone programming of their own with any real force — yet. That could change in the next few years: Both Amazon and Apple are spending billions on programming designed to reach very large audiences, though it’s unclear whether either company wants to sell them as standalone video services or as giveaways to complement their real businesses.

Add all that up and here’s what the future looks like for TV watchers. Strike that — it’s not the future, it’s right now: Many more options for consumers to buy subscriptions to things they like — some Netflix here, some HBO there — and many options get an enormous amount of stuff for free, or seemingly free, via tech giants like Facebook, Google, or Apple.

A woman takes a picture of a white walker from HBO’s “Game of Thrones” on display in an exhibition of the popular tv series in Berlin, Germany, on May 13, 2015.
A white walker from HBO’s Game of Thrones on display in Berlin, Germany, on May 13, 2015.
Jens Kalaene/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

Does all of that replace everything that’s in the bundle? No, but it doesn’t have to, because you didn’t want the bundle to begin with.

Maybe you wanted a few specific things. Mostly you just wanted something to watch. Now you have it, and you can have it for a fraction of the cost: HBO plus Netflix will set you back $28 a month. Feel free to add in Hulu, and even an Amazon Prime Video subscription — if you’re not already paying for Amazon Prime itself, which offers its subscribers video as a free giveaway — and you’re adding another $15 to $21 a month.

Now you have more TV than you could possibly watch, for less than $50 a month, and we haven’t even gotten to the free stuff yet. The only people who will feel truly left out here — besides people who work in the Television Industrial Complex — are the ones who want to watch live major league sports or live news from traditional TV networks.

But in many cases, even that gap can be filled with the purchase of a cheap digital TV antenna, which will give consumers access to anything shown on a broadcast TV network. And if that sounds like too much work (or too old-school), don’t underestimate the power of free TV. A whopping 20 percent of broadband-only households say they’ve bought an antenna recently.

Is this the end of megahits and prestige series?

Hardly. Note that Game of Thrones comes to you via a TV network that has already broken free of the bundle — those tens of millions of people who watched “The Battle of Winterfell” this week were already paying AT&T to watch a network they care deeply about.

That won’t change when the bundle goes away — which is why streamers are splashing enormous sums of money on their own attempts to create Game of Thrones-like blockbusters. Amazon, for instance, is reportedly going to spend more than $500 million on a Lord of the Rings prequel.

But it does mean that there will be enormous pressure on networks and programmers who make stuff people are only moderately interested in — or that can be replaced by cheaper/free alternatives. (This explains why Altice, the fourth-largest cable operator in the US, just paid $200 million for Cheddar, a digital news network with a very modest audience: It is betting it can use it to replace CNBC and other high-cost TV news operations down the line.)

It also means there will likely be a course correction for some of TV’s most expensive programming costs, like sports rights: That $9 a month for ESPN could get much, much more expensive when we move to an a la carte world, and the paying audience for ESPN drops from 86 million people to … 70 million? 60 million? 50 million? Those remaining customers will either have to pay upward of $20 or $30 a month to make up for Disney’s drop in subscriber fees, and/or the sports leagues that charge Disney billions will have to accept smaller fees for their games. Maybe some of both.

This is scary stuff for the TV guys, which is why they are trying very hard to keep the bundle alive as long as they can: Picture the Winterfell defenders taking on the hordes this week, and the Hound’s moment of clarity: “You can’t fight death!”

But this isn’t life or death — it’s just TV and the internet, and choices you and I get to make about how we spend our time and money. The bundle can’t die soon enough.

Correction: This post has been updated to clarify that Altice USA and Altice in Europe are separate companies.

Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.

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