The one-two punch already has some hopeful onlookers anticipating the end of the TV bundle, a business model that forces consumers to pay hefty monthly prices for a bundle of channels including those they couldn't care less about. Although this week's announcements could speed up the forces behind TV unbundling, it will still be a while before the programming walls come crashing down. Here's why.
To see CBS cave to cord-cutters is both welcome and surprising. For months, we've known CBS was open to launching a standalone streaming app, but only if it was forced to do so by Aereo, the New York-based startup that streamed live TV over the Web for free. When Aereo shut down after losing a copyright case last summer before the Supreme Court, many people probably thought CBS would nix the streaming idea.
Turns out that couldn't have been further from the truth. These days everybody has to think about a la carte TV, CBS chief executive Les Moonves told the New York Times on Thursday.
"It is an important part of our future," said Moonves. "Our job is to do the best content we can and let people enjoy it in whatever way they want. The world is heading in that direction."
Prescient, but CBS's concession to that future comes with an important caveat: What the company is only quietly telling you is CBS All Access won't include pro football.
Media analysts know that football is basically the one thing that's keeping live TV, well, alive in America. (For the full-sized, interactive version of the chart below, visit The Atlantic.)
Appointment television has largely been superseded by the ability to record premade shows, skip ads and binge-watch on streaming services on your own schedule. But live events are the exception. A lot of folks just won't find CBS All Access that compelling without sports.
CBS All Access does include some live games — but probably not the local ones that fans really want to watch, said Hal Singer, an economist who's helped litigate a number of cases involving programmers and cable distributors. As a result, the move by CBS to offer online streaming isn't quite the broadside against the cable bundle that consumers might hope it to be.
"We're chipping away at the Berlin Wall right now," said Singer. "If you got local sports over the Internet, the wall would come down."
The good news for viewers is that convincing other sports programmers to leap on the streaming bandwagon may not be that difficult. That's because many have been relegated by cable companies to special sports tiers beyond the basic bundle — the worst punishment a cable company can bestow, according to Singer, because a channel placed there gets fewer eyeballs.
Channels that are on their own tier have little to lose by going around the cable companies and offering standalone streaming apps, particularly if they have compelling content and large audiences of their own, such as HBO's "Game of Thrones" or Showtime's "Homeland."
The drawback here is that most channels on special tiers lack the clout of an HBO or Showtime, which could limit the pace at which the revolution occurs. Programmers that are included in the basic cable lineup aren't likely to risk cable companies' ire by going around them for fear that they'll be shunted into a tier themselves. Even HBO was careful to signal this week that it still saw opportunities in the pay-TV space when it announced it was bringing HBO Go to non-cable subscribers.
"The meanest thing a cable guy can do to you is put you on the tier where you have to fend for yourself," said Singer. "Ask someone on the basic tier if they're willing to move onto the a la carte tier and fend for themselves. … [But] all of those guys on the sports tier are going to look at what CBS is doing and say, 'We can do a better job promoting our stuff than the cable distributors.'"
The TV bundle is very slowly beginning to disaggregate, though certainly at a much faster pace than some would've predicted before HBO and CBS made their announcements this week. But even then, whether unbundling really takes off now will depend on the cues that other key programmers take from this moment.