Just months ago, the idea of introducing alternatives to the fat cable bundle were anathema to an industry that has long fought to keep that profitable business model intact. But with declining ratings and advertising revenues and more people dropping their cable subscriptions altogether, the industry has shifted tone.
“Obviously we are the disruptors here. The question is how quickly the content providers will move,” Verizon chief executive Lowell McAdam said in an interview on CNBC Thursday. Verizon, Dish, and Cablevision were first to offer skinny bundles and streaming packages that offer smaller package of channels over the Internet.
TV industry executives disagree how quickly the traditional cable bundle will decline. 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch said at a Goldman Sachs conference this week he expects "cord cutting" to decline by around 1 percent this year. But he and others predict many more offerings like Verizon's will emerge.
"It's a logical development," said Time Warner chief executive Jeff Bewkes at a Goldman Sachs media and telecommunications conference this week. He said the new business models, including skinny bundles, have created new revenue opportunities and larger audiences. In April, Time Warner released its $15-a-month HBO streaming app through Apple, Cablevision, Verizon and Dish. And its Turner broadcasting channels are available on Dish Network's SlingTV service. "It's probably good for consumers and its good for us."
Apple is rumored to be working on a streaming service could be the best alternative to the big cable bundle, with local TV news, sports and the most popular channels. Hulu has aggressively invested in original content and for the rights to run in-season series such as Fox’s “Empire.”
The move toward slimmer bundles and streaming apps is a risky bet for an industry that has seen big profits from the large packages of channels that have been increasing in price and size. Indeed, Verizon has about 5.7 million FiOs customers who pay at least $75 a month just for TV.
But over the last year, the industry was forced to look at new models. Ratings reached record lows for many networks over the summer. In August, overall cable TV rating were down 9 percent. The entire media industry was hammered on stock markets after Disney lowered its guidance for cable revenues, admitting to pressure on the traditional cable bundle. ESPN, a Disney property, draws the highest fees of networks in the cable bundle. And in the second quarter, 566,000 cable and satellite subscribers canceled their service.
There are potentially greater problems on the horizon. Millennials aren't watching as much traditional TV. Only 20 percent of consumers aged 18 to 34 use the TV as their primary source of entertainment, according to a survey by Magid Advisors. And TV industry executives are particularly worried about the growing number of younger consumers who have never subscribed to cable, telecom or satellite TV -- and probably never will. In total, this group of "cord nevers" makes up about 20 percent of the people who don't subscribe to television, according to the survey.
In all, HBO and other media firms estimate there are about 10 million broadband-only homes today and that number can double in the next decade.
But McAdam said the company has trained its focus on a different target: acquiring millennial users through mobile video.
"We looked at the customer segment that we want to go after, the millennials . . . they aren't buying linear TV," McAdam said on CNBC. "They are just fundamentally opposed to these 300 channel bundles."