Verizon Responds To Internet Video Competition With More Flexible Cable TV Packages, ESPN Immediately Whines

Thanks to loosening broadcaster licensing restrictions, 2015 is birthing a number of more interesting Internet video platforms, including Sony’s Playstation Vue and Dish’s Sling TV. The latter has glacially moved the industry needle toward marginally-more-flexible cable TV pricing options, offering users a $20 base TV package that can be complemented with a variety of additional $5 “channel packs.” Users are tired of bi-annual rate hikes for bloated channel budgets, and these services are only just giving an early glimpse into the more flexible programming options that will be the TV industry norm within a decade.

Better yet, they’re actually forcing some pay TV companies to adapt. Verizon, for example, last week announced that the company would be offering up a variety of new channel packs and add ons that bring a little more flexibility to the telco’s traditionally rigid bundles. Mirroring the Sling TV approach, Verizon now says the company will be offering users the option to buy a base TV package starting at $55 a month, after which users can tack on extra channel packs for $10 each. Here’s a better idea of what it looks like:Verizon executives have traditionally been a little more progressively-minded about cord cutting than its industry counterparts (as in, actually occasionally admitting it exists), and this is a pretty clear play to not only cash in on cable companies’ inflexibility, but try and prevent cord cutting. Since you usually can’t see the true cost of a cable subscription until after you’ve gotten your bill (and seen all of the fees and obnoxious surcharges and caveats layered upon it), it’s probably premature to call Verizon’s effort revolutionary. But it’s at least a start for an industry that has been swimming upstream and ignoring consumer demands for more than a decade.

Interestingly, it looks like Verizon didn’t bother to tell any of its broadcast partners about its plans. Those partners, notably Disney and ESPN, immediately cried foul over the plans, claiming that Verizon’s offers violate existing contracts:

“Media reports about Verizon’s new contemplated bundles describe packages that would not be authorized by our existing agreements. Among other issues, our contracts clearly provide that neither ESPN nor ESPN2 may be distributed in a separate sports package.”…ESPN’s statement — which complains specifically about having its networks relegated to an optional sports tier, instead of being included in the base package — suggests that Verizon never got an agreement from the programmer before it announced its plan. A person familiar with another programmer included in Verizon’s offering said that programmer hadn’t signed off on Verizon’s plan either. That person suggested that Verizon thought its agreements allowed it to try different offerings as a limited test.”

The bloated cost of sports programming is one of the biggest reasons for soaring cable bills (as if either broadcasters and cable operators need reasons at this point), and Verizon’s clearly firing a warning shot over the broadcasters’ bow in regards to being able to shift these costly options into add-on tiers. That’s great for consumers, but it obviously lessens ESPN’s out-front consumer-facing power and overall reach. ESPN would love things to remain status quo indefinitely, but that’s clearly not a sustainable position. The traditional cable bundle is a burning, Hindenburg-esque cash cow that’s destined to crash, and the “worldwide leader in sports” would probably be better off accelerating its adaptation to the new paradigm.

Of course that’s not going to happen. Customers who don’t care about sports are first in line to cut the cord, and as those users refuse to subsidize everybody else, ESPN’s first impulse will be to raise rates on customers that do watch sports in order to keep the current cash cow afloat. Simultaneously you can be sure that ESPN’s lawyers are huddled around the conference table as we speak, contemplating a lawsuit they believe will magically freeze time indefinitely. But if Verizon doesn’t help blow up the bundle somebody else will, whether that’s Internet video (where ESPN at least still gets paid) or increased sporting event piracy.

Whatever ESPN’s approach (and you’d hope it would be more progressively minded), this is definitely the opening salvo in a much broader — and necessary — cable and broadcast industry war over breaking up the traditional cable bundle.

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