Insights is a weekly series featuring entertainment industry veteran David Bloom. It represents an experiment of sorts in digital-age journalism and audience engagement with a focus on the intersection of entertainment and technology, an area that David has written about and thought about and been part of in various career incarnations for much of the past 25 years. David welcomes your thoughts, perspectives, calumnies, and kudos at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @DavidBloom.
So YouTube TV debuted in five cities this week. You saw that, right? How about Amazon Prime adding NFL streaming rights for $50 million? HBO getting a jump on the Time Warner merger as part of AT&T’s top-tier wireless plan? MLB getting a PlayStation Vue, or Warner Bros. shows coming to Verizon’s Go90? What about Comcast launching its Xfinity Mobile wireless service, or Showtime becoming an add-on to Dish’s Sling TV?
Even more remarkable amid all the announcements is that more is almost certainly coming. Remember, still to drop are the live Hulu service, a possible Verizon skinny bundle and maybe even, eventually, a long-rumored Apple offering.
If you missed some of these latest rivulets of news in the gusher of digital-media/skinny bundle announcements flooding your feed, don’t feel bad. The streaming-video news has been heavier than this year’s Sierra Mountains snowpack. And yes, all that snow is welcome, but here’s hoping we don’t have any floods or failing dams to worry about. It’s the same in the digital river, where having lots of options bring its own set of issues.
If it all leaves you a bit dizzy, just think about all those hapless reporters trying to keep up. Actually, forget the journalists (other than my esteemed Tubefilter brethren). We signed up for this brutality, unable to resist the luscious enticements of low pay, long hours and deadline stress.
Instead, think about the poor consumers. They’re the ones who’ll be making decisions on new ways to get video into their homes and mobile devices, picking through a flood of services that increasingly will be difficult to choose among. The decisions will be further complicated by a secondary river of “mini-skinny” bundles, as groups of lesser over-the-top digital channels such as VRV huddle together for warmth and shared subscriber signups.
The skinny bundles are doing their own mini-skinnys too. Sling TV, for instance, has add-ons such as “Best of Spanish TV” (which it just expanded) and family-friendly programming. Amazon Channels offers more than 100 add-on channels. Even Sling’s Showtime add-on is practically its own mini-skinny bundle. You get not only the main channel, but seven lesser ones, such as Showtime West and Showtime Beyond, plus about 2,000 on-demand films and back episodes of series such as Homeland and Billions.
It’s beginning to feel like an inflection point here, as more people tire of a $200 cable-TV bill and realize they have several real options that might get them most of what they want, and maybe for less money.
There will be collateral damage, of course. I’ve written about the imminent die-off of lesser cable channels, possibly hastened by a writer’s strike, and threats to many upstart over-the-top channels from likely FCC changes in net neutrality rules. Those will certainly reset the available digital offerings. But once that settles a bit, what are we likely to see here?
First of all, I’m guessing most of these bundles will end up nearly identical. If you thought Facebook has been copying Snapchat functions like some idiot bully looking at the test answers of the bright young thing in the next seat over, just wait.
When it comes to digital services, nothing, really, is stopping every service from copying every other service until they’re pretty much all the same, at pretty much the same price.
I rather like the YouTube TV package, for instance. I think it solves a lot of problems for a lot of people, though as a skinny bundle there are inevitable limitations. But there’s no reason that other companies can’t cut similar deals to provide something similar, depending on how much margin they want. Hollywood will happily sign deals with just about everyone. No one’s getting a big discount, unless you’re, say, HBO, TNT, and TBS sitting across the table from likely new owner AT&T.
This didn’t happen in traditional pay-TV because the pipe delivering the entertainment, i.e., the cable company, couldn’t be cheaply duplicated. Even the competing telco and satellite services faced tech and other limitations that have kept them niche players. There were fewer options and more barriers to competition. That won’t be quite the case going forward.
So now it’s about to get complicated for a lot of consumers, at least for a while to come.
Owners of big pipes must decide whether they make more money controlling the programming, like in the old days of cable, or by charging all the skinny bundles for moving lots of data across their networks. Throw in decisions about add-ons, mini-skinny bundles, mobile packages and more, and a lot of heads will be close to underwater, including those of journalists.
Hold on tight. There’s a flood coming.