The Sling TV-style service ESPN really fears (and why Sling TV has what it has)

According to SNL Kagan estimates from last spring (listed here), here are the most expensive channels on cable (not counting broadcast retransmission fees or regional sports networks):

  1. ESPN ($6.61)
  2. TNT ($1.65)
  3. Disney Channel ($1.34)
  4. NFL Network ($1.31)
  5. Fox News ($1.12)
  6. USA Network ($1.00)
  7. FS1 ($.99)
  8. TBS ($.85)
  9. ESPN2 ($.83)
  10. Nickelodeon ($.73)

The heavy presence of sports channels on the list, topped by ESPN having several times the figure of the next most expensive network, may be the most obvious thing that jumps out at you, but there’s something else remarkable about this list. I mention in the book that the vast majority of channels on your cable lineup are controlled by nine companies, but seven of the ten most expensive networks are controlled by just three companies: Disney, Fox, and Time Warner, who also represent two of the four major broadcast networks and the largest owner of regional sports networks. An eighth, NFL Network, isn’t controlled by any of the Big Nine. The remaining six members of the Big Nine account for just two of the ten most expensive networks, USA and Nickelodeon. Add Comcast to that group of three and you have three major broadcast networks, most of the country’s regional sports networks, and eight of the top nine most expensive national cable networks, not to mention HBO, with Showtime owned by the remaining broadcast network.

Last month I suggested that ESPN actually benefits from having as many companies as possible invested in sports, keeping them tied to the cable bundle and preventing any attempt to defect from it from being much use for sports fans. But only those four companies – Disney, Comcast, Fox, and Time Warner – have any serious investment in sports on cable, with CBS the only other Big Nine member with any stateside presence in sports at all. I talk about the Big Nine, but the reality is there’s a divide within the Big Nine between the Sports Four-and-a-Half – which as it happens, make up the most valuable members of the Big Nine according to the Fortune 500, in rough order of the level of their investment in sports aside from Comcast being propelled by its cable-operator business ahead of the rest – and the remaining members with no presence in sports. What would happen if those four companies – Viacom, Discovery, AMC, and Scripps – decided to defect from the cable bundle themselves, on their own or individually?

Let’s do some back-of-the-napkin math. Let’s start by assuming that the average American sees $50 of their cable bill go towards programming costs. Just getting rid of every network that’s not Nickelodeon on the list above takes out $15.70 of that total. Take out another 87 cents for ESPNU, NBCSN, and Golf Channel (based on numbers here). Take out another $5 for retransmission fees for broadcast stations, and another $3 for regional sports networks. Take out another $2.28 for another seven networks listed here, and around 10-20 cents for each additional network owned by one of these five companies in over 75 million households, so about 14-ish – let’s say that comes out to $2.15 so we get a nice, round number of dollars. That comes out to $29 in savings, over half of that $50 figure. That would mean a service from those four companies could cost as little as $21, about the same as Sling TV, though realistically in order to make up for the consequences it would charge at least $25. On the other hand, that figure also includes networks not owned by any of the Big Nine, as well as networks in under 75 million homes (which is still a substantial majority of homes), and it also undercounts the total for markets with multiple RSNs not counting college conference networks and might undercount the retransmission haul as well (not to mention the price for the remaining networks being taken out), so it’s possible the true figure might come down below $20. Viacom is the only company not already present in Sling TV, so if you take that as a baseline our service might cost as little as $10 just from taking Sling and removing the Disney networks, and if necessary Viacom has both the most expensive single network and a suite performing weak enough small cable operators are increasingly comfortable going without it and shareholders are questioning Sumner Redstone’s mental fitness to run the company, so jettisoning them would probably shave at least $2.40.

Whether $10, $20, or $25, what would that give the consumer? Well, there’d be an eclectic mix of documentary and lifestyle programming from the Discovery and Scripps networks. If you kept Viacom in the mix you’d have kids and family programming from Nickelodeon and Discovery Family, plus popular reality and other shows from MTV, VH1, and Spike, some of which might complement the Discovery/Scripps selection. Viacom would also have a back library of TV shows and it and AMC would have a decent movie selection, though maybe not on-demand, while AMC might also contribute some popular British shows from BBC America. And of course you’d have The Walking Dead and other popular and critically-acclaimed original shows from AMC, plus other original shows from OWN and the Viacom networks including South Park. Other than sports, the main thing you’d be lacking would be news or anything from the last decade that wasn’t originally produced for one of these networks (the main exceptions probably being on Comedy Central), and if you’re looking for anything specific associated with a network owned by one of the Sports Five you’d be out of luck, but as a complement to other services that exist such as Netflix and Hulu it could be a decently valuable collection, especially if you can price it substantially lower than Sling TV’s $20, and/or if Viacom brings enough value to the table to make up for the loss of the Disney and Turner networks.

Perhaps more important than the raw price, however, would be the fact anyone signed up for such a service would not be paying any form of sports tax. Unlike Sling TV, our service would allow anyone without a lick of interest in sports to get valuable cable content previously unavailable outside of a cable bundle without subsidizing a single sports network of any kind. That means even if it’s less popular than a Sling TV, if it gained any kind of traction whatsoever it would be a much bigger existential threat to the cable bundle and ESPN’s business model than anything else that exists so far. For the record, in the piece I linked to in my post a month ago about how a standalone ESPN would break up the cable bundle, the analyst in that piece specifically talks about a service consisting of precisely these four companies plus Turner, priced at $15 a month, suggesting $10 for these four companies alone is quite reasonable.

When talking about the cable-bundle business model, sports writers often note that just as non-sports fans subsidize sports networks, so do sports fans subsidize networks like AMC.  Of course, this attempt at equivocation, even if it comes down to a single sentence in an article, seems way overblown; if you believe the total amount being spent on the cable bundle reflects fair market value for whatever each consumer gets out of it, then if some networks are getting more than their open-market value others are getting less, and it seems likely that by and large, sports networks fall into the former category and most non-sports networks the latter. But in this area, the notion that non-sports networks are receiving some value from remaining attached to the cable bundle, and being subsidized by its sports fans, seems to be an important one. It is quite telling that while only two of the Sports Five are associated with Sling TV, three of the non-sports four are part of it. How much do Discovery, AMC, and Scripps continue to value remaining tied at the hip with ESPN, or at least keeping the cable bundle stable? Were they already aligned with Sling TV and either ESPN felt obligated to join them or Dish felt obligated to recruit them? Conversely, if ESPN came first, did they have any say in what other companies would be part of Sling TV? And how long until the calculus changes and these companies decide they have enough to gain to be worth defecting from, and thus potentially destroying, the cable bundle? Right now ESPN and the non-sports four need each other enough to be tied at the hip even into their ventures into OTT, even more than the companies with sports investments, but one day the time will come where ESPN needs them more than they need ESPN – or worse, they come to see their association with ESPN as a liability – and that may well be the day the cable bundle dies, or is at least terminally injured.

One Comment

  1. Walt Gekko
    Posted February 4, 2016 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    It’s no secret everyone knows non-sports fans subsidize ESPN, but ESPN of course has some of the biggest sporting events even that most casual sports fan watches aside from say the World Series and Super Bowl.

    The thing about Sling that is great (aside from the fact it’s portable and you’re not tied to a cable box and can use just about any internet provider) is the fact that for sports junkies, you get ALL of the ESPN channels except Deportes and the Longhorn Network for $25 a month plus for the extra $5 (included in that $25 figure) that gets you ESPNU, News and SEC Network you also get networks like BeIN for soccer that would be a couple of premium levels higher on most cable outlets and so forth.

    What I pay for Sling is well worth it.

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