Lessons from AT&T’s bruising entertainment experience

How AT&T entered and exited the media business

AT&T enters the satellite market at its peak

In 2014, AT&T announced it was buying DirecTV. By that time, AT&T was already bundling DirecTV with its phone and internet service and had approximately 5.9 million linear pay-TV (U-Verse) video subscribers. However, this pay-TV business was already experiencing decline, to the extent that when the DirecTV merger completed in mid-2015, U-Verse subscribers had fallen to 5.6 million by the end of that year.

With the acquisition of DirecTV, AT&T went from a small player in the media and entertainment industry to one of the largest media players in the world adding 39.1 million (US and Latin American) subscribers and paying $48.5bn ($67bn including debt) to acquire the business. The rationale for this acquisition (the satellite business) was to compete with cable operators by being able to offer broadband, increasing AT&T’s addressable market beyond its fibre-based U-Verse proposition which was only available in certain locations/states.

AT&T and DirecTV enjoyed an initial honeymoon, period recording growth up until the end of 2016 when DirecTV subscribers peaked at just over 21 million in the US.

From this point onwards however, AT&T’s satellite subscribers went into decline as customers switched to cheaper competitor offers as well as online streaming services. The popularity of streaming services was reflected by moves among traditional media players to develop their own streaming services such as Time Warner’s HBO GO and HBO NOW. In 2015, DirectTV’s satellite competitor Dish TV likewise launched its own streaming service Sling TV.

Even though it was one of the largest TV distributors on a satellite platform, AT&T also believed online streaming was its ultimate destination. Prior to the launch of its streaming service in late 2016, Bloomberg reported that AT&T envisioned DirecTV NOW as its primary video platform by 2020.

A softwarised platform delivered lowered costs as the service could be self-installed by customers and didn’t rely on expensive truck roll installation or launching satellites. The improved margins would enable AT&T to promote TV packages at attractive price points which would balance inflation demands from broadcasters for the cost of TV programming. AT&T could also more easily bundle the softwarised TV service with its broadband, fibre and wireless propositions and earn more lucrative advertising revenue based on its own network and viewer insights.

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The beginnings of a bumpy journey in TV

AT&T’s foray into satellite and streaming TV can be characterised by a series of confusing service propositions for both consumers and AT&T staff, expensive promotional activity and overall pricing/product design misjudgements as well as troubled relations with TV broadcasters resulting in channel blackouts and ultimately churn.

Promotion, pull back and decline of DirecTV NOW

DirectTV NOW launched in November 2016, as AT&T’s first over the top (OTT) low cost online streaming service. Starting at $35 per month for 60+ channels with no contract period, analysts called the skinny TV package as a loss leader given the cost of programming rights and high subscriber acquisition costs (SACs). The loss leader strategy was aimed at acquiring wireless and broadband customers and included initiatives such as:

  • Promotional discounts to its monthly $60 mid-tier 100+ channel package reduced to $35 per month for life (subject to programming costs).
  • Device promotions and monthly waivers. The service eventually became available on popular streaming devices (Roku, Xbox and PlayStation) and included promotions such as an Apple TV 4K with a four month subscription waiver, a Roku Streaming Stick with a one month waiver or a $25 discount on the first month.
  • Customers could also add HBO or Cinemax for an additional $5 per month, which again was seen as a costly subsidy for AT&T to offer.

The service didn’t include DirecTV satellite’s popular NFL Sunday Ticket programming as Verizon held the smartphone rights to live NFL games, nor did it come with other popular shows from programme channels such as CBS. Features such as cloud DVR (digital video recording) functionality were also initially missing, but would follow as AT&T’s TV propositions and functionalities iterated and improved over time.

The DirecTV NOW streaming service enjoyed continuous quarterly growth through 2017 but peaked in Q3 2018 with net additions turning immediately negative in the final quarter of 2018 as management pulled back on costly promotions and discounted pricing.

The proposition became unsustainable financially in terms of its ability to cover rising programming costs and was positioned comparatively as a much less expensive service to its larger DirecTV satellite pay-TV propositions.

The DirecTV satellite service sold some of the most expensive TV propositions on the market and reported higher pay-TV ARPU ($131) than peers such as Dish ($89) and Comcast ($86) in Q4 2019.

  • The launch of a $35 DirecTV NOW streaming service with no contract and with a similar sounding name to the full linear service confused both new and existing DirecTV satellite customers and some would have viewed their satellite package as expensive compared to the cheaper steaming option.

Rising programming costs

AT&T’s low-cost skinny TV packages brought them into direct confrontation with TV programmers in terms of negotiating fees for content. When the streaming service launched, analysts highlighted the channels within AT&T’s base package were expected to rise in price annually by around 10% each year and this would eventually require AT&T to eventually balance programming costs with rising monthly package pricing.

Confrontations with programmers included a three-week dispute with CBS and an eight week dispute with Nexstar in 2019, which resulted in a blackout of both CBS and Nexstar channels across AT&T’s TV platforms such as Direct TV, U-Verse, DirectTV NOW. Commenting on the blackouts in Q3 2019, Randall Stephenson noted there were “a couple of significant blackouts in terms of content, and those blackouts drove some sizable subscriber losses”.

AT&T’s confrontation with content owners may have been a contributory reason to consider acquiring a content creation platform of its own in the form of Time Warner.

In mid-2018, as AT&T withdrew promotions and discounts for DirecTV NOW (later rebranded it to AT&T TV NOW), customers began to drop the OTT TV service.

  • AT&T TV NOW went from a peak of 1.86 million subscribers in Q3 2018 to 656,000 at the end of 2020.

DirecTV NOW subscriptions

DirecTV-subs-AT-T-stlpartners

Source: STL Partners, AT&T Q2 Earnings 2021

Name changes and new propositions create more confusion

In 2019, DirecTV NOW was re-branded to AT&T TV NOW , and continued to be promoted as a skinny bundle operating alongside AT&T TV, a new full fat live TV streaming version of the DirecTV satellite TV proposition. AT&T TV  was first piloted in August 2019 and soft launched in November 2019. The AT&T TV service included an Android set-top box with cloud DVR functionality and supported other apps such as Netflix.
AT&T TV required a contract period and offered pricing (once promotional discount periods ended) resembling a linear pay-TV service, i.e. $90+. This was, in effect, the very type of pay-TV proposition customers were abandoning.
AT&T TV was seen as an ultimate replacement for the satellite business based on the advantages a softwarised platform provided and the ability to bundle it with AT&T broadband, fibre and wireless services.

Confusion amongst staff and customers

The new AT&T TV proposition confused not only customers but also AT&T staff, as they were found mixing up the AT&T TV proposition with the skinny AT&T TV NOW proposition. By 2019 the company diverted its attention away from AT&T TV NOW  pulling back on promotional activity in order to focus on its core AT&T TV live TV service.

According to Cord Cutters News, both services used the same app but remained separate services. AT&T’s app store marketing incorrectly communicated the DirectTV NOW service was now AT&T TV when in fact it was AT&T TV NOW. Similarly, technical support was also incorrectly labelled with online navigation sending customers to the wrong support channels.

AT&T’s own customer facing teams misunderstood the new propositions

DirecTV-Cordcutter-news

Source: Cord Cutters News

Withdrawal of AT&T TV NOW

By January 2021, AT&T TV NOW was no longer available to new customers but continued to be available to existing customers. The AT&T TV proposition, which was supposed to offer “more value and simplicity” was updated to include some features of the skinny bundle such as the option to go without an annual contract requirement. Customers were also not required to own the set-top box but could instead stream over Amazon Fire TV or Apple TV.  In terms of pricing, AT&T TV was twice the price of the originally launched DirecTV NOW proposition costing $70 to $95 per month.

The short life of AT&T Watch TV

In April 2018, while giving testimony for AT&T’s merger with Time Warner, AT&T’s then CEO Randall Stephenson positioned AT&T Watch TV as a potential new low-cost service that would benefit consumers if the merger was successful. Days following AT&T’s merger approval in the courts, the low cost $15 per month, ultra-skinny bundle launched as a suitable low-cost cord-cutter/cord-never option for cable, broadband and mobile customers from any network. The service was also free to select AT&T Unlimited mobile customers.

By the end of 2018, the operator claimed it had 500,000 AT&T Watch TV“established accounts”. By the end of 2019 the operator had updated its mobile tariffs removing Watch TV for new customers subscribing to its updated Unlimited mobile tariffs. Some believed the company didn’t fully commit to the service, referring to the lack of roll out support for streaming devices such as Roku. The operator was now committed to rolling out its new service HBO Max in 2020. AT&T has informed Watch TV subscribers the service will close 30 November 2021.

Timeline of AT&T entertainment propositions

AT-T-Timeline-Entertainment

Source: STL Partners

The decline of DirecTV

As the graphic belowshows, in June 2021 there were 74.3 million pay-TV households in the US, reflecting continued contraction of the traditional pay-TV market supplied by multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD) players such as cable, satellite, and telco operators. According to nScreenMedia, traditional pay-TV or MVPD market lost 6.3 and 6.2 million customers over 2019 and 2020, but not all were cord-cutters. Cord-shifters dropped their pay-TV but shifted across to virtual MVPD (vMVPD) propositions such as Hulu Live, Sling TV, YouTube TV, AT&T TV NOW, Fubo TV and Philo. Based on current 2021 cord-cutting levels, nScreenMedia predicts 2021 will be the highest year of cord-cutting yet.

Decline in traditional pay-TV households

pay-tv-decline-nscreenmedia

Source: nScreenMedia, STL Partners

Satellite subscribers to Dish and DirecTV 2015-2020

Satellite-pay-tvdish-nscreenmedia

Source: nScreenMedia, STL Partners

When considering AT&T’s management of DirecTV, nScreenMedia research shows the market number of MVPD subscribers declined by over 20 million between 2016 and 2020. In that time, DirecTV lost eight million subscribers. While it represented 20% of the MVPD market in 2016, DirecTV accounted for 40% of the pay-TV losses in the market (40% of 20 million equals ~8 million). AT&T’s satellite rival Dish weathered the decline in pay-TV slightly better over the period.

  • In Q4 2020 the operator wrote down $15.5bn on its premium TV business, which included DirecTV decline, to reflect the cord cutting trend as customers found cheaper streaming alternatives online. The graphic (below) shows a loss of 8.76 million Premium TV subscribers between 2017 and 2020 with large losses of 3.4 million and 2.9 million subscribers in 2019 and 2020.

AT&T’s communications business has also been enduring losses in legacy voice and data (DSL) subscriptions in recent years. AT&T has used a bundling strategy for both products. As customers switched to AT&T fibre or competitor broadband offerings this also impacted the video subscription.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • What can others learn from AT&T’s experience?
  • How AT&T entered and exited the media business
    • AT&T enters the satellite market at its peak
    • The beginnings of a bumpy journey in TV
    • Vertical integration strategy: The culture clash
    • AT&T’s telco mindset drives its video strategy
    • HBO MAX performance
  • The financial impact of AT&T’s investments
    • Reversing six years of strategic change in three months
  • Lessons from AT&T’s foray into media

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The changing consumer landscape: Telco strategies for success

Winning in the evolving “in home” consumer market

COVID-19 is accelerating significant and lasting changes in consumer behaviours as the majority of the population is being implored to stay at home. As a result, most people now work remotely and stay connected with colleagues, friends, and family via video conferencing. Consumer broadband and telco core services are therefore in extremely high demand and, coupled with the higher burden on the network, consumers have high expectations and dependencies on quality connectivity.

Furthermore, we found that people of all ages (including non-digital natives) are becoming more technically aware. This means they may be willing to purchase more services beyond core connectivity from their broadband provider. At the same time, their expectations on performance are rising. Consumers have a better understanding of the products on offer and, for example, expect Wi-Fi to deliver quoted broadband speeds throughout the house and not just in proximity to the router.

As a result of this changing landscape, there are opportunities, but also challenges that operators must overcome to better address consumers, stay relevant in the market, and win “in the home”.

This report looks at the different strategies telcos can pursue to win “in the home” and address the changing demands of consumers. It draws on an interview programme with eight operators, as well as a survey of more than 1100+ consumers globally . As well as canvassing consumers’ high level views of telcos and their services, the survey explores consumer willingness to buy cybersecurity services from telcos in some depth.

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With increasing technical maturity comes an increasingly demanding market

Consumers are increasing in technical maturity

The consumer market as a whole is becoming much more digital. Over the past decade there has been a big shift towards online and self-service models for B2C services (e.g. ecommerce, online banking, automated chatbots, video streaming). This reflects the advent of the Coordination Age – connecting people to machines, information, and things – and the growing technical maturity of the consumer market.

COVID-19 has been a recent, but significant, driver in pushing consumers towards a more digital age, forcing the use of video conferencing and contactless interactions. Even people who are not considered digitally native are becoming increasingly tech savvy and tech capable customers.

Cisco forecasts that, between 2018 and 2023, the number of Internet users globally will increase from 51% to 66% . It has also forecast an increase in data volumes per capita per month from 1.5GB in 2017 to 9.7GB in 2022 . Depending on the roll out of 5G in different markets, this number may increase significantly as demand for mobile data increases to meet the potential increases in supply.

Furthermore, in our survey of 1,100+ consumers globally, 33% of respondents considered themselves avid users and 51% considered themselves moderate users of technology. Only 16% of the population felt they were light users, using technology only when essential for a limited number of use cases and needing significant support when purchasing and implementing new technology-based solutions.

Though this did not vary significantly by region or existing spend, it did vary (as would be expected) by age – 51% of respondents aged between 25 and 30 considered themselves avid users of technology, while only 18% of respondents over 50 said the same. Nevertheless, even within the 50+ segment, 55% considered themselves moderate users of technology.

Self-proclaimed technical maturity varies significantly by age

Source: STL Partners consumer survey analysis (n=1,131)

The growing technical maturity of consumers suggests a larger slice of the market will be ready and willing to adopt digital solutions from a telco, providing an opportunity for potential growth in the consumer market.

Consumers have higher expectations on telco services

Coupled with the increasing technical maturity comes an increase in consumer expectations. This makes the increasing technical maturity a double edged sword – more consumers will be ready to adopt more digital solutions but, with a better understanding of what’s on offer, they can also be more picky about what they receive and more demanding about performance levels that can be achieved.

An example of this is in home broadband. It is no longer sufficient to deliver quoted throughput speeds only within proximity to the router. A good Wi-Fi connection must now permeate throughout the house, so that high-quality video content and video calls can be streamed from any room without any drop in quality or connection. It must also be able to handle an increasing number of connected devices – Cisco forecasts an increase from a global average of 1.2 to 1.6 connections per person between 2018 and 2023 .

Consumers are also becoming increasingly impatient. In all walks of life, whether it be dating, technology or experiences, consumers want instant gratification. Additionally, with the faster network speeds of 4G+, fibre, and eventually 5G, consumers want (and are used to) continuous video feeds, seamless streaming, and near instant downloads – buffering should be a thing of the past.

One of our interviewees, a Northern European operator, commented: “Consumers are not willing to wait, they want everything here, now, immediately. Whether it is web browsing or video conferencing or video streaming, consumers are increasingly impatient”.

However, these demands extend beyond telco core services and connectivity. In the context of digital maturity, a Mediterranean operator noted “There is increasing demand for more specialized services…there is more of a demand on value-added, rather than core, services”.

This presents new challenges and opportunities for operators seeking growth “in the home”. Telcos need to find a way to address these changing demands to stay relevant and be successful in the consumer market.

Table of Contents

  • Executive summary
  • Introduction
  • Growing demand for core broadband and value-added services
    • COVID-19 is driving significant, and likely lasting, change
    • With increasing technical maturity comes an increasingly demanding market
  • Telcos need new ways to stay relevant in B2C
    • The consumer market is both diverse and difficult to segment
    • Should telcos be looking beyond the triple play?
  • How can telcos differentiate in the consumer market?
    • Differentiate through price
    • Differentiate through new products beyond connectivity
    • Differentiate through reliability of service
  • Conclusions and key recommendations
  • Appendices
    • Appendix 1: Consumer segments used in the survey
    • Appendix 2: Cybersecurity product bundles used in the conjoint analysis

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Investing in original content: Is it worth it?

Introduction

An in-depth analysis of whether telcos can make money from original content, this executive briefing builds on previous STL reports exploring the role of telcos in entertainment and advertising:

This new report evaluates the success of AT&T, BT and Swisscom’s original content and related distribution strategies, as well as identifying lessons to be learnt. It also appraises their investment in original content, exclusive content (e.g. sport) and buying content creators (e.g. Time Warner).

Following the acquisition of Time Warner, AT&T is a content owner and content distribution colossus. What is its underlying objective for providing a wide range of over-the-top (OTT) services, including DTV Now (satellite TV service delivered over-the-top) and AT&T Watch (live and on demand content)? How will content from Time Warner’s acquisition in June 2018 be incorporated into its products?

Has BT’s head on clash with Sky in the market with live sports met expectations? Has its heavy investment in football grown its revenue take, broadband subscriptions and attracted eyeballs?

Swisscom has grown to become Switzerland’s largest TV provider, using live sports as its differentiator. What other initiatives have contributed to its market leadership and can it maintain its dominance?

The case for investing in original content

Telcos typically invest in original content to achieve three objectives:

  • to open up new sources of revenue (direct subscription sales, wholesale distribution and ads sales)
  • to increase sales of core telco services/products (e.g. fixed broadband)
  • to raise their profile, increase their relevance and build brand loyalty.

But trying to pursue all these objectives simultaneously requires some difficult compromises – maximising content revenues means distributing the content as widely as possible, which means it no longer becomes a competitive differentiator through which to sell connectivity and build loyalty to the core proposition. In any case, regulators may require telcos to make some original content, notably the rights to live sport, available to competitors.

Therefore, achieving all of these objectives requires telcos to perform a delicate balancing act between making their content widely available and integrating it with the core connectivity proposition from both a technical perspective (using a cloud-based or physical set-top box) and a commercial perspective (attractive bundles and/or zero-rating the content). They need to perform this balancing act at a time when the digital entertainment market is in upheaval – customers in many markets are migrating from traditional pay TV (one or two year contracts) to video-on-demand subscriptions (month-by-month).

Not all content is equal

Ownership of sports rights should guarantee an audience linked to the size of the fanbase. Investing in original content, such as dramas, is far riskier. For every series of The Crown, a Netflix hit airing its third series in 2019, there is Marco Polo that cost US$200 million, cancelled after two series and an abject failure. Telco shareholders would baulk at taking such risks, given many have qualms about BT’s investment in Premier League rights (32 matches a season, 2019-22), which are equivalent to £9.2 million per game.

Alternatively, telcos could purchase a content developer/media company with a back catalogue of proven programming, as AT&T has done by buying Time Warner in June 2018. Investment in original content is a differentiator for pay TV providers (e.g. Sky) as well as over-the-top players (e.g. Netflix). Netflix has dramatically increased its investment in original content from its early foray with the House of Cards. During 2018 Netflix invested about US$6.8 billion in original content, including films, simultaneously screening some films at cinemas (e.g. Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs).

However, the audience for expensively-created content is finite. They are binge watching fewer shows. In the USA, according to Hub Entertain Research, viewers watched an average of 4.4 favourite shows in 2018, compared to 5.2 in 2016. These viewers increasingly find out about favourite shows through advertisements and watch them on an video-on-demand service.

More and more competition

Although they benefit from economies of scale and scope, the major global online players are not oblivious to the risks of creating original content. Amazon somewhat mitigates the risk by using co-production. Amazon is working with pay TV companies (e.g. Sky / Sky Atlantic) as well as public service broadcasters (BBC). The co-production of content with Sky provides Amazon with the rights to show series outside Sky’s footprint. For the BBC, a junior partner in the relationship, it gets to air the co-produced programmes after Amazon has shown them (e.g. the final three series of Ripper Street). Apple is also investing US$1 billion in original content, which will be distributed by its new streaming service[1]. The new service, business model unknown, will also be accessible on non-Apple products. New Samsung, Sony, LG and Vizio TVs will support Apple iTunes movies and TV shows[2].

It is not just the major Internet platforms that are competing with telcos for eyeballs. Major content rights owners are also taking their first steps to launch direct-to-consumer services. The Disney Play streaming service will launch in late 2019, once its existing distribution agreement with Netflix comes to an end. New sports streaming services are vying for attention, e.g. DAZN owns the rights to English Premier League (EPL) in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Japan, as well as combat sports (e.g. Matchroom Boxing and UFC) and other sports. Many sports federations also provide direct-to-consumer streaming services, alongside the sale of linear TV sports rights. These include The National Hockey League’s NHL.TV and National Football League’s GamePass in the USA, and the English Football League (EFL)’s iFollow service in the UK. Consumers outside the UK can also pay to stream EFL matches.

The importance of multiple content distribution models

But it is not just about having the right content: consumers also want the right commercial proposition. Pay TV providers recognise that not all consumers are willing to sign-up to 12- or 18-month contracts. Falling pay TV subscription rates, and a realisation that one-size doesn’t fit all has seen the emergence of month-to-month skinny pay TV packages. These offers may or may not be packaged with broadband connectivity.

Those that do subscribe to traditional pay TV will not subscribe to a second pay TV subscription, but many households are willing to subscribe to more than one additional over-the-top service. Half of the video-on-demand (SVOD) subscribers in the UK subscribe to more than one VOD service (Amazon, Netflix, NOW TV), and 71% of households with a VOD service also have a pay TV subscription (according to GfK SVOD Tracker).

There are essentially four key roles in the content value chain, identified and discussed by STL partners in previous reports. These roles are programme, package, platform and pipe. Traditionally, telcos’ primary objective is to sell as many pipes as possible. To that end, they offer packages of content (generally TV channels), which are sold on a subscription basis or offered for no fee, supported by advertising. A platform is used to distribute the channels, films and other content created and curated by another entity.

Telco content distribution models

four ways to monetise original content: pay TV, bundling and OTT

Source: STL Partners

Telco revenue from content and related services

An in-depth analysis of telcos’ return on investment in sports or film rights or original content is tricky. Telcos are not in the habit of revealing content revenue data. Figure 5 summarises the main metrics that need to be considered to evaluate the effectiveness of telcos’ investment in content.

The revenues that telcos can generate from content consist primarily of:

  1. Sale of the content to consumers
  2. Sale of banner, video and TV ads that sit / roll alongside the content
  3. Wholesale of content via third-party platforms
  4. Net additions of broadband / mobile pipes, increased ARPU/C and reduction in user/connection churn, increase in broadband / mobile pipe revenue.

Measuring return on investments in content

measuring original content ROI through direct sales, advertisement, wholesale and connectivity

Source: STL Partners

In the rest of this report, we evaluate AT&T, BT and Swisscom against these criteria.

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • The case for investing in original content
  • More and more competition
  • The importance of multiple content distribution models
  • Telco revenue from content and related services
  • Swisscom sells content with strings attached
  • Investing in rights holders to secure original content
  • It is about the packaging, as well as the content
  • Limited advertising
  • Enriching the viewer experience
  • Mixed financial results
  • BT and its big bet on live sport
  • BT TV reaches an inflexion point
  • BT TV – getting more expensive
  • Is BT Sport changing direction?
  • BT’s broader branding strategy
  • BT as a content aggregator
  • BT Sport is available to rivals’ pay TV customers
  • Is BT making a financial return?
  • Is there a case for continued investment?
  • AT&T takes on Netflix
  • King of content?
  • DirecTV Now: A lackluster start
  • Takeaways: Walking a tightrope between old and new
  • A shaky financial performance to date
  • Conclusions

Figures:

  1. The differing strategies of Swisscom, BT and AT&T
  2. AT&T’s Entertainment Group is dragging down the broader business
  3. Rating the different elements of telcos’ original content strategy
  4. Telco content distribution models
  5. Measuring return on investments in content
  6. Swisscom’s TV subscriptions and market share
  7. Summary of Swisscom’s TV products
  8. Cost and availability of Teleclub Sport
  9. The growth in Swisscom’s TV Connections and Bundles
  10. Swisscom’s content strategy hasn’t arrested the decline in wireline revenues
  11. Swisscom’s ballpark annual revenue run rate from TV
  12. BT TV packages, February 2019 compared to end 2015
  13. BT has bought more low-grade matches and is paying less per game
  14. How BT tries to monetise its sports content
  15. A breakdown of BT’s brands and target segments
  16. BT Sport App packages across its multiple brands
  17. How BT is using content partnerships to broaden its offering
  18. BT Sport has helped to drive a major uplift in annual revenue
  19. BT’s Consumer Division has struggled to increase profitability
  20. BT’s TV and broadband customers are now flatlining
  21. Growth in BT TV and BT Sport connections has tailed off
  22. BT’s consumer fixed line revenue has been fairly flat
  23. BT Sport residential and commercial revenue estimates 2018 and 2022
  24. AT&T’s telecom, media and entertainment businesses (February 2019)
  25. AT&T’s pay TV and SVOD services (as of February 2019)
  26. The Entertainment Group’s revenues are slipping
  27. AT&T’s traditional pay TV business is in decline
  28. AT&T’s broadband connections are fairly flat
  29. AT&T’s Entertainment Group is seeing its top line squeezed
  30. AT&T is combining inventory to help increase ad spend

[1] Apple TV will be launched in 2019 https://www.fool.com/investing/2018/12/15/apples-original-content-ambitions-are-growing.aspx,  https://www.macworld.co.uk/news/apple/apple-streaming-service-3610603/

[2] Content can be streamed from an Apple device using Apple’s AirPlay wireless streaming protocol stack, which will be integrated into TVs.

Netflix: Threat or Opportunity?

Introduction

The way in which audiences consume movies and television content appears to be changing.  While ‘linear’ viewing of scheduled channels remains robust, the market for DVD has collapsed and new pricing and consumption models are opening up.

At the forefront of this is Netflix – with a total of 63M paying subscribers across 50 markets (it is present in a large number of locations in Latin America and the Caribbean) and a penetration of over 34% in the US, Netflix has created a new paradigm for on demand content.

How this model is going to impact other players in the market in the long term is as yet unclear. To date in the US, pay platform penetration has remained robust, premium channels such as HBO are also performing strongly, and for rights owners and producers a new player bidding for rights is hugely welcome.

So is Netflix a ‘win: win’ opportunity for all concerned?  It may not be that straightforward.  

  • For leading pay TV players, Netflix will be yet another component forcing them to invest in innovation to minimise customers churning from bundled packages, and reducing flexibility around price increases;
  • For TV channels Netflix could lead to programme rights inflation, as a new player with a distinct business model comes into bid for premium exclusive content rights
  • For both established TV platforms and premium channels there is the risk that in price sensitive markets or demographics Netflix offers may gain traction, particularly among younger consumers at the expense of traditional subscription models.
  • For telcos looking to compete with cable and satellite, while Netflix could offer a cost effective way to deliver attractive premium content, it also carries a risk of constraining the telcos into the position of a ‘dumb (or happy) pipe’, not sharing in upsides and not owning the consumer who deals directly with Netflix.

STL Partners has partnered with Prospero Strategy Consultants who work extensively with content and platform players on new market dynamics to prepare this Briefing. The work has drawn on interviews with key players and analysis of quantitative and qualitative market data, to determine the threats and opportunities emerging from this new content ecosystem and how these are likely to develop.

Overview of Netflix History

Netflix began as a postal DVD business in the US in 1997, launching its US subscription streaming service in 2007.  Since 2011 it has focused on rapid expansion into international markets with the biggest growth now coming from international subscribers (67% growth between 2013 and 2014) while its US DVD business is now in decline.

Figure 4: Netflix subscribers 1999 – 2014(Q3) in 000s

Source: Netflix annual reports, STL Partners & Prospero analysis

Netflix changed its reporting methodology from Q1 2011

Consumer Proposition and USPs

The success of the Netflix proposition to consumers has been based on a number of components:

  • Low Price and refusal to tie users into long-term contracts
  • Volume and exclusivity of content
  • Effective User Interface, recommendation engine and multi-device access
  • Customer Data

Low Price
The low monthly price point of Netflix (USD7.99 per month in the US rising to USD8.99 for new subscribers in 2014) has been a key component of the company’s success. This price point is less than the cost of purchasing a single DVD and significantly less than monthly premium drama channels such as HBO (at ~USD15 per month). This price point (and that users are not tied into long term contracts) allows Netflix to attract distinct audience groups.

  • First, the high-end audience who are already pay subscribers.  These customers have demonstrated that they are typically price inelastic and willing to pay for more, buying Netflix on top of existing services.
  • Second, the price constrained audiences, for whom traditional pay TV is out of reach but who are interested in expanded choice.  These are often younger demographics for whom the concept of non-linear consumption is very familiar.
  • There is a third audience group, the price sensitive pay TV subscribers for whom Netflix could be an effective substitute and who could churn off traditional pay TV (either completely or partially) as a result.  While the evidence around the impact on this group is as yet nascent, it is this segment that is making incumbent pay TV players nervous.

Figure 5: Reasons Netflix streamers subscribe to the Service

Source: Alphawise, 3rd Annual Streaming Video Survey – More Devices, More Consumption, March 2013

Volume and Exclusivity

As demonstrated in Figure 5 above a key to success has been offering both range and quality of content.  However, over time the shape of the Netflix library has changed as it has used its customer insight and data to inform its rights strategy.

  • In February 2012 the Netflix US library consisted of ~15k titles (Source: SNL Kagan) of which nearly three quarters were movie titles.
  • Since 2012 the volume of library titles has declined by approximately 30% nearly all of which is accounted for by a decline in movie titles.  Netflix has increased its focus on long run drama series which already have brand recognition and which are effective at attracting and keeping audiences.
  • Interestingly, the volume of content being offered in its international markets is significantly less than in the US (about one-third) as Netflix shifts its focus to quality (as opposed to quantity of content)

Netflix’s early content deals were typically library rights and non-exclusive.  Over time that mix has shifted as Netflix increasingly looks to have a component of exclusivity with the aim of shifting from a “nice to have” to a “must have” service

  • Netflix is investing in original production of a limited number of high profile, high end drama series (such as House of Cards, Orange is the only Black and the recently announced Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon sequel).  For these Netflix can retain its exclusive rights indefinitely.
  • In addition, Netflix is bidding aggressively for exclusive windows for high end content (such as the recently announced deal for exclusive VOD rights in all territories for Gotham and first window rights in several territories for Penny Dreadful).

Figure 6: Netflix’s Evolving Content Proposition

 

Source: STL Partners & Prospero analysis

Effective consumer interface on multiple devices

Netflix has evolved a highly effective consumer interface, enabling personalisation by individual members in the household, with an easy to manage and visually effective selection mechanism.

  • Since 2008 Netflix has rolled out its proposition across multiple connected devices, with the most recent development being access on mobile devices and partnership with 4G operators such as Vodafone.  Cross device functionality gives users a consistent experience.
  • The consumer is able to choose when and where to consume Netflix content – leading to a new dynamic of series “bingeing” analogous to box set consumption.  In addition, Netflix’s deals with Smart TV providers gives consumers the ability to by-pass traditional pay TV gatekeepers.

Figure 7: Netflix’s user interface

Source: Netflix & SNL Kagan

Customer Data

  • Underlying a huge part of their success is Netflix’s control of its data.  This includes knowledge of individuals within households (who will have their own profiles), detailed insight into viewing behaviour (not just what, but when and how much), knowledge that no linear channel can match.
  • In all markets (regardless of its distribution partners) Netflix retains its customer data and does not share it.  This informs its rights negotiations and new programme investments.
  • Netflix continues to refine its customer understanding using sophisticated A/B testing where small sub groups are given slightly different user experiences to see how this changes behaviour

 

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Overview of Netflix
  • History
  • Consumer Proposition and USPs
  • Netflix International Expansion
  • Netflix Financials
  • Attitude of the Financial Markets
  • Impact of Netflix on the Market
  • Impact on Rights Owners and Producers
  • Impact on Channels
  • Impact on Pay Platforms
  • Impact on Broadband Operators
  • Summary impacts on players along the value chain
  • Responses to Netflix
  • Case Study: HBO
  • Case Study: BSkyB
  • Case Study: Broadband Operators
  • Case Study: New Competitors

 

  • Figure 1: Selected Media Companies Market Capitalisation, 1st Sept. 2014 (left) & 1st Jan. 2015 (right), USD billion
  • Figure 2: Netflix’s subscriber targets for 2020 (announced launches only) in USD million
  • Figure 3: Summary of Netflix’s Impacts along the Value Chain
  • Figure 4: Netflix subscribers 1999 – 2014 in 000s
  • Figure 5: Reasons Netflix streamers subscribe to the Service
  • Figure 6: Netflix’s Evolving Content Proposition
  • Figure 7: Netflix’s user interface
  • Figure 8: Netflix geography and timeline
  • Figure 9: Netflix’s Market Penetration over time to Dec 2013 (% households)
  • Figure 10: Netflix revenue per service area, 1999 – 2014, USD million
  • Figure 11: Netflix’s revenues & costs per business line, 2011–2014, USD million
  • Figure 12: Netflix’s net income and free cash flow, 2009 – 2014, USD million
  • Figure 13: Netflix’s streaming content obligations, 2010 – 2013, USD million
  • Figure 14: Selected Media Companies Market Capitalisation, 1st Sept. 2014 (left) & 1st Jan. 2015 (right), USD billion
  • Table 1: Comparison of Key Value Ratios
  • Figure 15: Netflix’s share price (USD), Jan 2010 – Jan 2015
  • Figure 16: Players along the Value Chain
  • Figure 17: Subscribers to premium channels in the US (%of TV households)
  • Figure 18: Changes in US Pay TV Penetration
  • Figure 19: Percentage of Households that are “cord-cutters”
  • Figure 20: Real Time Entertainment Share of Downstream Traffic
  • Figure 21: Share of Traffic of Downstream Peak Time Applications
  • Figure 22: Summary of Impacts along the Value Chain
  • Figure 23: Overview of Sky Expanded Offering
  • Figure 24: Sky’s offering across All Windows
  • Figure 25: Vodafone / Spotify and Sky Sport deals – Impact on mobile broadband usage
  • Figure 26: Netflix Broadband Partners
  • Figure 27: Netflix Competitor Set

Full Article – ESPN: Making ‘pay-for-content’ work – a telco opportunity

Summary: The sports network ESPN is a master of the paid content business model, building platform scale and success using premium content. What are the lessons from ESPN’s US and UK strategies for other service providers and content distributors?

Internet Video is a booming business in its own right, a key driver of broadband volumes and costs, and increasingly an important component of telcos and other broadband service provider’s (BSPs) packaged broadband offerings (see our recent Strategy Report “Online Video Market Study: The impact of video on broadband business models). The Goliath US Sports network, ESPN, has just entered the UK market, and we analyse here their history, strategy, and lessons for BSPs and other content aggregators both here in the UK and elsewhere.

Introduction

In the rush to find a working model for monetizing internet video, the most obvious solution is often overlooked – the payTV model. Since 1979, when the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) secured an exclusive deal with the USA colleges (NCAA) to screen their sporting contests, the model has proven resilient to both the advertiser-funded free model and economic climates. The model has also delivered both steady profits and growth to all players in the value chain – rights holders (e.g. sports bodies), content aggregators (e.g. channels) and distributors (e.g. cable systems). In the payTV model the money flows from the consumer to the distributor to the rights holders via the aggregator. 

In the internet world, we are starting to see hybrids of the payTV model emerge. In this note, we analyse two of the more adventurous services: ESPN360 (USA) and SkyPlayer (UK). We also put these services into the context of both incumbent video distributors (Comcast and BSkyB) and challengers (Verizon and BT). We focus upon the elements that historically have driven success for aggregators and distributors and place those elements into the more complex internet-era.

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ESPN’s History

ESPN actually started life as an ad-funded network. It only started charging the cable distributors in 1984, only once it had built an audience and had been  purchased by ABC – a parent with deep pockets. The rate card seems meagre these days: US$0.25 per subscriber per month in the first year rising to US$0.30 per sub in the second. However, it was enough for the legendary John Malone and his TCI cable system to refuse to pay and threaten to set up a rival network. The battleground has always been the same: the relative value of controlling the home versus controlling the content.

By the mid-1990s ESPN, now owned by Walt Disney, had lucrative contracts for major league baseball and the National Football League. It perennially asked for and got double-digit rate increases from the cable networks. When ESPN wanted carriage of a sister channel ESPN2, for extreme sports, they got it gratis. This was at a time when new and unproven channels such as FoxNews were actually paying the cable networks for carriage. As Malone said at the time “Little Mickey had us by the throat”. Of course, the cable companies passed on the charges to homeowners and took most of the flack. Again, very little has changed over the years with aggregators leveraging popular content to expand into new areas.

ESPN now offers much more than “live sports” channels for the distributors. Two key channels are ESPN Classics which shows replays of historical matches, and ESPN News which provides highlights, commentary and analysis of past and upcoming events. ESPN offers its core audience a menu served up 24/7. As at Sept 2008, ESPN had 93.7m subscribers to its main channel, 97.3m to ESPN, 63.2m to ESPN classic and 67.4m to ESPN News.

The main competitor in the USA is Fox Sports Net which launched in 1996. Fox Sports takes a regional approach to broadcasting tailoring output to local markets.  For example, Fox shows the local Chicago Bulls (NBA) and Cubs (MLB) matches in competition to the ESPN national games. However, Fox Sports has never achieved the scale of ESPN and caters for a niche audience. The lesson is that there is a first mover advantage and scale matters both for negotiating for exclusive content and in determining the share of the distribution pie.

ESPN on the Internet

ESPNet.SportsZone.com launched in 1995 and has since grown to become #2 sports site in the USA (now ESPN.com) with 24m unique views in August 29009 (comscore – http://thebiglead.com/?p=21595) after Yahoo! Sports! 

The primary focus of ESPN.com is highlights, interviews, statistics and analysis. The site offers ad-funded video, but is relatively small in scale compared to YouTube and Hulu. In 2008, it served an average of 120 million videos per month, a 32 percent increase from 2007. The real ESPN innovation is the ESPN360 website which offers live streaming of broadcast events. In the USA, this is only available to “affiliated ISPs” – those which have signed wholesale carriage deals with ESPN. The major ISPs, such as Verizon and Comcast, have already signed-up. (http://espn.go.com/broadband/espn360/affList). ESPN has once again left the billing and customer care relationship with the distributor. 

ESPN360 is effectively a mirroring the original payTV strategy – people will indirectly pay for live streaming of exclusive sports events. There are a few subtle differences for the internet era: a remote viewer option which enables people to watch the events from hotels and work; a free offer to the college networks; and a free offer to the military networks. Outside of the USA, ESPN offer subscription and pay-as-you-go packages direct to the end-consumer.

ESPN do not publically disclose the rate card for ESPN360 affiliates, but no doubt it will favour the distributors offering a traditional broadcast payTV service. Single-play broadband pipe only providers are likely to suffer as they don’t have the negotiating power of the likes of Comcast. For telephony incumbents, such as Verizon and AT&T, the case for offering a TV service becomes ever more compelling. Similarly, distributors offering payTV via satellite are likely to suffer. ESPN360 effectively adds the option of watching events on PC at home or on the go as well as on the TV.

The Rights Holders’ side of the equation is similarly shifted towards incumbent channels and away from new entrants. ESPN leverages not only its investment in acquisition, but also in production to effectively push the same product through multiple means of distribution. The marginal costs are limited compared to a new entrant. A new entrant streaming internet-only content faces a limited future. In effect, the Rights Holders will end up licensing live broadcast rights as a bundle regardless of transmission medium (broadcast, internet or mobile).

The UK landscape

The payTV market in the UK followed a different evolution path to the USA. When the cable networks started to be built in the mid-to-late 1980s the industry was very fragmented; the original networks spent the majority of their capex on infrastructure and rather than investing in content bought in most TV programming from the USA. Also, telephony capabilities were built into the network from day one and therefore they had BTs lucrative monopoly on home telephony revenues to target.

In 1992, the nascent satellite industry starting investing heavily in sports programming by securing the exclusive right to the UK’s Football Premier League. BSkyB effectively played both the Content Aggregator and Distributor. Investment was balanced between programming and customer acquisition. BSkyB wholesaled their channels to cable companies in much the same way as ESPN did and had similar periodic fights over the value chain. Playing a dual role in content aggregation and distribution was, and still is, nothing new. Warner Communications invested in the earliest USA cable franchises and began investing in channels such as Nickelodeon. Distributors such as TCI and Comcast have also invested in channels, and Ted Turner’s CNN was initially financed from ownership of a local TV station.

The cable industry in the UK has consolidated and restructured over the years to leave just one remaining network, Virgin Media, serving 3.4m homes and covering around 50% of UK homes. Unlike the USA, satellite penetration is much higher than cable penetration with BSkyB serving 9.4m homes in the UK & Ireland. BT, a relative latecomer to the TV market compared to Verizon and AT&T, serves only 0.5m homes.

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The broadband market has also evolved differently to the USA with BT being forced to open its access network to third parties by the regulator. This enabled BSkyB to launch a broadband (and telephony) service in 2006 which has grown to serve 2.2m homes. This compares to Virgin Media which serves 4m homes and BT which serves 4.8m. There are also other players such as TalkTalk (4.3m homes) and Orange (1m homes) which currently do not offer a significant TV offering. 

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In 2009, ESPN acquired some rights for UK Premier League football and launched a series of channels around this content. ESPN have mirrored their USA model in the UK. The previous holder of the rights, Setanta, adopted a very different model with Setanta using an end-to-end service model – hence carrying all the operating costs of subscriber management. Setanta’s model ultimately failed. The ESPN model is simpler and provides incentives for distributors and in our opinion has a much higher probability for success.

BT’s own label TV service has not yet taken off in the UK, with only 400k customers at July 2009. The lack of momentum in this service has many causes, not least the strength and established position of competitive offerings from BSkyB, but most fundamentally because of BT’s unwillingness to invest in the premium video content (e.g. live Premier League football) needed to establish a truly competitive video platform. 

The ESPN PayTV internet product, ESPN360 is not yet available in the UK – but it is in our view a likely market development, and one that presents attractive possibilities for the Telcos and cable companies alike. Despite being a huge brand in the US, ESPN is a comparative newcomer in the UK, but we expect it to grow significantly over time, and for ESPN’s internet video strategy to be a key component of that growth.

SkySports on the Internet

Sky is taking a very different initial approach to ESPN to distributing its sports programming on the internet. It is selling the content direct to end-consumers. Live sports streaming is available through SkyPlayer without any additional cost if the consumer is a Sky Broadband or Sky Multi-room customer and subscribes to the Sports channels, otherwise the service costs around £10/month. The service streams other channels apart from Sports and includes some video-on-demand content. The service is available on both PC and Xbox. Effectively, Sky is using its streamed Sports content in its broadband packages to add value and competitive differentiation and thereby drive broadband subscriptions. This is an innovative approach but potentially arouses all kinds of regulatory questions through the combination of broadband access and content in one package.

Elsewhere in Europe, we have seen the reverse situation with dominant distribution networks (e.g. Orange in France) winning exclusive rights for content (some French Football games) and exclusively showing them on their networks. Whether in the USA or Europe, we believe that premium video will slowly but surely disappear behind some type of walled garden. 

The current situation is a regulatory nightmare and a lawyer’s dream. It will be quite a few years before regulatory clarity emerges.

Conclusion

Access to premium video content is becoming an increasingly important feature of broadband access packages, and the PayTV model, where it can be included for an additional fee, is a very attractive model for Telcos and other service providers particularly those without premium content.

There is a large window of opportunity for incumbent video players to leverage exclusivity on live popular streaming events to either strengthen content aggregation, distribution or both. New entrants in aggregation will struggle to gain scale without the must-have content. New entrants or incumbents in distribution will only struggle to gain scale in video without significant investment in content.

We expect ESPN to launch a UK version of the ESPN PayTV internet service ESPN360. This will present an opportunity for all broadband service providers, particularly those currently without any premium video content.  However, Virgin Media and Sky with existing relationships with ESPN may be able to negotiate a better initial wholesale price. This presents an opportunity both for ESPN as it builds its brand and reach, and to broadband service providers seeking to improve attractiveness and margins by selling extra services, and reach by acquiring more customers.

For telcos and other broadband service providers in markets outside the UK, ESPN’s varying market entry strategies present useful case studies, and a potential indicator of opportunities – or threats – to come.

Lessons for Telcos

    • Premium Video is both popular and expensive – do expect to need it as part of your offering, but don’t expect to be able to give free access for your broadband consumers

    • Traditional PayTV operators will try to leverage their scale and bundling ability to differentiate their broadband offerings

    • Traditional Content Aggregators are used to Distributors billing and maintaining the customer relationship – so there is both an opportunity for distributors like telcos and other BSPs to build new service offerings and margins as well as a threat if by-passed.

    • There is also a potentially controversial role in helping content aggregators minimise piracy.

  • Define carefully your role in the value chain and be prepared to invest in content – and if you do invest, make sure you acquire the premium content.