By Ali Zaslav
What’s Changed in TV Distribution?
In the television business, distribution is the key component in making content accessible and viewable by consumers on traditional and new platforms. Distribution is not only the way programming reaches audiences, but is a large component of programmers and distributors business models.
Traditionally TV distribution used to be much simpler; it was primarily through TV and consumed on the TV set. In this old media structure there were barriers to reaching consumers, (you would have to own a network or have a program carried by one). Today broadband allows for video content to be carried and viewed on the web. Countless individuals and companies can now reach viewers in new ways with all types of video content.
Television is still the primary way people consume video but new devices and new content are beginning to change consumers viewing behavior. Viewers can watch traditional TV or now have the option to aggregate their favorite videos through many new options like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, or TV Everywhere and watch them on their TV, or a tablet, phone or computer. The rise of new platforms to distribute TV content through DVR and VOD plus online viewership has resulted in a number of exciting developments for programmers and distributors, as well as real threats and challenges.
Right now television content distribution can be broken down into three categories: traditional distributors, new challenging distributors, and programmers that try to take advantage of all avenues of distribution. Programmers now distribute through the traditional multi-channel operators (Time Warner), phone companies (Verizon & AT&T) and satellite distributors (like Dish and DirectTV) and new avenues like apps, TV Everywhere through a cable operator or digital offerings like Netflix.
Traditional Distributors in the TV Market
MSO’s, satellite, and phone companies are actively trying to delve into the growing market of cross platform viewing and video streaming. A recent development is TV Everywhere.
Comcast successfully released Xfinity on demand and struck deals with cable networks, broadcasters, and pay TV to stream their content online for Comcast subscribers. Applications like TV Everywhere are being released by a multitude of distributors, allowing consumers to stream their carried programming on any tablet, phone or computer. Time Warner now has TWC TV and Cablevision has TVtoGO. Phone companies also provide online streaming; Verizon streams FiOS TV and AT&T streams U-verse.
In February, DirectTV joined the online game and released DirectTV Everywhere. For traditional distributors, “TV Everywhere” has become an important part of their distribution model. But their applications have a lot of competition coming from Netflix, HuluPlus and Amazon which offer library’s of content and more recently original or exclusive programming.
Rising Challengers to Traditional Distributors
The development of broadband as a vehicle for video has spurred huge entrepreneurial investment in companies like Netflix, Apple, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube as well as user-generated content. Traditional distributors are being challenged by new online distribution channels like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Apple TV, and Google (YouTube). These distributors are offering very appealing services to consumers and at low costs (Netflix & HuluPlus: both $8 a month and Amazon Prime $79/ yearly), or in the case of the web, Google or YouTube for free (you only need to have broadband). In addition, there is easy access through many devices like the computer, Xbox, iPad, etc with a wide range of content. We know this is appealing to consumers since Netflix recently grew to almost 28 million subscribers.
For the past few years Netflix, Amazon and HuluPlus have provided old shows, almost like a library service. This year Netflix shook up its programming strategy when it released original content “House of Cards”. They did what no distributor or programmer has done before: presenting an entire television series “House of Cards” to subscribers upfront. The viewer can than choose to watch the show all at once or at their own pace instead of once a week. In some ways, this strategy makes Netflix a competitor to HBO and cable channels. It also has blurred the lines as to what kind of company Netflix is: a distributor or original programmer? Further following a similar lead, Amazon is now promoting that they have exclusive content that you can only find and watch on Amazon.
Cable channels like A&E, Discovery, History, Lifetime and many others have iPad applications. Disney offers “Watch” to stream ESPN and Disney Channel to computers and other devices . Recently on the broadcast side, broadcasters have been making more content available on their websites and through services like Hulu. Since broadcast don’t rely on sub fees they have been much more aggressive in moving their content to other platforms than cable. And just this month ABC and CBS both came out with tablet applications to stream their television series.
Distributors have been and must adapt to new technologies, platforms and consumer demands. Despite the buzz that cable and broadcast are “dying mediums,” the Neilson graph below shows that while online viewership is increasing, people are still consuming a large percent of content on the TV set.
The real measure of the success of TV distributors will be how well their offerings satisfy consumer interests in viewing content how and when they want too. If the traditional distributors don’t provide it, new companies like Netflix and Apple will meet that demand.