TV – all Ad-Free, A-La-Carte?

There’s a new (?) meme on the block: ad-based tv is/should be dead. The future of tv is ad-free, no-tier, and totally à la carte. Listen to Steve Rubel of Micro Persuasion fame: As the technology gets more sophisticated and the generation that grew up with the Internet , iPods and always on connections become adults, I see a day coming when a lot of TV content will a) be paid for and b) consumed ad-free. Nice try. But, guess what: a) is already here and b) is highly unlikely to happen.

The fundamental misunderstanding starts with the words as the technology gets more sophisticated. Of course, technology is crucial. But at this point, usage patterns and applied business models are more important.
a) is easy. It’s called pay per tier, and is basically the pretty successful formula which has propelled US-based cable networks from MTV to CNN to Discovery into the global top position regarding multichannel tv. The basic math behind it: a multichannel operator sells easy to understand program packages to the consumer. The programmer gets a certain portion of the subscriber fee and decides by gut and market research in what programs to invest. So why not breaking it down into selling separate pieces of content?
Let’s make a sidestep. In the Boston Globe, Alex Beam toots almost the same horn (at least, according to Steve). Remind me again: Why am I paying $50 a month for services I don’t want? Oh, that’s right. Because the cable TV monopolists say I have to.

The basic principle of a successful multichannel tv environment is simple. Networks are packaging shows into a channel. Cable operators are packaging channels into tiers. According to Beam, selling tiers is just a greedy, oversimplistic one size fits all approach. According to Rubel, selling ad space is just an annoying habit of channels inc., to be broken by the powers of technology. Vivat, à la carte.

Beam proposes. I pay to get 80 channels, about 20 of which I actually want to watch. Hey, Mr. Comcast, let’s make a deal. I’ll pay you, say, $25 a month, and you beam me the 20 stations that I want to watch. Makes a fiver for the connection and one Dollar per channel each. Sounds good, true and populistic. But, unfortunately, not feasible. Ask Mark Cuban. He did the math (trust him, not me: I’m just running my micro tv network somewhere in old Europe – he’s a selfmade billionaire). The big difference is, that in an à la carte world, the cost of reaching an audience is outrageous.

And it’s not just the price tag. Because of the cost of reaching an audience, à la carte  programming favors inherently the big, the established, the incumbents. Mark’s example is the movie market. Look at which content rises to the top in terms of revenues from consumers and visibility. The content from the biggest companies who have spent the most money to market.

OK, you might say. Unbundling tiers might not be that great an idea. But the unbundling of channels into separately sold pieces of content is a technological given. Everybody builds it. So it has to come, it’s already happening.

According to Steve, in the future – as technology progresses – you will have to pay for the best programming, even if it’s carried by ABC, NBC, Fox or CBS. These shows will be sold a-la-carte, as subscriptions or in packages and they will all be delivered over the Internet protocol. Nice try. But technology’s just one (important) piece of the puzzle.

To quote myself (sometimes, I like that): can $1.99 downloads substitute broadcast tv? Only if you’re a Hollywood producer. Or could you imagine every tv household shelling out $200 a month at least just for watching tv content (and that number’s not even based upon the real tv usage hours)? So even in a virtually broadcast-free world, we’ll have to look for ad support. Otherwise, people will have to find themselves some new (and cheap) hobbies pretty soon.

So one thing is the business model applied to usage patterns. You can’t beat free beer with almost free beer. But free beer and premium imported Pilsener can peacefully coexist. Because they’re catering to different markets.

Would you pay for a download of Jerry Springer? Nobody would. Those who watch, can’t afford. Those who could afford, don’t watch. Would you pay for a download of Desperate Housewifes – if it would have never been aired on network tv? Most likely: not. Because you would never ever heard about it (if somebody didn’t spend some gazillions on marketing). Because it would never ever had been produced (if somebody didn’t wager some gazillions on production).

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