In a week overloaded with speculation on where the FCC is headed under a Donald Trump presidency, the agency quietly continued its work leading up to Friday's inauguration. Among the Commission's actions, the FCC published its latest report on the "Status of Competition in the Market for the Delivery of Video Programming." The numerical findings were not surprising given the wave of consolidation sweeping the pay-TV industry, but one conclusion stuck out for its lack of a parallel in the market.
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) tally, Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) is the only provider with ownership interests in each mode of video distribution covered by the agency's report. Comcast is a multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD), a.k.a. cable operator; has an ownership stake in Hulu LLC , which is an online video distributor (OVD); owns 26 full-power television stations; and owns the broadcast network NBCUniversal LLC .
What advantage does that give Comcast? It allows the cable company to be a party to a broad set of negotiations between TV distributors and content programmers. Not only does it mean that Comcast gets to spread its financial risk around, but the company's significant audience reach also means that if a programmer wants to negotiate for distribution in the US, there's a good chance it will go through Comcast in one way or another.
In addition to Comcast's unique position in the market, the FCC report also lays bare how consolidation has ramped up in the larger pay-TV industry. For example, the report notes that at the end of 2015, there were ten MVPDs with at least 1 million video customers. Since that time, Charter Communications Inc. has acquired Time Warner Cable and Bright House, and Altice has acquired Cablevision and Suddenlink. That drops the number of pay-TV providers in the million-plus category down from ten to seven at the end of 2016. (See also Coming Soon: The New Cable Trinity.)
The greater the consolidation in the market, the greater the pressure is on smaller video providers in content licensing negotiations. Without the scale of their larger brethren, smaller providers can't secure the same bulk discount rates to carry popular programming, making it difficult to maintain profitable operations and act as a competitive alternative to the handful of large pay-TV providers.
Countering consolidation in the traditional pay-TV market, the FCC does provide numbers in its report on the growth of over-the-top video viewing among consumers. Citing figures from SNL Kagan , the report notes that 65 million households were predicted to subscribe to at least one online service by the end of 2016. (See also Netflix Lands in Nearly Half of US Households.)
In total, MVPD subscribers also continue to decline year over year, with about 1.1 million video customers lost in 2015.
MVPD revenue trends, however, have not followed subscriber viewing habits. Despite losing video customers in 2015, MVPDs reported increased revenue of $115.6 billion in 2015, compared to $112.7 billion in 2014. Unfortunately for pay-TV providers, programming costs rose at a faster rate. According to the FCC report, margins on video services dropped from 15% in 2014 to a little over 10% in 2015.
Where will pay-TV companies make up those margins? Hint: Keep an eye out for rising broadband prices.
— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading