Cable TV Is on Life Support, but a New Bundle Is Coming Alive
Cable TV Is on Life Support, but a New Bundle Is Coming Alive

A funny thing happened in recent weeks, as the media industry wrung its hands over the long-anticipated death of the lucrative cable-TV bundle: Hundreds of thousands of people turned to a different bundle.

Take Christopher Antoniacci of Anna Maria, Fla. When the standoff between Disney and the cable giant Charter left him among nearly 15 million cable subscribers without ESPN and many other channels, he took matters into his own hands.

At Charter’s suggestion, Mr. Antoniacci, 74, downloaded FuboTV, a streaming service that offers channels including ESPN. Nearly 500,000 people did the same over the last two weeks, according to Sensor Tower, an analytics firm.

“It has almost everything that I require,” said Mr. Antoniacci, who signed up for a free trial. “It’s a cable substitute, and it appears to be working,” he added.

As cord cutting accelerates across the country, with millions of Americans dropping their traditional cable-TV packages each year, it threatens to upend the pay-TV bundle, a linchpin of the media industry for decades. That became clear when Charter, in its war of words with Disney, declared that parts of the cable bundle were “broken.”

But the resolution between the two companies this week signaled that the bundle is probably not going anywhere. It’s just adjusting for new viewing habits, with cable companies aiming to sell new packages that include streaming services.

As part of the deal, Disney+, a streaming service that includes many of Disney’s biggest shows and movies, will now be offered to Charter’s TV customers.

“We very much can look back at this Disney-Charter deal as an opening salvo of a broader re-bundling,” MoffettNathanson, an influential research firm, said in a note on Monday.

For more than a half-century, the cable-TV bundle was one of the best businesses in the history of media. TV giants like Disney were paid twice: first by cable distributors, which shelled out billions every year to have channels like ESPN available for their subscribers, and then by advertisers, which opened their wallets to promote products alongside the hottest shows.

The bundle was also good for the cable providers, which steadily added subscribers: At the peak of traditional cable in 2012, more than 100 million Americans paid for the bundle.

That era is gone. Now, about five million people abandon cable TV every year — leaving about 75 million Americans in the traditional TV ecosystem, according to analyst estimates.

Most analysts believe that 40 million to 60 million Americans will continue to subscribe to some form of traditional cable in the years to come. The sharp falloff, however, is shifting the ground under media companies and distributors alike.

Already, many cord-cutters are piecing together their own bundle, subscribing to a mix of services including Netflix, Max and Hulu. The deal between Disney and Charter has made it clear that cable providers — which often provide broadband internet service — are eager to put together streaming bundles for them.

William Rouhina, the chief executive of Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment, which owns several ad-supported streaming services, said Disney’s deal with Charter was proof that the traditional cable business was changing drastically.

“I think this could be the precursor to a very big shift in the industry,” he said.

The winners and losers of the new game have yet to be determined. But in the short term, at least, the new bundling will probably not be as profitable as the traditional cable business, said Tom Freston, who was a member of MTV’s founding team and a former chief executive of Viacom.

That spells trouble for the titans of the media industry, which are trying to milk the cash-rich cable business for as long as possible while they build streaming services to replace them, he said.

Mr. Freston noted that live sports and news programming, which have yet to be completely replicated by streaming services, remained vital to the pay-TV bundle. National Football League games, an entertainment mainstay for tens of millions of Americans, will remain on traditional television for years because of existing contracts, guaranteeing a lifeline for cable providers.

But streamers are starting to encroach on that territory, too. Amazon and YouTube are making inroads with N.F.L. fans by securing football rights, and Apple has begun to show Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer matches.

“It’s hard to fight the convenience of improved technology,” Mr. Freston said. “When sports and news inevitably move over to the streamers, that will be the end of the game. And what a game it was.”

Still, Mr. Antoniacci, who had turned to FuboTV during the Charter-Disney face-off, said he wasn’t willing to count pay TV out for good. He has been a cable subscriber for several decades, paying for television and internet access. He had been considering downgrading his cable subscription, keeping a slimmer package with access to his local news stations.

But for now, he’s keeping what he had.

“This situation is making me reflect a lot on how I use these media providers,” Mr. Antoniacci said.

Benjamin Mullin

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