Showing posts with label cable television. Show all posts
Showing posts with label cable television. Show all posts

Sunday, March 7, 2010

ABC and Viacom Provide Illustrations of the Shape of Things to Come

The proliferation of channels for delivering entertainment, news, and dog pictures is now a defining characteristic of the markets where media firms compete.  Competition is increasingly about who controls popular channels where content must appear to reach large audiences.

This creates a potential for conflict when one company owns a channel and another company produces content for the channel.  Each company needs the other's product to succeed.  But the balance of power in these relationships will often be uneven.

Two news stories this week illustrate how this new reality works.  ABC just carried out its threat to pull the station with the Oscars from Cablevision, a major cable television company in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.  Viacom, meanwhile, is removing its popular Comedy Central programs from Hulu, a web site offering free full-length television programs and movies.

Both disputes are about how much the distribution channels will pay the content providers.  But there appear to be significant differences in the balance of economic power.

ABC vs. Cablevision

ABC is negotiating to increase the amount that Cablevision pays to distribute ABC's programs.  The network receives payments from Cablevision subscribers for all of its programming, including ESPN and ABC Family. So the threat to black out ABC's New York television station before the Oscars begin was intended to put public pressure on Cablevision.

Right now, ABC's New York station is reminding viewers its programs are "Always Free Over the Air!"

But more than 3 million subscribers receive ABC's programs via Cablevision.  The network cannot afford to lose that many potential viewers for any length of time.  ABC's advertising revenues are based on the number of people watching its programs.  Large numbers of Cablevision subscribers are not likely to return to watching broadcast television.

Meanwhile, Verizon is advertising a deal aimed at Cablevision subscribers, hoping they will switch to Verizon's fiber optic service that bundles internet access with cable television.  But ABC's problem won't be solved if a significant number of people switch to Verizon. The network will just have to negotiate with a different company for access to a distribution channel.

Viacom vs. Hulu

Viacom is removing some of the most popular programs on Hulu, such as "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report."  This dispute is over advertising revenue that Hulu divides with content providers like Viacom.  Viacom wants a larger share of that revenue.

Hulu is growing rapidly, but that growth depends on popular programs like the ones Viacom is about to remove. And Hulu cannot control access to viewers the way that Cablevision does.

Fans of the Viacom shows can easily switch to Viacom's own web sites to watch their favorite programs.  The report that Hulu "will direct users to those (Viacom) sites" points to the balance of economic power in this dispute.

Hulu has not yet earned a profit. If Hulu loses a significant share of its audience after the split, Hulu will be forced to reconsider its deal with Viacom.

Still, both companies describe the split as amicable because both companies know they might not be breaking up for good.

Hulu was developed to find a profitable model for the internet distribution of television programs.  Hulu's owners include NBC, Fox and, it's worth noting, ABC.  Viacom owns multiple cable television networks.  So all of the companies have a shared interest in finding ways to make Hulu work.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Remembering Barry Litman, who died Dec. 26

Prof. Barry Litman used to sit quietly in meetings of my dissertation committee, holding a document I had labored over for days, waiting for his turn. He always began with a few introductory questions to be sure I understood what was coming next -- a single, penetrating query that would send me back to the library to spend hours digging through books and journal articles in search of an answer.

The result was always the same. I learned something, usually more than just one thing, that was important and useful. Barry Litman made my work better. It wasn't just me. He made everyone's understanding of media economics better.

So it came as a shock to hear that Barry, 59, died Dec. 26 after battling cancer.

Barry was one of the first classically trained economists devoted to understanding producers of and audiences for newspapers, television broadcasts, and film. You cannot call yourself a student of media economics if you don't know his work.

Barry and a doctoral student completed the first study linking the quality of news to the financial performance of newspapers.1 He later helped update the fundamental model of newspaper competition developed in the 1970s to reflect three decades of changing technology and markets.2 He then took an overused, ill-defined buzzword -- convergence -- and gave it meaning by showing how people select news from different media based on differences in characteristics like speed of delivery, convenience, and quality.3

Barry developed a model predicting what will happen if people can't get reliable information from the media about urgent topics like birth control, showing they will instead assemble an understanding from whatever sources they can find.4

He identified a major flaw in the long line of studies examining diversity or its absence in media content, refuting the underlying assumption that there is an unlimited demand for diversity.5 Barry offered a more realistic model showing that the desire for diversity is balanced against the desire for other characteristics of content, always within the limits of available time for reading, watching and listening.

Barry helped examine the creation of the Fox network, showing how a confluence of regulatory and economic factors made possible the enormous gamble for News Corp.6 The study is a valuable reminder that what now looks like a taken-for-granted success was anything but that at the time. In another study, Barry and his co-authors showed why networks prefer programs that are predictable, making truly innovative television the exception, a finding that holds up well in the cable universe.7

Barry was a professor at Michigan State University for more than 30 years, one of a handful of faculty who made the College of Communication Arts & Sciences the center of gravity for understanding media economics.

This spring, as always, I will teach a graduate course where Barry's work appears multiple times. I like to quote Barry because it always makes me sound smart. This semester won't be nearly so much fun. Mostly, I'm going to think about what we've all lost.

Barry's obituary is available here, and an announcement from the college can be read here. A Facebook page to post memories of Barry can be found here.

1Litman, B. R., & Bridges, J. (1986). An economic analysis of American newspapers. Newspaper Research Journal, 7(3 spring), 9-26.

2 Bridges, J. A., Litman, B. R., & Bridges, L. W. (2002). Rosse's model revisited: Moving to concentric circles to explain newspaper competition. Journal of Media Economics, 15(1), 3-19.

3 Litman, B.R. (2006). The convergent society and the media industries. In Bridges, J. Litman B. R., &Bridges, L.W. (Eds.), Newspaper competition in the millennium (pp.23-32). New York, Nova Science Publishers.

4 Litman, B. & Bain, E. (1987). Information search and banned product advertising: An indifference curve approach. Current Issues and Research in Advertising, 39-59.

5 Litman, B. R. (February 1992). Economic aspects of program quality: The case for diversity. Studies of Broadcasting, 121-56.

6 Thomas, L., & Litman, B. R. (Spring 1991). Fox Broadcasting Company, why now? An economic study of the rise of the fourth broadcast "network." Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 35(2), 139-158.

7 Litman, B. R., Shirkhande, S., & Ahn, H. (2000). A portfolio theory approach to network program selection. The Journal of Media Economics, 13(2), 57-79.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

FCC Chairman Makes Lemonade from Lemon (at least for now)

The Federal Communications Commission today voted to tighten regulation of cable companies, and ease regulation of newspaper and broadcast companies. The votes are a triumph for FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, who last month suffered a temporary defeat when he brought the cable proposal up for a vote.

Today's victory on the cable issue may also be temporary given strong and continuing industry resistance. But for now Martin appears to have reconciled the complex array of competing interests at stake in both of these votes.

The importance of competition

Competition is at the heart of all the arguments voted on today. Newspaper companies argued increasing competition for advertising revenue makes obsolete a rule against owning a broadcast station in the same market. Huge numbers of readers disagreed, arguing the restriction preserved competition covering local news, increasing the range of information and ideas available in those markets.

The FCC voted to ease the cross-ownership restriction in the 20 largest markets.

Cable companies argued they need to get larger because subscribers have more and more alternatives in the new media world. Consumer groups and Chairman Martin disagreed, arguing cable rates keep rising and subscribers don't have access to the full range of possible program choices.

The FCC voted to keep individual cable companies from reaching more than 30 percent of the national market. This is expected to have an immediate effect on Comcast.

Reasons to be skeptical on cross-ownership

My immediate reaction is mostly to the cross-ownership vote. The competitive problem for newspapers is not local radio or television stations, but new forms of media such as the Internet and cell phones. Putting resources into broadcast stations is an odd response, especially when you consider some newspaper companies such as The New York Times and Belo recently divested their television stations.

The expense of acquiring radio and television stations will also force newspaper companies to cut operating costs, so be skeptical of claims that these companies will increase news coverage in these markets.

More broadly, the competition arguments rely on differing definitions and models. Newspaper companies, and both sides in the cable argument, are using economic models concerned with efficient use of limited resources, and providing goods and services at the lowest possible cost.

Supporters of cross-ownership restrictions are using a First Amendment model concerned with expanding the range of ideas, and the emergence of a workable consensus on matters of public concern.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

FCC Chairman Caves, Economics of Lobbying Prevail (sort of)

The effort to impose new cable television regulations that renewed discussion of selling subscriptions to individual channels has apparently collapsed under strong pressure from cable companies.

However, potential changes in ownership restrictions and other regulations, not the sale of individual channels, were behind the collapse. Reports this morning say a Nov. 27 meeting of the Federal Communications Commission delayed a decision on the new rules because of a dispute over data showing how many people actually subscribe to cable.

If more than 70 percent of consumers have access to cable -- a number that is not in dispute -- and more than 70 percent of them subscribe, the FCC will have legal authority to limit ownership of cable companies. FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin argues the 70 percent subscriber threshold has been met, but the industry and other members of the commission disagree. (Chloe Albanesius at does a good job explaining details of this argument about subscriber data.)

A Battle to Capture the FCC

The cable companies' effort to block new regulations at first appears to be a textbook example of why regulators often favor the interests of the industry they regulate. However, this is a case where the interests of three major media industries are at stake.

Clearly, if you own a cable company, you don't favor regulations that restrict which systems you can buy. Cable companies are also a relatively small group compared to millions of subscribers and advertisers also affected by ownership rules.

That means there are relatively low costs of organizing cable companies to talk to each other, negotiate a common position on the proposed regulations, and then hire people to contact government officials and argue their case. What I've just described, of course, is an industry association. Cable is represented by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.
It costs far more for consumers or advertisers to create similar organizations. Advertisers tend to consider themselves part of an industry represented by an industry association, and not the larger group of all businesses that advertise on cable.

There are too many consumers to organize into a single group, even with instant communication. Some Washington groups, like the Consumers Union, do represent consumers and have been active on this issue. But these groups don't represent cable subscribers and their interests in the exclusive way that the industry association represents cable owners.

The difference means the industry probably has more focus, and resources, available to lobby the FCC. The effort to block new regulations included a meeting with top White House officials.

There are More Than Two Sides in This Fight

Groups representing another powerful industry are also in this fight. Chairman Martin says the new cable regulations will increase competition, lowering prices and increasing the range of voices on cable television.

However, Martin separately wants to change a long-standing regulation limiting newspaper company ownership of broadcast television stations. This rule prohibits a newspaper from owning a television station in the same market to ensure there are multiple media voices with diverse views.

Martin accepts newspaper industry arguments that the cross-ownership rule should be relaxed because of competition from new forms of media. The newspaper industry, of course, has its own association to lobby for its interests, the Newspaper Association of America.

Commissioners like Jonathan S. Adelstein, who might agree with Martin on cable, suspect he will use the cable changes to also push for a relaxation of the cross-ownership rule, decreasing competition in newspaper and broadcast markets.

Cross-ownership also evokes a strong response from the public. Consumer groups, such as the Media Education Foundation and Common Cause, are working to keep the cross-ownership rule. But consumer groups also support Martin's proposed changes for cable.

So, perhaps yesterday's collapse was inevitable. This is not a case where just one industry is trying to capture the FCC. Instead, multiple well-organized industries are competing against each other to capture the FCC. Meanwhile, less well-organized consumers are taking different sides depending on the issue in dispute.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Thinking About Buying Cable a la Carte

The Federal Communications Commission is making serious noises about new regulations for cable television, including allowing subscribers to buy channels one at a time. This idea is likely to have strong superficial appeal for anyone paying for channels that they never watch -- a group that may include most cable subscribers.

But, as Joe Nocera points out in his New York Times column, if a la Carte programming becomes a reality, subscribers are likely to regret it on the morning after. He writes artfully about the politics and likely effects of a la Carte, but leaves some larger questions untouched.

The proposal is supported by consumer groups, groups worried about sex and violence, and FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin. This is one of several major regulatory changes being considered. The FCC is also revisiting rules on cable ownership, access to cable channels for producers of independent programs, and rules barring companies from owning newspapers and broadcast stations in the same market.

But the change in subscriptions would have the most immediate effect on consumers. Nocera does a nice job explaining why a la Carte programming would leave many subscribers paying more than they do now.

Fewer Subscribers Will Increase Cable Prices

Networks charge cable operators a fee based on the number of subscribers. Cable operators can spread the cost of, say, The History Channel across everyone who pays for the bundle that includes this channel, even if many don't watch programs about history. That keeps each subscriber's cost below the amount that would be charged if only those who watch The History Channel subscribed. This is true even for for channels with wide appeal, Nocera reports:

"Take, for instance, ESPN, which charges the highest amount of any cable network: $3 per subscriber per month. (I’m borrowing this example from a recent research note by Craig Moffett, the Sanford C. Bernstein cable analyst.) Suppose in an à la carte world, 25 percent of the nation’s cable subscribers take ESPN. If that were the case, the network would have to charge each subscriber not $3, but $12 a month to keep its revenue the same."
The proposal faces stiff opposition in congress. This is probably because legislators don't want to risk the wrath of voters if predictions like the one for ESPN prove correct.

Do Market Economics Favor a la Carte?

But what is good for cable subscribers and good for congress may not be good economics. A basic principle of market economics holds that people should only pay for things they want. If people have to pay for things they don't want, it creates distortions in the distribution of goods and the use of resources to produce those goods. Consumers end up getting more than they really want of some things, and not enough of others.

This argument suggests we may be getting too much programming about history, and too much programming about sports. (You decide which networks we don't get enough of.)

Sophisticated supporters of a la Carte are likely to make this argument, and it will carry some weight. That is because the argument holds true unless cable programs fall into the category of goods that are exceptions to some general rules of market economics.