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NBCUniversal Chief Cites ‘Healthy Degree of Skepticism’ About Prospects for New Skinny Bundles

NBCUniversal chief Steve Burke offered a note of caution about the immediate business prospects for the skinny-bundle streaming offerings that are expected to hit the market next year.

Burke was pressed by Wall Street analysts during Comcast’s third quarter earnings call on Wednesday about the impact on NBCUniversal on new over-the-top channel bundle offerings in the works from Hulu (in which NBCU is in an investor) and Google and the DirecTV Now service launching next month. Comcast acknowledged in its Q3 earnings that subscriber bases for some of NBCU’s cablers dropped in the quarter.

But Burke was candid with analysts that he doesn’t see the OTT entrants making a big dent in the near term for the roughly 20 million U.S. households that do not take any MVPD service at present.

“The real promise of some of these new entrants is that they would deliver incremental subscribers,” Burke said. That would be a boon for programmers like NBCU but he added: “We all have a healthy degree of skepticism that these new over the top (services) are going to create millions and millions of new subscribers any time soon. … I think it will be modestly positive for NBCU. I don’t expect it to be material in the next year or two. Over time, it would be positive.”

Burke also noted that one of NBC’s big considerations in signing on to new bundle packages is its relationship with 200-plus affiliate stations around the country. The new world of broadcasters reaping retrans dollars — an expense hike for MVPDs that is seen in the other side of Comcast’s ledger — has helped re-cement the network-affiliate relationship as the affils now fork over significant “reverse compensation” dollars to networks to help pay for big-ticket programming.

“The affiliate relationship is really important,” he said. “Regardless of the technical means of getting the NBC signal to people we should have the same kind of sharing relationship that we have with our affiliates in the future. The spirit of our approach is to try to make sure all means of getting the signal out include the affiliates. We’re working on that and believe that’s the model we use going forward.”

Comcast chief Brian Roberts was pressed for a comment on the big media news of the week — AT&T’s $85 billion deal to acquire Time Warner — but he stayed tight-lipped about what he called “the other transaction.” “We don’t typically comment on other deals,” he said.

One of AT&T’s big selling points for its merger is the ability to use its nationwide wireless network to offer cutting-edge new services involving Time Warner content. The question facing major cable operators like Comcast even before the AT&T-TW deal was announced was whether they need to expand their broadband and wifi capabilities to a nationwide footprint. That has led to speculation that Comcast might try to acquire a wireless carrier, something Roberts has downplayed, as he did again on Wednesday’s call.

Comcast already has a so-called mobile virtual network operator partnership agreement with Verizon to expand its wireless service offerings using the telco giant’s network. The rollout of that service is expected next year, but it still needs to go through a trial phase to hammer out myriad complex technical and service issues.

“We fundamentally believe we can make money through a wireless offering with the unique relationship we have with the Verizon MVNO,” Roberts said.

Among other highlights from the call:

  • Burke cited the tough comps from last year’s “extraordinary” football season in addressing the decline in NFL ratings across the board so far this season, including for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.” “We may be in a season where the matchups aren’t as good as they could have been” for “SNF,” he said. But ratings are generally flat compared to two years ago. “Obviously we’d rather have ratings up than down,” he said, adding that football is still the most-watched program on TV.
  • Advertising revenue for the quarter at NBC was up 4% even excluding the Olympics and in spite of ratings declines. “The scatter market is as strong as it’s been in a long time,” Burke said.
  • Measurement issues remain a source of frustration for media CEOs, as Burke expressed when asked about progress in achieving true multiplatform ratings. “I don’t think it’s anywhere near where it needs to be in terms of monetization,” he said. NBCU’s summer Olympics coverage offers a prime example, he said, citing research indicting that 100 million Americans engaged with the Olympics on Snapchat, Facebook and other platforms. “The inability for us to articulately walk into an advertiser and talk about that consumption in aggregate is a real problem,” he said. “The progress is not as great as it should be.”

  • Roberts gave a big plug to “Sing,” the Universal next animated pic set to bow on Dec. 21, calling it “one of the best movies Chris Meledandri and his team at Illumination have ever made.”

 

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