Are Skinny Bundles All Hype or the Future of TV Delivery?

Are skinny bundles a breakthrough or just a new way for television to do the same old business?

Last week, Hulu and YouTube were revealed to be in talks with NBCUniversal, Viacom, Fox and others on creating cable-channel packages to deliver via broadband. Those packages, so-called “skinny bundles,” are expected to cost $35-$40 if and when they go to market — well below the price for a typical cable subscription. But they are not likely to collapse the cable ecosystem anytime soon.

Over-the-top delivery of television is not new. Dish and Sony have rolled out skinny bundles via Sling Television and PlayStation Vue, respectively. Premium channels have reached out to non-cable customers through owned-and-operated streaming platforms (HBO), third-party partnerships and hybrids of those two strategies (Showtime, Starz).

Data on how many customers those efforts have reached remains scarce. But there does not yet appear to have been any sudden exodus from the cable-subscriber rolls. In a Paley Media Council interview last week, HBO CEO Richard Plepler said, “Less than 1% of our subscriber base has left a [cable] subscription to go get HBO Now,” referring to the network’s standalone streaming service.

“Inertia has a big impact,” says Derek Baine of S&P Global Market Intelligence, arguing that the habit will keep older customers in their cable subscriptions. “These skinny bundles will be appealing to the generation who goes off to college and probably doesn’t have their own cable subscription. They’re watching on iPads, and they’ve never experienced paying a cable bill each month.”

As those customers mature, the creeping subscriber loss that cable has suffered in recent years will continue — leaving the door open for skinny bundles to gain ground. But while their delivery mechanisms are new and aimed at young consumers, Sling, PlayStation Vue and the like are built on a fundamental element of the cable-television business: the channel bundle. The basic PlayStation Vue package forces customers to pay for low-rated channels such as Destination America and Fox Business alongside popular offerings such as Discovery Channel and FX.

Preserving the bundle has been a dealbreaker for the media companies being courted for OTT products. And as those products perpetuate the cable bundle, they remain tethered to cable’s infrastructure. Most Americans receive broadband Internet from a cable or telecom provider.  Now that Charter Communications’ acquisition of Time Warner Cable has gained FCC approval, the new company is set to have roughly 21 million broadband customers — more than any other provider except another old-schooler, Comcast.

So the same businesses that stand to lose out should skinny bundles catch on have an easy way to compensate. “The interesting thing to watch will be if broadband rates start to go up dramatically if people start fleeing their cable operators,” Baine says. “You may see that you’re really not saving that much.”

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