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Niche Cable Channels Fall Victim to Peak TV

The casualties of Peak TV are starting to pile up.

NBCUniversal’s little-watched Esquire Network is gone as a linear channel as of the summer. Cloo, a tiny portion of NBCU’s cable business, went dark on Feb. 1. That was the same day NBCU Cable announced a rebranding of its Oxygen channel into a “crime destination” for millennial women.

These are tough times to be an underperforming cable channel. The fact that a company with the heft of NBCUniversal couldn’t strong-arm distributors into continuing to carry Esquire for a few cents a month per subscriber sounds the alarm that MVPDs are serious about pruning their channel rosters.

Distributors are focused on creating smaller bundles with more flexibility for consumers. The old-guard cable operators are being forced to move by the coming wave of low-cost streaming channel packages, which started last year with the launch of DirecTV Now.

Channels such as Cloo, which aired mystery-themed shows drawn from the NBCU library, were born in a different era, when programmers had the leverage to demand carriage of lesser channels along with their biggest brands. In a skinny-bundle market, there’s no room for channels that don’t pull their weight in ratings.

Oxygen has been in a ratings rut for some time but has seen signs of life lately with its crime-centric programming, which drove the rebranding. The shutdown of Cloo, which had only about 25 million viewers and no dedicated employees, was in the works even before the Oxygen decision was made.

Veteran TV business analyst Michael Nathanson observes that the hard line taken by distributors comes as MVPDs are looking to cut costs at a time when the retransmission consent fees they pay to local broadcast TV stations are growing by double digits in the largest markets. SNL Kagan projects that retrans fees paid to local broadcasters will hit $11.6 billion by 2022, up from $6.4 billion in 2015.

The competitive pressures on both sides of the distributor/programming divide have been building to a breaking point. Nathanson says he’s not surprised to see NBCUniversal pulling the plug on channels because of the 20,000-foot view of the pay TV ecosystem provided by its parent company, Comcast.

There was no logic in NBCU continuing to invest in Esquire if its subscriber base was sure to dwindle over the next few years. Similar tough-love evaluations have to happen sooner rather than later at other media firms with lackluster channels, notably Viacom, Discovery, and Scripps.

“It makes no sense for the business to stay the way it is,” Nathanson notes. “You’ll have to see some consolidation of ownership, or some of those networks close down.”

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