There was a time when mainstream consumers would belly up at the cable buffet to feast on 500 channels, no matter the cost. For a time in cable tv: the bigger, the better. But eventually consumers got severe indigestion from ever-expanding bills for channels they never watched. They wondered: “Why can’t I watch (and pay for) just the channels that I actually watch?”
With the advent of streaming video packages from Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon – and more stand-alone services from CBS, HBO, Showtime, and others – consumers finally started getting the “a la carte” option of unbundling. At least they could watch just what they wanted. At the same time, new providers like PlayStation Vue, Sling TV, and DirecTV Now began to offer up popular “skinny bundles,” smaller groups of premium channels at a lower price.
As the choices proliferated for consumers, the question for content providers is how can they keep showing up on these ever-shrinking menus? They need to be everywhere, but that proves challenging for many players. Inevitably, some get left out of the musical chairs at this buffet.
And lately, the channels that are suffering are those from middle-tier programming houses like Discovery and Scripps Networks Interactive, which focus on animals, food, and reality shows. So, it is not surprising that players like these would consider M&A options. Joining forces would allow them to create a new kind of “anorexic bundle” at as little as $3 or $4 a month.
And that was likely a big driver in the recent sale of Scripps, which saw both Viacom and Discovery vying for a buyout. But in the end, Discovery won out, acquiring Scripps for $11.9 billion. It’s not just a purchase of additional content for Discovery — it’s a sizable step for both Scripps and Discovery in securing a place in media’s future.
Consolidation a Panacea?
As cord-cutting continues to become more mainstream, mergers and consolidations are a viable strategy for media companies trying to stay afloat amidst lagging cable subscription revenues and increased streaming options. And mergers show potential for smaller media companies that might be cast aside as well as larger media companies that want to create a more appetizing menu for consumers.
The aim, as Variety’s Brian Steinberg put it, is for these companies to have an upper hand in the ways that consumers connect to their favorite kinds of programming. Think about Comcast’s purchase of NBCUniversal back in 2009. Comcast has since become the powerful presence behind must-see properties like the Olympics, sports, and children’s’ programming.
And that’s just one example. AT&T bought DirecTV in 2015 for approximately $48.5 billion and is about to close a $85.4 billion acquisition of Time Warner, owner of HBO and CNN. Lionsgate purchased Starz in a $4.4 billion deal. Charter Communications acquired Time Warner Cable last year for about $65 billion. The list goes on and consolidation seems inevitable in the chaos of changing viewing preferences. But will the Discovery Scripps combo be enough to get noticed by skinny bundles? Or can its own anorexic bundle attract enough attention to be viable on its own?
The Skinnier Bundle Option
Both Viacom and Discovery announced earlier this year plans to offer these newer, entertainment-only anorexic bundles to try to attract consumers. But at such low prices – $3 to $4 per month – will people really value them enough?
That’s where Scripps comes along. The network has long attracted audiences — and subsequently, advertisers for those audiences — with popular lifestyle programming like HGTV and the Food Network. A Scripps acquisition, ideally, gives both companies a competitive edge when it comes to negotiating with traditional distributors like Comcast and Charter Communications. It also helps cut back-end costs. For Scripps, the acquisition also offers money to invest in better ad targeting. Ad buyers are also looking to media companies to help them better target younger audiences more prone to streaming rather than subscribing to cable.
Still, a few analysts argue that a consolidation between Discovery and Scripps — and that mergers in general — may hurt chances of staying afloat. This is because they add even more programming when distributers are looking to cut content and offer more streamlined options. And neither Discovery nor Scripps air live sports in the U.S., which has long been considered one of the remaining driving forces behind television advertising.
One analyst, Michael Nathanson, was skeptical about the pairing. He told The New York Times’s Emily Steel that, ”This shotgun marriage is a clear sign that the cable network industry has seen the future, and that future requires deep cost cutting and increased scale to mitigate both the current headwinds and the inevitable painful changes that lie ahead.”
And sure enough, Discovery’s David Zaslav touted cost savings of $350 million to The Times, and noted that Discovery could expand Scripps’ reach to 220 countries and create new services for mobile and streaming. As Zaslav told the Times: ”It is a renaissance moment for content and a great opportunity for the content business. The question is, what content is going to travel?”
That really is the question. It also remains to be seen whether food and travel channels can succesfully make the leap to the many streaming services, or make a stand with their own service. Given that Nielsen is now adding Hulu Live TV and YouTube TV to its TV ratings, the shift to streaming — and ad spending on these digital TV platforms — seems destined to only accelerate.
Now consumers will make the final decision on whether they want to fork over a few bucks for some morsels of content, or whether all these skinny bundles will add up to just another kind of bloated menu.