How much does it cost to offer pay TV service?

I want to know how much it cost for providers to offer pay TV service.  Especially, I want to compare the cost to offer pay TV services between cable TV MSOs, satellite TV providers, and over the top providers (direct over the internet).

Note I used the word subscription versus subscribers.  Comcast ended 2011 with 22.3m video subscriptions, 18.1m broadband subscriptions, and 9.3m voice subscriptions.  However, they did not mention how many unique subscribers (households) use their service.  Each household may have 1 or more subscription (i.e.: video and internet).  To get the number for Comcast, I divided Comcast’s cable business operations cost with the total number of subscriptions at 49.3m at the end of 2011.  ARPU is also lower because broadband and voice pricing are lower than cable TV.

DirectTV can generate $80/month from each of their 20m+ subscribers and spends $60/subscriber/month to attract, install, retain, and offer programming services.  About 40% of the cost goes to contents (cable channels, sports, movies, TV shows).

Netflix does not require cable/satellite dish installation, set top boxes to lease, or cable equipments to operate.  They just borrow the internet to offer the service and therefore only spends $9/subscriber/month to offer the service.  They offer the video service over the internet where the infrastructure is already built by Telcos and MSOs.  They do however spend ~40% of the revenue on streaming content.  Content Delivery Networks (CDN) cost and renting servers from Amazon is insignificant to the size of their revenue.

From technology stand point, the internet is definitely the future of pay TV as it can offer the service with the lowest operational cost.  There is no technology barrier today that prevents the same contents you get on cable channels via the internet.  However, as I mentioned in my previous blog, the cable and satellite operators who are also content owners will starve the internet-only player from contents.  At the same time, they are also offering similar services as Netflix as additional feature for their subscribers (see Xfinity Strempix, Verizon/Redbox).

The cable and satellite operators seem to be winning the war so far as they are able to maintain (lose less for Comcast) their subscribers in 2011 and come up with their own internet streaming solutions.  Netflix, on the other hand, is positioning itself as a premium cable channel where they are producing their own original programming (see NYT article).

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