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Earlier this week at an investor conference sponsored by UBS in New York City, the chief executive of Liberty Media decried the rising cost of sports programming on pay television. And he may have inadvertently lifted the cover on Pandora’s Box by doing so.

 

Greg Maffei was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that the average $4.69 per household subscription fee for ESPN and all of its affiliated networks amounted to “a tax on every American household” and asked, “what happens to the bundle of cable if you keep pushing [the price] higher and higher?”

 

He’s not alone in wondering if Americans are reaching the breaking point with ever-escalating costs of pay television. There is no question that a small segment of the population is disconnecting from pay TV services and opting instead to keep broadband connections only. This movement is 100% driven by cost – the average tab for a digital TV package of channels, voice over IP, and broadband now exceeds $150 on many cable systems. That’s $1,800 a year!

 

To put things in perspective, the average subscription (retransmission) fee for cable networks is about what it costs you to park for an hour at a meter – 26 cents.

 

Viacom’s CEO Philippe Dauman also put the spotlight directly on ESPN for driving pay TV costs through the roof. He stated that ESPN by itself in many systems costs twice as much as of all their own networks combined.

 

The problem with rising costs for ESPN is that it usually comes as part of a bundle. Yet, many American viewers have little or no interest in sports programming, at least not to the extent that they need a 24/7 ‘fix’ of scores, talk shows, and specials.

 

Those rising charges are driven mostly by deals that ESPN has negotiated directly with major sports leagues. For example, the Bristol, CT-based network has also managed to get exclusive broadcast rights to the major college football bowl games (the Bowl Championship Series), taking them away from their traditional homes on free broadcast networks.

 

More than one pay TV system operator has speculated out loud that sports channels could soon migrate to premium tiers instead of being bundled with basic or extended digital channel packages. That would in turn allow pay TV MSOs to lower prices on TV channel packages, which are increasingly seen by futurists as ‘obsolete’ with the increased penetration of high-speed Internet access, the use of DVRs, and the growth in streaming services like Netflix.

 

Until the past year or so, cable and satellite TV executives were mum on the issue of ever-escalating monthly service charges. Now, one of the culprits has been called out, and it will be interesting to see if MSOs will make noise about moving ESPN and other costly sports networks like Fox to add-on tiers where HBO and Showtime currently reside.

 

In the meantime, you can still watch plenty of sports for free over the air, including (but not limited to) NFL games on CBS, Fox, and NBC, major league baseball on Fox and local stations, the NBA finals on ABC, college football on CBS, NBC, and ABC, golf and tennis on all the major channels, the NCAA basketball men’s and women’s tournaments and selected games on CBS and ABC, and of course next year’s Olympics on NBC.

 

Enjoy them while you still can…

Posted by Pete Putman, December 9, 2011 9:31 AM

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About Pete Putman

Peter Putman is the president of ROAM Consulting L.L.C. His company provides training, marketing communications, and product testing/development services to manufacturers, dealers, and end-users of displays, display interfaces, and related products.

Pete edits and publishes HDTVexpert.com, a Web blog focused on digital TV, HDTV, and display technologies. He is also a columnist for Pro AV magazine, the leading trade publication for commercial AV systems integrators.