Few people are trading in their cable services for digital alternatives, according to Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes. He argues that “cord cutting” is overstated and that the phenomenon is limited to a small segment of low income Americans.
Speaking Friday morning in New York, Bewkes also expressed confidence that the TV business is not threatened by the likes of Netflix or Amazon because these services are largely distribution platforms that don’t own the quality content audiences want to watch. He added that such platforms compete with each other and not with traditional TV companies.
“It’s a good thing to have more of them,” said Bewkes, adding that multiple universal platforms are good for consumers because they mean the content industry “can’t be held hostage” to a given distributor.
Despite his dismissal of cord-cutting, Bewkes did acknowledge the emergence of “cord nevers,” which are younger people who never acquire cable in the first place. For them, he said it’s not a question of money — “they can afford three Starbucks a day” — but rather different habits and expectations. Bewkes pointed out that the “cord nevers” are not receiving the best content (it will be interesting to see if this argument one day sways them into signing up).
In the meantime, the traditional cable model is under other strains, including the spiraling cost of sports. As Bewkes noted, “half of the population that doesn’t want sports is subsidizing the other half that does” because the former are forced to buy expensive sports channels they don’t want as part of their cable plans.
All of this suggests that the cable industry will finally have to give in and offer consumers a full-blown a la carte model — but don’t hold your breath. As Peter Kafka has pointed out, even a company as rich and powerful as Apple has proved incapable of dislodging “the TV industrial complex.” The simple reality is that the mighty incumbents are going to ensure that a cable subscription remains a toll to get access to things like HBO and the NFL on the iPad.
Finally, there is the question of advertising. According to Bewkes, advertising-only models are not viable for most types of content, pointing to the era of the big three networks as a “wasteland” for TV. He called on companies to make more ads that people want to watch, citing a James Bond trailer or ads in GQ magazine as examples.
Bewkes made the remarks during a chat with Reuters’ Chrystia Freeland at the Paley Center for Media’s “Innovation without Borders” event. (Highlights available here).
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