The ramifications of COVID-19 have been felt throughout the industry—from changing production workflows to accommodate social distancing requirements to modifying transmitters and RF plants to roll out NextGen TV service.
The ripples of the pandemic also have impacted cable TV—a slice of the industry that largely depends on truck rolls to bring new subscribers online. Concern over safety and social distancing for both customers and employees alike has led to some changes in business as usual, says MOBITV President and COO Bill Routt.
MOBITV’s app for MVPDs is helping cable operators circumvent COVID-19 concerns by making self-provisioning possible, win back cord-cutters and upsell existing broadband customers on TV services, he says.
In this interview, Routt discusses the impact of COVID-19 on cable operators and customers, the company’s strategy to assist MVPDs, how cable operators are holding up to OTT competitors like Hulu and what the future holds for cable TV operators.
(An edited transcript.)
TVTech: How has COVID-19 affected your MVPD customers, and has the MOBITV app-based solution addressed the concerns of consumers and operators about minimizing exposure risk?
Bill Routt: Prior to the pandemic we were seeing installations done two ways. You know we still have about 128 or 129 MVPD customers, and +90% of them are using our fast solution.
It can be installed one of two ways. The cable companies, the MVPDs, can continue to roll trucks, and a lot of them do that. They do that for internet installations, and when they're there, they'll offer either an Android setup box, a managed box or Fire TV Stick, or some streaming device and try to upsell video.
But it's an app-based service, so every one of these operators has a branded app in the Google Play Store, Amazon, Roku and iTunes. So customers can just self-provision when they decide to sign up for cable service. All they really have to do is download the app from the streaming device they're using or smart TV and log in with their credentials. Then they are up and running.
So as you can imagine, we were seeing a lot of operators still installing the truck roll way. Although we're starting to see some of them significantly reducing that number of truck rolls for video installation during the pandemic.
Customers don't want people in their homes, and a lot of cable companies are slowing down; they're hesitant, or they have a lot of protocols before they send install teams into people’s homes.
So, we're seeing an uptick in the self-provisioning. That has been really key for us because it helps our customers continue to grow even when that normal sort of installation channel—if you want to call it that—is impacted by COVID.
TVT: If the strategy is to send the MVPD customer to an app store to enable MVPD service to prevent possible exposure of workers and customers to COVID-19, doesn’t that make it more likely for customers to purchase VOD OTT services as well and in a way make it harder for your customers to sell premium channels?
BR: If you think about it, our customers have an advantage over a lot of the OTT services. It’s true there are disadvantages, too. They don't have the marketing budget that YouTube TV has. That could be the understatement of the year so far.
But what they do have is a brand and brick and mortar, and they have existing relationships with these customers. So when I say that these guys are benefiting from self-install, I don't mean they're benefiting from a customer somewhere in the Midwest searching through the app store to find their branded cable app to download.
I think it's more the case that the customer makes a phone call, wants to subscribe to cable television service, or they get an outreach from the cable company that they're using for their broadband already.
They're told, “Hey, you can have this TV service. It's got a full lineup, and you go to whatever app store you want and you search for it by name and download it.”
So, I think that they're not competing head to head from a discovery perspective in the Play Store. If they were, they definitely would be at a disadvantage. But they have an existing customer relationship and they are building that relationship with the customer. They have a broadband relationship with that customer. So they're able to message and direct that customer to the Play Store.
They can leverage that existing relationship to kind of bypass or work around any discovery challenges inside an app store with 100,000 apps.
TVT: Are MVPDs seeing the time their customers watch TV grow due to the tendency to stay home and avoid crowds during the pandemic?
BR: Yes. That’s one of the advantages MVPDs have, engagement with the viewer. Prior to the pandemic, people were watching more than eight hours a day on average, right? That’s a tremendous amount of engagement. That obviously has implications for advertising.
With the pandemic, that has increased. It spiked way up to almost 10 hours a day. It kind of leveled off over the summer at about nine-and-a-half-hours a day of viewing. So, MVPDs are seeing even more engagement, which is not a surprise in this kind of shelter-in-place world we’re in right now.
TVT: What about the 800 lb. gorilla in the room, the OTT alternatives to MVPDs like Hulu, YouTube TV and Sling TV? Are cord-cutters and cord-nevers continuing to take away big bites from your customers’ potential subscriber universe?
BR: Let's roll back the clock a year, and look at the price differences between the cable lineup and an over-the-top streaming lineup. I think there was a time when there was a concern about the price difference. Where YouTube TV, Sling TV or Hulu were once less expensive than a lot of the MVPD subscription services, that's becoming less and less true. I think that gap has essentially gone away.
That has been a help, and we are seeing that our customers are winning back the cord-cutters. As many as 15% of the customers they are adding are cord-cutters and they are getting a little bit more than that from the broadband-only [customers]. Probably a lot of that is related to the parity in pricing.
I think it is also driven by—as silly as it sounds—HDMI switching for legacy cable companies. If you are delivering your service over multicast QAM and a set-top box, unless you are Comcast, there’s nothing else on that HDMI input. When you want to search for a program like “The Mandalorian,” you have to switch over HDMI inputs to your streaming device, open up Disney+, watch the show there and then switch back.
So, by having a true streaming service [powered by MOBITV’s app], you’ve got this MVPD app that sits on your Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV Stick or whatever, and that app sits right next to whatever other complementary services you have, whether it’s Disney+, Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime.
The other benefit is that search is now handled by the operating system on all these devices so when you press the microphone button on the remote and search for a program, the operating system will surface all the services you have installed and where that content can be viewed.
TVT: Where will the cable TV business be by the end of 2021?
BR: People want their MVPD lineup. From an industry perspective, cable still pays the bills.
The engagement is just so high. The revenue is phenomenal for the content owners, obviously. I don’t see that changing in the immediate future.
Customers are very satisfied with the full lineup of entertainment, local and sports on their pay-TV app, but that’s not necessarily sufficient. They also want original content, which is driving subscriptions and a lot of churn as they subscribe to a service to watch one show, cancel the subscription when it’s over and move on to the next service and show.
Whatever they decide the complementary services are that satisfy their interests, I think they want them all in one spot so they can easily move back and forth.
Phil Kurz is contributing editor to TV Technology
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