Over the last two years, as we were reading headlines about Disney Plus and skinny bundles, “free TV” became a thing. Free TV not referring to the 5 or so million “antenna only” TV households, but rather to the tens of millions of households watching 24-hour linear channels on Smart TV sets, through triple-play cable/broadband providers, and on a laundry list of devices, apps and services.
An entire ecosystem consisting of top-tier channels MTV, NBC News and Fox Deportes, cable standbys Bloomberg TV, Fuse and The Military Channel, familiar publisher brands Time, Wired and The New Yorker, and millennial-targeted digital broadcasters Tastemade, Complex and Cheddar. Not for $40 per month, or $15 or $9.99. Free.
Awareness of free TV is still relatively low – a recent Leichtman Research Group survey suggests only 1 in 7 Smart TV owners stream content daily, an indication that adoption is still a work in progress.
Still, when we were mapping out the launch for our new 24-hour Latin music television channel Latido Music, it was free TV – and not the bundle (skinny or otherwise) - at the cornerstone of our strategy for four key reasons:
40 million US homes have a Smart TV, many of which are able to stream free linear channels, selectable from a program guide through the TV interface. Another 16 million US homes have accounts with Viacom’s Pluto TV. Roku boasts 30+ million active US accounts, each with access to free 24/7 linear channels through the Roku Channel. Platforms like Xumo, TiVo, Sinclair’s Stirr and Olympusat’s Vemox reach many more, as do Comcast, Cox and Charter via free-with-broadband offerings.
There are as many as 85 million US homes capable of streaming free digital linear channels – a considerable installed base. If all that lacks is widespread usage, the news is positive, as a survey of broadcasters, servicers and CDNs suggest 2-3x growth in 2019 revenues.
Speed to Market
Channel lineups in cable bundles are largely set. In order for a new channel to join, usually another channel has to step aside at the end of its carriage agreement. This can cause a lengthy wait for new channels, even ones with a measurable, underserved audience.
Free linear TV platforms, on the other hand, are still adding channels. Most platforms we have spoken to aim for a 100-120 channel array, which leaves them with dozens of channels still to add. This availability can cut time to launch to as little as two months.
As a channel appealing to Latinx consumers in the United States, we find free TV a particularly good place to start. US Hispanic viewers are younger than the population at large, consume media at a higher rate, and over-index for usage of OTT devices and services. The only metric on which Hispanic households under-index is cable subscriptions.
Furthermore, as the ecosystem is still building, we find ourselves as one of a very few Spanish language channels on free TV platforms, giving Latido Music a higher share of voice with our audience and greater access to new viewers through discovery.
The Bundle Squeeze
An affiliate sales consultant recently advised us, “Getting carriage is just the beginning. The trick is you have to stay carried.” MVPDs face a challenging business environment with a declining subscriber base, and many channels find themselves in competition with one another to stay above the cut line.
This is particularly daunting for independent channels appealing to an audience segment outside the mainstream, as winning one’s own segment may not be sufficient to “stay carried.” That pressure creates an incentive to re-position the channel to the broadest feasible audience segment, something not every fledgling broadcaster can muster.
As bullish as we are about free TV, we do believe there will continue to be a healthy market for subscription bundles. If we are fortunate, and Latido Music achieves the audience and revenue targets we believe it can, then we would certainly embrace the bundle, challenges and all. But for now, in these early days, the growing free TV segment is the right fit for our channel.
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