Thursday, December 3, 2009

What Does Comcast-NBC Universal Merger Mean?

The Comcast merger with NBC Universal will be viewed in many ways: a way for Comcast to move upstream in the content business or a chance to grow the "digital" or "new media" side of the merged company's operations.

The merger also is about protecting the value of the exsiting video distribution ecosystem from destabilizing change. "TV Everywhere," the cable industry approach to enabling use of paid-for video content on any screen, is a similar initiative.

The move also suggests a view on the part of Comcast management that the cable TV distribution business has limited upside left. Revenue growth for virtually all of the cable companies now is coming from voice and high-speed data services, with the emphasis now shifting to business customers, as even the consumer elements of that business are seeing slower growth.

One might question the ultimate value of the move, either as a way of growing revenues near term, or as a strategic bridge to the future. The near term value is clearer, though.

Essentially, the attempt is to provide low-cost or no-incremental cost, convenient access to large quantities of popular professional video while baking in an indirect business model. If you think about the way metro Wi-Fi hotspot access now is positioned by cable and telco service providers, you'll get the idea. The direct revenue actually is produced by purchases of fixed broadband access service.

Then Wi-Fi access is added as a "no incremental charge" enhancement. In the same way, some mobile broadband plans might be pitched as fees for "mobile Internet" access, but then also allow no-incremental cost email access.

In other words, Comcast wants to hang onto the proven business it has--all it "cable TV"--while merchandising "new media" access to that content on smartphones and PCs, for example.

Perhaps Comcast and others would prefer to keep the old business while growing a new one with a direct revenue model, but that seems problematic for most content distributors and owners.

Some studies suggest users will pay some amount for mobile or on-demand video and TV. The issue is how much such users would be willing to pay. Consider a scenario where a typical user pays $10 a month for mobile and other on-demand access, and where the typical household consists of three people, for a total revenue of $30 a month.

Consider that for most households, multi-channel video now costs between $70 and $100 a month, and that is a flat charge for all users in the home. That works out fine if there is no cannibalization of the fixed connection.

But it won't take much substitution to wipe out all the gains from the incremental on-demand revenue. Unless, of course, the different approach is taken: keep your regular subscription and we'll give you the additional on-demand capbility for no incremental cost or low cost.

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