It's not a headline most investors would expect. Certainly some wireless carriers are exposed to the video market one way or another, but cable television never appeared to be anything but a side project for "un-carrier" T-Mobile (NASDAQ:TMUS). Now it seems to be more.
Investors who've kept close tabs on T-Mobile in recent years, however, can't be terribly surprised with this week's news. The company launched a streaming alternative to cable TV -- called TVision -- in a limited number of markets in April 2019, and has continued to evolve its television capabilities in the meantime. It overhauled how the streaming technology garnered with its 2018 acquisition of Layer3 TV works, for instance, and July filings with the FCC indicated T-Mobile's next streaming device would be built around the proven Android TV platform. Tuesday's announcement is just the next natural step of this evolution.
That step? T-Mobile effectively split its relatively expensive TVision cable service into two cheaper standalone options. TVision Live offers live broadcasts of sports and news for monthly payments starting at $40. Adding premium sports packages like the NFL Network ups the price by $10 or $20 per month. Meanwhile, TVision Vibe will cost just $10 a month and offer a mix of lifestyle channels such as Hallmark, HGTV, and TLC.
They've been deemed skinny bundles by some, and that's not an unreasonable description. T-Mobile's take on it, however, may be able to disrupt the cable industry in ways previous skinny bundles haven't.
The same, but different
Despite the hype, the skinny cable bundle didn't hasten the demise of the cable TV industry. Cord-cutting has been and continues to be mostly driven by the proliferation of streaming-on-demand services like Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) and Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Hulu and Disney+.
Dish Network's (NASDAQ:DISH) lower-cost cable-like SlingTV offering is a poster child for the premise. Sling launched in 2015, and at this point only boasts 2.25 million subscribers. In the second quarter, it lost 56,000 members, extending a long streak of attrition.
Other skinny bundles that were brought to the market in the years since either failed to gain any meaningful traction, like the now-defunct Vue from Sony, or became much less skinny. Alphabet's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) offering, for example, was promoted as a skinny bundle when it debuted at a price of $35 per month in 2017. Now offering more than 85 channels at a cable-like monthly cost of $65, there's nothing skinny about it.
And that's T-Mobile's opening, if it can remain disciplined enough to keep the price of both Vibe and Live low.
That will be easier said than done, particularly for Live, the tier of TVision that includes live network broadcasts from the likes of ABC and NBC (but not CBS, for now), as well as sports content from ESPN and certain Fox Sports channels. The Live arm is also where consumers will find the Disney Channel. Some of these are among the content suppliers most-known for demanding steep increases in the carriage fees they collect from cable providers. T-Mobile isn't likely to be offered meaningful, long-lived price breaks on those, if it was offered any at all.
There's not much else within the Live tier to bloat the total price of the service, however. Much of the other, lower-cost content generally packaged with most cable service options is only found on Vibe. Aside from the aforementioned Hallmark and HGTV, Vibe includes popular destinations like Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, and the Food Network. Its 30 diverse channels should be marketable at only $10 per month.
Don't hold your breath, but do watch closely
It remains to be seen if this is the cable-like alternative that consumers have been waiting for, but this unique split of two distinct types of entertainment definitely achieves T-Mobile's goal of "maximizing choice where we think we can offer it," as Senior VP Robert Gary put it. Sports fans don't have to overpay for cable channels they don't really watch, and can instead round out their entertainment options by using their cord-cutting savings to subscribe to the likes of Netflix and Disney+.
Regardless of these bundles' marketability, investors shouldn't expect too much, too soon. Vibe and Live are currently only being offered to current T-Mobile customers. There's no word on when either might launch outside the Un-carrier's customer ecosystem.
It still would be wrong to overlook this development or to chalk up Tuesday's news as a mere courtesy notification. T-Mobile has long made it clear that it foresees a future when wireless 5G internet at-home and pay television are sold hand-in-hand, outright saying "the future of TV is 5G." That leaves no ambiguity. The creation of TVision Live and Vibe lets the company better hone in on the cable half of this mix, against a backdrop of plans to make at-home 5G connectivity available to half the country by 2024. All this rebundling -- of cable plans as well as high-speed internet service -- could make T-Mobile into a surprising disruptor.