Skinny bundles will save the cable industry.
That mantra has been repeated by media, industry leaders, and anyone else looking for the latest answer to cord-cutting. It's a comforting line if you're someone with a vested stake in the field, but it might turn out to be a hollow promise -- more "vinyl will save the record business," than something that will truly work.
Though there have been revolutions that have made whole industries irrelevant overnight, generally established industries die a slow death. Think newspapers, physical CDs, landline phones, and so many others. The decline happens slowly with supposed saviors emerging along the way.
Of course, the challenge is knowing when an industry is in actual decline or merely seems like it should be. That's where pay-television finds itself right now. It might be an outdated technology doomed to be replaced by streaming services or it could be a healthy industry experiencing a short-term downturn.
Some would say cord-cutting is inevitable and only skinny bundles -- cheaper packages of channels designed to keep people subscribing -- can stem the tide. Others would point to the actual numbers, noting that the cable industry only lost about 385,000 of 94 million customers in 2015, according to numbers from Leichtman Research Group (LRG).
Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC) CEO Rob Marcus, whose company actually added 43,000 new cable customers in 2015, does not believe cable needs saving and he certainly does not see skinny bundles as an important part of its present or future.
What did the CEO say
Marcus sits in an odd, but enviable position at the moment. The company he runs has been acquired by Charter Communications (CHTR 1.56%) pending federal regulatory approval. When the deal closes, as most expect it to, Marcus will likely be shown the door (with an exit package of about $102 million, according to The New York Times).
Even though he may soon be on the way out, Marcus was not shy at a recent appearance at the Deutsche Bank Media, Internet and Telecom Conference where he openly taunted the notion that cable was in trouble or needed saving.
"In spite of the fact that every analyst, every reporter is obsessing over this skinny bundle trend, the reality is our mix of video subs hasn't really changed much over the last several years," he said, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Marcus pointed out that his company's highest-end cable tier, which contains more than 200 channels, accounted for about 80% of TWC's subscriber base in 2015. In addition, standard tier subscribers represented another 11.5% while its low-end bundle (basically a skinny bundle) was selected by 8.5% of its users, a number that "really hasn't changed materially over the last several years," Marcus said.
In fact, instead of growing, skinny bundles, at least at Time Warner Cable, have become less important. "If anything, if you go back maybe five years ... we were a little bit higher," around 10%," he said.
The outgoing CEO even doubled down on his comments saying that "if anything, our video subscriber base seems to be shifting up."
He noted that this was not an accident as his company has been pushing its high-end triple-play packages.
What if Marcus is right?
It certainly seems like the predictions of the cable industry's demise may be premature and that cord-cutting might be a thing only for a small, cost-conscious segment of the audience, not the beginning of the end for the industry. Marcus clearly believes that and the fact that his company added subscribers without having to lure them with cheap channel packages suggests he may be right.
It's also worth noting that Charter, TWC's likely new owner, also posted gains in 2015 without resorting to pushing a skinny bundle. It only added 11,000 subscribers, according to LRG, but the fact that both companies got slightly bigger without cutting prices makes it seem at least possible that cable may not yet need saving.
If Time Warner and Charter are growing, or basically treading water, it makes little sense to push cheaper product. Skinny bundles may entice cord-cutters, but they may also entice people with higher-end packages to trade down.
Going forward, unless these trends change, TWC, Charter, and the rest of the industry need to be surgical in how they offer skinny bundles. They may make sense with potential cord-nevers and younger users, but it makes no sense to make it easy for existing top-tier customers to lower their bills. That would be self-defeating and the 2015 subscriber numbers make it clear it's not needed yet.