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Have We Reached Peak OTT?

One of the annual highlights of the NAB Show, which this year runs April 24-27 in Las Vegas, is the release by Parks Associates of data about churn and subscriber trends for OTT services in the U.S. Included in this trove is an official tally of how many services exist, a number that for years showed stair-step growth.

When I caught up with Parks senior analyst Glenn Hower the other day on an assignment for Fierce Cable, my main questions concerned Hulu and the pricing dynamics of skinny bundles offered by major internet service providers (e.g., AT&T’s DirecTV Now). But in the course of our conversation, Hower offered an interesting taste (without hard numbers) of the Parks NAB release. The headline: This will mark the first year since Parks began tracking the space that fewer OTTs came to market than in the previous year. In other words, Hower said, “We seem to have reached a peak. It’s hard to say what that means going forward but there’s definitely been a leveling off.”

This trend may not be as drastic as the “Peak TV” epidemic diagnosed by FX Networks chief John Landgraf and chewed on by tout le TV monde ever since. In the production realm, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are collectively plowing more than $10 billion into new content, distorting the entire picture for dozens of networks. Still, the fact that there are more than 115 OTTs operating in the U.S. is cause for concern. (This number excludes authenticated TV Everywhere apps.) But if you step back and think about the narrative over the past year, it’s clearly been more focused on bundled offerings like YouTube TV and Hulu Live than on stand-alone launches like HBO Now or CBS All Access.

Reports of Comcast planning a bundle-free OTT service for NBCU programming raised eyebrows, but also prompted a question about consolidation. How can NBCU launch an all-in offering when it made a big to-do about comedy outlet See-So and promised other niche OTTs? Why not put See-So under a bigger tent, following the CBS strategy, which kept its content under one $5.99-a-month roof and didn’t spin off a separate OTT for aging-cops that would super-serve Blue Bloods fans? In other words, why should the OTT pool get any bigger, rather than getting right-sized along with the population of linear cable networks and pro sports franchises?

Hower told me his research has shown profitability in OTT comes at a minimum of 18 months to two years into the venture, and churn rates routinely reach 40% or higher given there are no two-year contracts or hardware to give a customer pause before pulling the plug. “When traditional MVPDs hear about churn of 40%, their heads explode,” he said. The opportunity with OTT is to be nimble and customer-friendly but also play the long game. In cable programming, the dissolution of networks like Pivot or Esquire made news. There haven’t been many high-profile pullouts from OTT in that fashion. But we could be heading toward a culling of the herd, and big-picture that may not be a bad thing.

For anyone heading to Vegas, Hower will be running down the OTT numbers on Monday, April 24 at 12:10 p.m. I know my calendar is definitely marked.