News and Analysis

Discovery CEO David Zaslav said yesterday that DIRECTV Now and Sony’s PlayStation Vue each have more than 400,000 subscribers.

Bloomberg News writes that Zaslav made the disclosure to predict that rising subscription numbers for live streaming services will eventually force cable operators to offer similar Net TV services nationwide.

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Reuters reported this week that Comcast plans to rebrand and expand an existing live streaming service (now available only in Chicago and Boston) to each Comcast market in the third quarter. However, the wire service says, Comcast will not offer the streaming venture outside of Comcast markets, such as in ones where Charter or Cox have the franchise.

Zaslav’s prediction could come true, but my forecast is that it’s far from imminent. If cable operators decide to enter each other’s territories, it could lead to more than a “street fight,” as Zaslav describes it. It could lead to the self-destruction of a few cable companies.

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Cable operators succeed in part because they have a cable monopoly in their respective markets, a monopoly guaranteed when a local municipality awards them an exclusive franchise. Non-cable companies such as DIRECTV and Dish can compete against them in those markets, but not other cable companies.

If they open the door to cable competition in their own markets, the cable operators will be forced to lower prices, invest in better services, and possibly lose their customers to new online plans from other cable companies. That’s a great scenario for consumers, but a terrible one for the cable operators, particularly smaller ones which may not have the resources to compete with a Comcast or Charter.

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On another issue: Zaslav’s disclosure that DIRECTV Now and Vue each have roughly 400,000 subscribers is particularly interesting.

For DIRECTV Now, the number is eye-popping; the AT&T-owned streaming service launched just four months ago, and it’s been plagued with recurring technical errors. Still, if Zaslav is correct (and he should know; his channels are on both Vue and DIRECTV Now), DIRECTV Now is continuing to add subscribers, a testament to the DIRECTV brand and a growing appetite for alternatives to traditional pay TV services.

However, for Vue, 400,000 is not a particularly impressive number. Vue has been available nationwide for more than a year and the service has accumulated roughly the same number of subscribers that DIRECTV Now has acquired in just four months.

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Vue recently boosted its advertising efforts and it says here that it should have done so last year before DIRECTV Now launched. Now Vue has to compete with Dish’s Sling TV and DIRECTV Now for the still relatively small audience of consumers looking for live streaming alternatives.

And Hulu and YouTube are waiting in the wings with their live streaming plans.

It’s time for Vue to hit the gas and fast.

— Phillip Swann