Long reads

Money makers: new revenue streams for channel operators

Channel operators are becoming less reliant on single sources of revenue. Flexibility is key as the number of distribution networks and video consumption on the internet grows.

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Channel providers are increasingly looking to diversify their revenue streams, for example by developing advertising businesses, mixing channel distribution with the sale of rights to other channels, licensing and merchandising of associated products and ‘going over the top’ direct to consumers.

For many channel providers the traditional business of selling channels to platform operator for a per subscriber carriage fee still offers plenty of room for growth.

“Our current revenue model is designed to provide all stakeholders – us as the channel, the platform and the customer – with the best possible scenario. As this is probably the best option for the premium pay TV market, at this moment we are not contemplating any change,” says Neeraj Arora, executive vice-president and head of international business, Sony Entertainment Network.

Most of our competitors come from a particular media, like pay TV, where it is harder to adapt to new technologies. Gregory Dorcel

The reliance of most pay TV broadcasters on the tried and tested model of selling a channel to an established distributor for a carriage fee is founded on the fact that it continues to work. Despite all the discussion, particularly in the US, of cord-cutting and migration to web-based services, the fact remains that much of the world still receives analogue TV via traditional distribution systems.

According to Bruce Tuchman, president of MGM Networks, the company is focused on increasing the penetration of MGM channels both in existing markets and new ones. The MGM Channel most recently launched (as an HD-only service) in Canada and is present in a number of markets around the world. “We have subscription VOD associated with the channel in many countries and we are also on multiple devices but with all that said, the subscription TV business is booming. It’s going very well and it’s still that linear channel business model that is overwhelmingly the source of revenue for all players [in the market].”

Despite the ongoing debate in the US about the impact of cord-cutting on pay TV revenues, Tuchman points out that in many international markets, analogue TV still accounts for the vast majority of viewing. This is doubly true in high-growth emerging markets, where a burgeoning middle class is hungry for subscription TV. “For many international markets it will be a while before there is an inflexion point,” he says. “Whether it’s linear or on-demand, it’s all about giving the customer what they want. The important thing about this business and the thing I’m optimistic about is that a consumer will pay a subscription to receive a premium product. Sometimes it could be supplemented by advertising but the sales model will endure.”

Unlike many international channel operators, France 24 is publically funded and therefore susceptible to budget restrictions. The news broadcaster is therefore making a concerted effort to increase revenue from alternative sources.
From launch, the strategy for France 24 was to offer the channel free of charge in basic pay TV packages in order to give it maximum exposure. However, as Frank Melloul, France 24’s head of strategy, development and public affairs, explains, there are certain markets where it makes sense to offer the English language version of the channel free of charge, while making the French language version available on an à la carte basis with revenues split with the operator. “This responds to a general trend that shows that niche channels are not helping operators to reduce churn,” says Melloul. “However, these channels can be positioned as premium content to help operators increase ARPU.”

Melloul points out that France 24’s French feed in Hong Kong is generating “significant and sustainable” revenue, with more than three thousand households paying for the channel six months after it launched .

Viacom International Media Networks (VIMN) has started to see some potential in launching free-to-air in some European markets. The company, which operates a portfolio of channels covering music (MTV, VH1, Viva), kids (Nickelodeon) and entertainment (Comedy Channel, Colors, BET, TR3S), has traditionally partnered with pay TV operators but according to Bob Bakish, president of VIMN, any move into the free-to-air space is dependant on the nuances of individual markets: “The great thing about multichannel, and this was especially true early on, is the advertising and affiliate revenue. It is a different mix depending on the country and the market because some grew up in free-to-air and some are traditionally more affiliate fee driven. In Spain for example there has been an explosion in the growth of multichannel and digital terrestrial. We launched [Nickelodeon] on DTT just over a year ago and DTT does provide a different opportunity. We don’t have a strategy to become free-to-air everywhere, but it does provide us with an opportunity.”

As an adult video content provider, Marc Dorcel’s business model is ingrained in paid-for services – the company doesn’t receive any revenue from advertising. But as a company that isn’t reliant on traditional pay TV carriage deals, it has established various ways for people to access its aggregated content. According to managing director Gregory Dorcel, the company’s goal is to distribute content “by any means, on any device, all over the world”. Marc Dorcel has a presence on linear TV as well as transactional and subscription VOD platforms across cable, satellite and IPTV platforms. It also has a well-developed multiplatform strategy covering smart TVs, pay websites, smartphones and tablets. The business model is paying off – in the last six years Marc Dorcel’s turnover has increased by 250%. “We always focus on the development of new technologies and new platforms to carry our content in the best way. Most of our competitors come from a particular media, like pay TV, where it is harder to adapt to new technologies,” says Dorcel.

Financially, the company is doing well and Dorcel claims it has seen little impact from the weak economic environment in EMEA. The biggest challenge, he says, comes from piracy: “We have been subjected to piracy like many entertainment companies. The entire content industry is losing billions [of dollars] but only internet providers and governments can stop the pirates.”

Ad revenue

For most channel providers, the main supplement to carriage fee revenue is advertising. Pay TV advertising remains something of a poor relation in advanced markets, with pay TV broadcasters maintaining that it still does not get a share of the pie that reflects its growing share of the audience.

Sean Cohan, senior vice-president A+E Networks International says that pay TV generally doesn’t attract the amount of ad money that it deserves, especially for channels that attract large audiences. He says there is a case for educating advertisers in order to drive ad revenue to A+E’s portfolio of channels and to the wider pay TV market. Despite that, he says existing distribution models remain core.

There are some signs that this is changing however. Marcin Boroszko, managing director of Liberty Global-owned, Poland-based pay TV ad sales company At Media, which represents a number of international channel providers in three central European territories, believes that cable and satellite channels – at least in the markets in which At Media is active (Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic) – are set to benefit from a virtuous cycle of growing audience share, increasing purchasing power for highly valued international content and further fragmentation of the audience as a result of digitisation. This, says Boroszko, will enable them to grow their advertising business at the expense of national free-to-air broadcasters.

Cable channels, says Boroszko, are now focusing much more than before on analysing viewership data and on feeding that analysis into programming and scheduling decisions. International channel providers are increasingly scheduling on a territory-by-territory basis in order to grow their viewing share. “The next step is that if we see that the future is about growing viewership you need to invest in local programming,” he says.

In addition to local programming, however, international thematic channel providers have an advantage over national broadcasters because they can buy rights to prime content on a multiple territory basis. National channels, faced with a declining share of viewing and growing content acquisition costs, will struggle to maintain their position, he argues.

New platforms

Despite the growth of multiscreen services delivering content to various connected devices, new platforms have yet to prove their worth in terms of delivering revenue.

Nevertheless, some channel providers have gone much further in evolving the business beyond the traditional distributor carriage fee model. Turner, which operates a number of channels in the European market including CNN Europe, kids networks Cartoon Network, pre-school channel Boing and most recently Cartoonito, and entertainment networks TCM and TNT, now sees a significant divergence between the US, where the business is still predominantly affiliate fee-based, and Europe, where it operates a mix of pay and free TV channels and has seen significant growth in licensing and merchandising revenue and other traditionally non-core activities.

Casey Harwood, senior vice-president, Turner Europe, says that over the last year his company in Europe has looked at a number of ways to expand its business, including the launch of general entertainment channels such as TNT (already available in Germany, Spain, the Nordic market and Turkey, in the latter case as a free-to-air channel with its own terrestrial frequency) and truTV. However, in the case of general entertainment channels, says Harwood, rights issues tend to be more complex so such channels are likely to be rolled out on a market-by-market basis, as has been the case with TNT.

In the kids genre especially, however, the opportunities to earn revenue from activities not directly related to the TV channel are considerable – notably through licensing and merchandising of toys and games. In markets where pay TV penetration is relatively low, such as Spain, this lets Turner drive brand awareness of particular kids shows to a wider audience than can see the show. “We can get into businesses such as consumer products while looking for windows for content outside of pay TV,” says Harwood. “Our pay TV business is still a large part of what we can do but we have also been rolling out free-to-air channels under the Boing brand, and we are much more active in windowing of content with third-party channels where that makes sense.”

From such initiatives (and additional areas including games), Turner has built a business that rests on a number of different but interrelated revenue streams – principally subscriptions, merchandising and advertising.

Another kids channel, KidsCo, has developed a solid base of carriage deals across the globe since it launched in 2007. According to global CEO and founder Paul Robinson, the time is now right to start thinking about diversifying revenue streams by embracing advertising and sponsorship deals. But, he warns, kids channels in particular have to tread a fine line to ensure the brand is not adversely affected. “As we grow our distribution, advertising becomes more of an opportunity but we are going to be very careful to adhere to Ofcom guidelines globally and to limit the amount of ad minutes on air,” says Robinson. “You are not going to see anywhere near the volume you have on competitor channels. We think that’s important as part of the safe environment for kids that KidsCo promotes.”

KidsCo has ad deals in place in some markets, including Turkey and Singapore, and while Robinson sees it as a “big opportunity” he is wary of how it will be perceived by various parties. “You have to be careful not just because of the sensitivities relating to children but you also have to be careful about how much advertising you have on a pay TV channel.”

Merchandise is another area of revenue generation that KidsCo is eyeing. With the number of original productions growing (it has already aired home grown series Boo and Me and The Beach Crew and is planning to launch another two titles in 2012), so too does the potential for merchandise sales. It has already experimented with Boo and Me plush toys, which are available to buy on Malaysia Airlines flights in a nod to the fact that the series was a Malaysian co-production (and available to view on flights). “It was a nice start and shows us the potential. Further down the line, if we can make these original productions successful there’s definitely a market for licensing,” says Robinson. But, he admits, “you don’t pick up major toy or DVD licences until you’ve proven the show is popular and successful.”