Opinion: the subscription TV rip-off is only going to get worse

Opinion: the subscription TV rip-off is only going to get worse

From Netflix and Amazon Prime to Sky and BT, TV shows and events are already chopped up and hidden behind many different paywalls. And it’s only going to get worse, writes Rob Griffin.

Rob Griffin

Household money

Rob Griffin
Updated on 30 August 2019

There has never been a better time to watch television.

The choice of shows is remarkable, with something to suit every taste – and all available around-the-clock.

You can binge-watch an entire series in one sitting, tune into live sport in the middle of the night, or choose a blockbuster film from the thousands on tap.

Virtually anything you want to see is there for your viewing pleasure – at a time that suits you best – on televisions, laptops, Kindle Fires and smartphones.

Given this degree of flexibility, it’s no surprise that a study by Ofcom, the industry’s regulator, reveals that the internet has changed television viewing.

“More than half of UK households now have their TV connected to the internet and eight in 10 adults have a smartphone, which they are increasingly using to watch video,” it stated.

Its research also reveals half of UK households now subscribe to at least one subscription video-on-demand (SVoD) service, such as Netflix or Amazon Prime Video.

Unfortunately, this revolution comes at a cost.

More choice? Or simply more paywalls?

The sheer number of rival streaming services is creating fierce competition and it’s viewers that are footing the bill.

Wind the clock back 20 years and you knew that paying a monthly fee to Sky would pretty much guarantee you access to every available programme.

Nowadays, you need subscriptions to numerous streaming services for such blanket coverage. Granted there’s more choice, but it’s also a lot more expensive.

Take the example of Premier League football.

Matches are being split between Sky Sports, BT Sport and Amazon Prime this season. Access to all three is needed to watch all televised games.

Then you have mixed martial arts. The UFC is the pre-eminent player in this field, putting almost weekly shows on around the world.

In the UK, the only way to see the main cards is through BT Sport. Last year, the broadcaster announced a deal had been agreed to continue its partnership.

On the face of it, this was great news. You paid your subscription and got to see the fights, along with plenty of previews, reviews and news shows.

However, a couple of months ago, BT quietly introduced a Pay-Per-View element into its offering, which changed things quite significantly.

Shortly before the UFC 239 event, which featured eagerly anticipated match-ups between Jon Jones and Thiago Santos, and Amanda Nunes and Holly Holm, subscribers were told they had to pay an extra £19.95 to tune in.

It was introduced with such little fanfare that even the call centre operators were unaware of what was happening – and put customers on hold while they clarified the policy.

The official line is that BT will make a small number of the biggest UFC numbered events pay per view.

However, it’s unclear exactly how many there will be, but it will undoubtedly be the events most people with their existing subscription would want to watch.

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Not just sports fans taking the hit

Of course, live sport is only one of the attractions of the television revolution.

Movies, documentaries, news and general interest programmes are all hugely popular.

Subscriptions to traditional pay-TV services such as Sky, Virgin Media, BT and TalkTalk totalled 14.3 million in the first quarter of 2019, according to Ofcom.

In contrast, the total number of subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, NOW TV and Disney Life reached 19.1 million – up from 15.4 million in Q1 2018.

This is partly due to the fact many households take more than one SVoD subscription – illustrating the point that viewers are paying out extra these days.

During the first quarter of this year, 13.3 million households subscribed to at least one of Netflix, Amazon, NOW TV or Disney Life.

Netflix reigns supreme in the UK with 11.5 million UK households having a subscription, a 26% increase on the first quarter of 2018.

Amazon Prime Video has enjoyed a 23% growth over the same period to reach six million subscribers today.

Watch (some of) the latest TV & movies without the contract on Now TV

Get ready for increased bills choice

There were already 5.1 million households (18%) that had at least two of either Netflix, Amazon or NOW TV last year, while 14% used all three – up from 10% in 2017.

And that number seems likely to increase as more shows are pulled behind new paywalls: Disney, WarnerMedia, Apple, the BBC and ITV are all set to launch their own SVoD services over the next 18 months.

Apple TV+ is due to arrive in autumn 2019 and will provide original content free of adverts.

The company already has 30 such originals in preparation.

Britbox – the joint BBC and ITV venture – is due in the final quarter of this year and will cost £5.99 per month. Original and archive content will be available.

Disney+ is due to launch in the US in November (2019), although a date for a UK debut is yet to be announced. It will offer content from Marvel, Lucasfilm and Pixar.

WarnerMedia, meanwhile, will introduce its HBO Max service in spring 2020, including exclusive streaming rights to the likes of Friends and Pretty Liars.

The price for the service hasn’t yet been announced but it’s understood that different levels of streaming services will be available.

Cross-platform promotion, or more subscriptions?

So, how will this change things for viewers?

Well, it depends if the rival suppliers will strike any deals for their content to appear on each other’s platforms.

That could happen, but more likely is that subscriptions will become more fragmented as we’ve already seen happen with Premier League football (three subscriptions needed and counting).

Customers in the US have already had a taste of this.

Earlier this summer, Netflix announced that its most popular show – The Office – would no longer be available from 2021 as NBC wanted to offer it exclusively through its new streaming service.

It makes sense for these companies, which are increasingly trying to stand out in a highly-competitive sector.

But the reality for customers is that we’ll likely need to fork out for ever-more subscriptions if we want to keep enjoying the kind of choice that was, not too long ago, available under one roof – two at most.

That said, we can always exercise our right to turn off and, maybe, read a book instead!

Are we going to see more fragmented offerings, meaning we'll need more subscriptions, or am I just being negative? Let me know in the comments section below.

*This article contains affiliate links, which means we may receive a commission on any sales of products or services we write about. This article was written completely independently.

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