Post Cable Networks

Jon Steinberg
Feb 26, 2017 · 8 min read
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The emerging internet media category of live, linear, video programming requires some definition. This was made clear to me in the wake of a talk I gave at the IAB Leadership Summit and an interview I gave to Digiday on the topic. I received many questions, requests for the deck, and sympatico reactions from my fellow media entrepreneurs. I thought laying things out in a hopefully clear essay would help.

Companies like Tastemade, Cheddar, Barstool Sports, and Vice are Post Cable Networks (PCNs). This term is intentionally a double entendre. These networks are both like Cable Networks and whatever comes after cable networks, hence “Post.”

The term Post Cable Network is simultaneously meant to show deference to what works and be dismissive towards what doesn’t. In fact, I think the cable systems and skinny bundles do most things right.

The issue is the content, not the system. The cable news audience is old, so the anchors get older, and the content is geared at an ever increasing rate to people in their 60s. This becomes a self perpetuating cycle.

This post will describe a future where cable news networks are rebooted to reach and engage young consumers. It is my belief and bet that this will happen. Only time will tell.

Let’s start with the consensus and contrarian views of what happens to video content in the near future:

There are two views of the video future:

  1. The consensus view is that in the future, people will watch long-form, on-demand dramas and comedies on services like Netflix and Amazon, and short videos. In this future, there is no live, linear, programming. MSNBC, CNN, CNBC, and Fox News, with viewers in their early to late 60s, age into obscurity and nothing replaces them. This future is House of Cards and shitty little text on screen videos on Facebook and nothing else in between.
  2. The contrarian view is that there is a place for ambient, non-appointment, “window on the world” live content. The stuff you watch when getting dressed, at work, cooking dinner, doing homework, etc. Content categories where this works well are: news, business news, food, home design, live sports and sports news, nature programming, and several others. In these formats, viewers explore and experience their interests in real-time. (My original partner in Cheddar, Jeremy Liew, coined this term “ambient,” and has defined this concept with me.)

Some people think “ambient content” is low art because it is partial attention content. I don’t agree. Live linear content enables everyone to experience their interests in real-time.

The opportunity for PCNs is now. The relevant content is being created, the design for OTT (over the top) has been cracked, and platforms like Sling TV, Comcast X1, and DirecTV Now are rolling out modern interfaces and packages at breakneck speed. Twitter is also doing this with its slate of premium live news (Cheddar, Bloomberg, 120 Sports) and sports programming.

The market for PCN bundlers will become even more diverse as YouTube, Hulu and others innovate with their own bundle offerings.

The key features of a system designed real-time experiencing of interests are: format, neighboring, intentional media, and true partnership.

Live As The Format

Ambient systems put live feeds front and center and dramatically deprioritize clips and on-demand content. The consumer wants the live feed of ambient content.

No one knows the names of any of the shows on CNN or Bloomberg. The behavior is, “I’m putting on CNN to see what’s happening” or “I heard the market is up big, let me flip on Fox Business.”

Few people say, “my favorite show is Wolf Blitzer’s The Situation Room and I plan to tune in tonight at 6pm to watch it.” No one says, “I DVRed AC360 on CNN and can’t wait to binge on back episodes this weekend.”

With these networks, viewers watch the live feed and expect the important items to be repeated with some frequency. If you can’t watch CNN at 5pm, you put it on at 9pm to see what’s happening.

The idea of prioritizing the live feed, as opposed to short on-demand clips, is a distinctly non-internet way of thinking. But it is what works, and people find it useful for exploring and learning about the world and their interests. People still love when things are “programmed” for them to expand their horizons.


This is perhaps the most important concept in ambient. On a traditional cable system: CNN, MSNBC, and Fox all sit next to each other. Bloomberg, CNBC, and Fox Business all sit next to each other. Programmers call this neighborhooding — it means you compete in your category and viewers judge you against your competitive set when they are seeking your category of programming.

Grocery stores provide a useful analogy: all the poultry sits in a single case in the meats section. Shoppers seeking poultry can compare and select the package of their choice. Supermarkets do not put poultry next to snack chips because it is disorienting to the consumer, and also makes it hard for the consumer to select the core meal staples in the context of the less-healthy snack alternatives.

But let’s remember, it was not media companies who chose proactively to create short, sound off videos, with text on screen, and eye catching content in the first 1 second. All these videos came into existence because the Facebook newsfeed created a single mega-neighborhood, as opposed to many neighborhoods like cable systems do.

In this single-mega-neighborhood scenario, poultry, twinkies, lettuce, ice cream, whole wheat bread, and Entenmann’s coffee cake are all in one mega-aisle interspersed. Of course, shoppers can only see the brightly labeled snacks, and before you know it, everything becomes snacks.

Intentional Media

When the viewer seeks and tunes in to Fox or CNN, they have the expectation of being informed and learning. This is an intentional action where the viewer’s trust and affinity to the brand is the core driver.

Viral content is the opposite of this intentional tune-in: animals on the loose in cities, things tetering off buildings (will it fall?), provocative speakers (What will he say?), awaiting baby animals being birthed, and the salacious.

Intentional media is also a much better business. Viral video content is spikey and largely unmonetizeable. The audience stumbles on the content via Facebook for brief periods and has minimal loyalty to the media brand (if they are even aware of the brand).

Intentional media supports in-show sponsorships and ad breaks. Advertisers also want audiences in endemic categories (i.e. people watching business news who are interested in business and financial services). Viral video content allows for none of these things.

Regular consumers of intentional media trust the programmer, enabling true brand building for advertising partners. Despite viral video content’s “viewership” achievements, it fails along trust and loyalty dimensions, making it a poor choice for brand builders.

Further, this explains why existing cable networks with audiences that seldom surpass 100,000 to 200,000 concurrent viewers, make hundreds of millions in annual revenue, while video producers pulling in billions of monthly views make very little.

True Partnership

Viewers wants to buy content in bundles, as Netflix’s success has shown.

Cable companies and bundlers are in the business of buying and supplying content to their viewers.

This is also what the viewer wants at a competitive price. People do not want to buy individual shows on the iTunes Store. People want bundles.

And thus, Post Cable Networks and Cable/OTT systems have a true mutual need and ability to partner.

Post Cable Networks thrive by wholesaling their content to bundles, the bundler thrives, and the consumer gets a great product at an affordable price. Everyone wins. No one is the sucker.

This is perhaps the hardest thing for Silicon Valley to grasp. Cable Networks and by consequence Post Cable Networks are unlikely to have a direct relationship with the majority of their users. Few people have logins to or a direct relationship with Fox News. CNN is not Whatsapp or Snapchat.

A successful Post Cable Network is likely to have 500,000 to 1 million direct subscribers and MILLIONS via skinny and big bundles.

There is no reason to shed tears. Every major cable network I’ve mentioned in this post does hundreds of millions in revenue, has high profit margins, and is by any measure worth billions.

My point is simply, no one wants to follow, subscribe, login, or make micro-payments to a cable network. This is nickels and dimes stuff. And, of course, none of these models is viable for content creators.

Post Cable Networks need bundle partners, bundlers need Post Cable Networks. There is mutual need, which creates longevity and happiness for all.

PCNs Will Happen Fast

PCNs are an opportunity for professional media companies where amateur content does not suffice. The viewer has intention and is seeking a trustworthy brand. The platforms that recognize this and place premium professional content, with their respective brands, in a context separate from user generated content will win in solving for this need.

All these dynamics will result in many PCNs springing up and taking share from traditional cable networks in a very short period of time.

If you think this is a crazy comment, remember that 10 years ago, a bunch of web sites said they wanted to replace the New York Times. Today many if not all of the leading pure-play digital media sites do more digital advertising revenue than the NYT.

Building Cheddar: The early days of our first broadcasts through the present. Building PCNs is hard and bumpy but can be done!

A side note that did not fit the overall essay: Intentional, tune-in viewing completely avoids fake news. CNN, the New York Times, and Bloomberg have never run a single fake news story. They may get things wrong and correct them, but major established media brands don’t do fake news. Fake news occurs when a user stumbles across a viral story, where the purveyor of the content is buried or unclear. When the viewer intentionally tune-ins into a reputable brand, there is no risk of fake news.

Correction 2/28/17: The original version of this post stated: Today many if not all of the leading pure-play digital media sites do more digital revenue than the NYT. I’ve clarified this to be “digital advertising” revenue as the NYT has digital subscription revenue, as well.

Jon Steinberg

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