If only cord cutting were the technological phenomenon that many in pay TV make it out to be. But a recent analysis by Bernstein Research reveals it to be more of a poverty problem. And, as such, it threatens to undermine a media ecosystem that, for technological reasons, should be blossoming.
It's not just pay TV at risk, either. While the adoption of smartphones promises to send telecom's wireless sector to new heights, the truth is this sector's fastest-growing segment is government-subsidized services for the poor.
"At the low end, customers aren't just choosing between one provider and another," writes Bernstein senior analyst Craig Moffett in "U.S. Telecommunications and Cable & Satellite: The Poverty Problem." "They're often choosing between these services and a third meal."
Moffett's insight flows from an examination of after-tax household income and discretionary spending not on the basis of averages but, rather, on quintiles. In 2009, for instance, after-tax household incomes averaged $62,000. But the mean for each quintile was, in ascending order, $9,956, $27,275, $45,199, $71,241 and $149,951.
The big take-away from this de-averaging exercise, as the analyst calls it, is that the top quintile now has 15 times the after-tax income as the lowest quintile. Forty years ago, this ratio was less than 8 to 1. And while that's dispiriting in itself, it gets worse on deducting each quintile's nondiscretionary expenses.
"After the necessities of food, shelter, transportation and healthcare each month, the bottom 40% of U.S. households have already exhausted all of their disposable income," Moffett says. "There is nothing left for clothing ... for debt services ... for cable ... or for phone."
Granted, some industries can survive, even thrive, in a society so polarized that its top quintile accounts for nearly half of all income. Retailers currently rely on this quintile for 40% of their sales, whereas ad agencies know clients seldom go wrong by pitching their campaigns to the rich.
Media businesses, however, are different. Pay TV, whether from cable, satellite or a telephone company, has penetrated 86% of the country's households. Wireless telephones are in the hands of nine out of 10 U.S. men, women and children.
Such statistics confirm a mutual dependency between U.S. media and U.S. consumers. Until recently, this dependency constituted a virtuous cycle: Media prices rose, but media consumption rose even more. Media merely expanded its consumer utility.
Now, though, we're nearing the breaking point. "Peel the onion of income demographics," Moffett explains, "and a picture emerges of the low end that is likely utterly unfamiliar to the typical investment professional."
To be specific, the typical investment professional believes pay TV will ride broadband superiority and other sector attributes to increased penetration, revenue and margins. The typical investment professional also believes smartphones will achieve ubiquity while offering increasingly expensive data plans that not only step up average revenue per user but simultaneously drive Ebitda. The typical investment professional is, according to Moffett, misguided.
"Poverty opens the door to substitution at the low end from 'good enough' alternatives like Netflix," he says of the outlook for pay TV, which in the past half-decade has defied negative real income growth to raise subscription rates by 29%. And the fact that pay TV is sold as an all-or-nothing proposition -- a "stark binary decision," Moffett says, in which you buy it or you don't -- could make compromise difficult once consumers start voting with their cord cutters.
As for the telecom sector, Moffett recognizes the future will rise or fall on smartphone adoption. Yet this market is already experiencing what he calls a barbell -- "where affluent customers rapidly adopt iPhones, 4G services and richer and richer data plans, while those at the bottom end of the market are furiously trading down, to the benefit of the pre-paid segment." What's more, it's a barbell with a disturbing tilt: "In fact, at this moment in the smartphone adoption curve, annual revenue per subscriber is declining."
Could economics also explain why broadband penetration has stalled out at 64%, leaving nearly two quintiles of the market in the lurch? Yes, Moffett says, citing affordability as the obstacle most noted by nonusers.
For a media industry that has never before encountered the limits imposed by poverty, the way out is not at all clear. What is clear is that the country's top quintile has carved out so much for itself that the bottom two can no longer pay their way. And what we've come to know as mass media may soon be no more.
Richard Morgan covers media for The Deal magazine.