Cable channels have long been the cash machine for the entertainment industry thanks to a quirk in their business model. Cable and satellite TV firms pay channels fees for each subscriber who has the channels available in their service package, regardless of whether anyone watches the channels. AT&T, owner of DirecTV, is trying to change that—with far-reaching implications for the TV industry’s profitability.
AT&T wants to pay channels based on how many people actually watch, rather than the number of subscribers who have access to the channels. The idea is driven by two major trends. Firstly, a growing number of consumers are canceling their expensive cable and satellite packages in favor of cheaper streaming services. Meanwhile, TV channels are charging distributors like DirecTV more for the right to carry them even as the channels’ audiences are shrinking (see chart above).