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TV cuts the cord: More ditching cable for Internet platforms

More people are watching television shows through Internet platforms and ditching cable television

TV is dead, long live TV.

Rumours of TV's demise are greatly exaggerated. It is just not TV as previous generations have known it to be - tethered to a cable.

In fact, it is increasingly not even a television set; the small screen has become smaller, fitting in one's hands.

Instead of being dead or irrelevant, television has broken free of the confines of the living room and now goes everywhere and anywhere one can take his smartphone and tablet computer to.

It started in 2013 in the United States with the buzz of House Of Cards, a riveting political drama that had viewers happily binge- watching episodes via the streaming service Netflix.

That buzz has grown into a roar as there has been a surge in numbers of those hopping on board Internet platforms and ditching tethered- to-a-set-top-box pay television.

The revolution - called cord-cutting - has spread worldwide.

Netflix launched in Singapore in January last year, followed by the likes of Viu, a specialist in Korean content, and Amazon Prime Video, all OTT (over-the-top) services delivering entertainment over the Internet.

In a recent survey commissioned by subscriber management specialist Paywizard, Singaporeans are one of the fastest-growing audiences in the world for on-line pay-TV platforms, with the number of subscribers for such services here doubling in the past year.

Affordable and convenient, these services have won over many television - and movie - fans who prefer them to the limited offerings on Mediacorp's free-to-air channels and the cumbersome subscription packages offered by pay-TV operators StarHub and Singtel.

In contrast, The Straits Times reported two months ago that StarHub had seen a 35,000 drop in the number of its subscribers last year, while Singtel lost 11,000 subscribers in the first two quarters of its 2016-2017 financial year.

In a recent survey, Singaporeans are one of the fastest-growing audiences in the world for on-line pay-TV platforms, with the number of subscribers for such services here doubling in the past year.

StarHub currently has 507,000 pay-TV subscribers and Singtel has 412,000.

Netflix and Amazon Prime Video do not provide subscriber details, but media analysts say that there are anywhere from 50,000 to 150,000 people in Singapore on Netflix alone.

But the older players have not lost the battle yet.

GOING ON-LINE

If convenience is what the cord-cutters want, then convenience is what StarHub, Singtel and Mediacorp have given them.

Ms Rebecca Sim, 34, an insurance agent who now watches TV and films only via Netflix, says: "I like the fact that I can watch programmes whenever I want, on any device that I want, while on my way to meet clients.

"I didn't even realise that StarHub had a similar service because I always associated it with the old- fashioned set-top box."

In fact, StarHub had already introduced multi-screen service TV Anywhere in 2012, which enabled its subscribers to stream shows on the go.

Now rebranded StarHub Go, the service stands on its own, apart from the company's cable TV business and is available to everyone.

It is a Netflix-like on-demand streaming service with Netflix-like pricing: Viewers use an app or go online to access a wide variety of content by paying a monthly fee from $9.90 a month.

Singtel offers a service called Cast, which has different plans starting at $4.90 a month for different content bundles such as the Hallyu Pack for Korean programmes and the Kids Pack for children-friendly fare.

Free-to-air TV broadcaster Mediacorp also has its own streaming service, Toggle, which screens its regular TV content, such as Channel 8 dramas, for free, on top of Toggle- exclusive originals such as video interviews with local stars.

For a premium from $9.90 a month, viewers can access Toggle Prime, which lets them watch Mediacorp series a week before they air on TV.

StarHub Go and Cast are a lot more attractive to viewers. As the services do not require set-top boxes, there are no hardware rental costs.

Renting one HD interactive set- top box from StarHub costs $6.42 a month, while renting a HD DVR set-top box from Singtel TV costs $12.90 a month. The charges increase for additional units for both telcos.

The subscription plans for StarHub Go are also a lot more appealing than the company's traditional set-top box plans, which make it compulsory for subscribers to pay for a minimum of three basic groups and to top up money for premium channels such as HBO, which airs the global hit Game Of Thrones.

So on cable television, a Game Of Thrones fan has to pay $52.43 a month ($26.75 for three basic groups plus $19.26 for HBO Pak plus set-top box rental for $6.42) to watch the show.

A StarHub Go subscriber pays only $9.90 a month for the Select Pack, which includes HBO content.

CONTENT IS KING

No less important to viewers is quality content. No one wants to watch rubbish on their phones even if it is for free.

TV viewers The Sunday Times spoke to continue their Singtel and StarHub cable TV subscriptions because many channels, such as those run by Fox Networks Group, are currently available only through these two telcos.

Coffee-shop operator Jennifer Lim, 42, subscribes to StarHub's Hub Drama First, which telecasts TVB's latest dramas on the same day in Hong Kong and Singapore.

She has not tried streaming sites because she says she cannot find those Hong Kong drama serials as quickly as she wants to watch them.

"Also, I don't get the same feeling when I watch shows on a mobile gadget compared with watching on TV," she adds.

What if channels such as HBO and those in the Fox group choose to discontinue their contracts with the telcos and break free to join the streaming revolution?

Last year, The Straits Times reported that there was a possibility of Fox Networks Group's 33 channels being dropped from StarHub over disagreements in contract negotiations.

It upset some StarHub TV customers, who threatened to cancel their subscriptions.

Perhaps to guard against this, and also to strengthen the exclusivity of their offerings, both StarHub and Singtel have been producing their own programmes.

StarHub has been behind shows such as My Secret App (2015), a drama series starring Singapore actress Fann Wong, as well as Lady First - Singapore (2013 - present), the local version of the popular Taiwanese beauty talk show helmed by Pauline Lan.

In the Singtel-produced Are You Hokkien? (2014), hosts Marcus Chin and Huang Jinglun examine Hokkien culture in Singapore.

Nanyang Technological University's assistant professor Liew Kai Khiun, who has research interests in pop culture, agrees that telcos creating original content is the way to go.

He suggests: "Perhaps both telcos may consider focusing on niche audiences such as the elderly, with content specifically created and curated for them."

Pay-TV channels, too, have to produce strong content to remain relevant - whether they remain in collaboration with telcos or go the streaming route.

HBO Asia, for example, has increased its output of original content in the last year, branching out from Singapore, where the company shot the drama series Serangoon Road in 2013, to other markets such as China and Taiwan to produce original films.

Over at Fox Networks Group, its home-grown original series Asia's Next Top Model is coming back for a fifth new season later this year.

Sony Pictures Television Networks, whose channel AXN has been regularly churning out Asian reality TV series based on foreign formats, such as The Amazing Race Asia and The Apprentice Asia, believes it is "worthwhile" to go down this route.

Mr Ang Hui Keng, senior vice-president and general manager of Sony Pictures Television Networks, Asia, says: "Producing your own content is a big investment, not just financially, but also in the talent resources required to produce and amplify the series.

"But Asia's Got Talent set new ratings records for the English general entertainment genre during its run, taking AXN to the No. 1 spot in its time slot among all regional pay-TV channels collectively, across South- east Asia."


 If you can't beat them, join them
 

Looming over them all is Netflix, which is spending upwards of US$6 billion (S$8.5 billion) this year just to produce original content.

Its notable hits include prison comedy drama Orange Is The New Black (2013-present) and sci-fi horror title Stranger Things (2016- present).

Netflix says it will launch more than 1,000 hours of original content this year, including superhero titles Marvel's Iron Fist and Marvel's The Defenders and new seasons of Orange Is The New Black and Stranger Things.

WORKING TOGETHER

If you cannot beat them, collaborate with them - that seems to be one strategy of traditional TV content providers, which have been working with streaming companies in various ways.

Recognising Netflix's popularity, both StarHub and Singtel have partnered the company to allow subscribers to access Netflix content via their set-top boxes.

Audiences can also have their Netflix fees added directly to their telco bills, as opposed to a separate credit card charge.

Singtel's Cast subscribers watching Viu's Korean and Japanese dramas via the Cast app pay only $4.90 a month (a minimum subscription of one year). Direct subscribers of Viu pay $5.98 a month.

Catchplay, which offers Hollywood and Asian movies on demand via StarHub TV, says its partnership with the telco is part of its business strategy to combine efforts to "educate, nurture and instil behaviour change", given that online and DVD piracy is still rampant.

Its chief executive officer Daphne Yang says that the company has averaged 15 to 20 per cent growth in subscribers each month since its launch last June.

Mediacorp's partnership with Netflix goes one step further - the local broadcaster's original content will be available on the streaming service worldwide later this year. This means that Netflix subscribers in 190 territories around the world will soon be able to stream popular Channel 8 drama series such as The Little Nyonya (2008) and The Truth Seekers (2016).

GOING FORWARD

Netflix's Spotify-like low buffet price has disrupted the market in a major way.

Who would want to pay $30 or more each month for only a handful of channels when he has the option of paying about one-third for everything Netflix has to offer here?

Hence, for pay-TV operators to stay attractive, they have to simplify and lower subscription mechanics.

Using the iTunes model of letting customers buy individual songs instead of entire albums, the local telcos could let viewers pick the exact channels they want to subscribe to, instead of having to purchase channels in bundles.

StarHub's head of product Justin Ang says: "We are currently reviewing this, taking into consideration customers' feedback and the shifts in consumer viewing behaviour."

In fact, the role of a pay TV operator could well change.

Mr Aravind Venugopal, vice-president at Media Partners Asia, an independent consultancy and research provider, says: "You could start to see Singtel and StarHub become aggregators of OTT services as well as aggregators of TV channels.

"But the big question is, what is preventing somebody else from going down the same path of aggregating services?

"In the United States, Amazon has already started to do this."


Netflix supporter: Flexibility a big draw


Mr Ben Ang. PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

It has been more than four years since Mr Ben Ang, a project leader working in the pharmaceutical industry, watched TV via StarHub's set-top box.

Ever since he moved out of his parents' home to his own place, the 33-year-old has been watching TV only via streaming services such as Netflix and Mediacorp's Toggle.

The bachelor says: "I like watching movies, but the StarHub packages were expensive and restrictive.

"You have to pay for many other channels before you can subscribe to the movie pack and I felt that wasn't worth it."

Now, he pays only a flat fee of $10.98 a month to watch movies on Netflix - an arrangement that he says is "very convenient, because I can cancel it at any time".

He says: "With StarHub's set-top boxes, you have to sign two-year contracts, which are inflexible."

You have to pay for many other channels before you can subscribe to the movie pack and I felt that wasn't worth it.

MR BEN ANG, on StarHub's packages

As for Toggle, he watches Channel 8 dramas on the service for free. "The great thing is, there are no commercials either."

Unlike most users of Netflix, he watches the site's programmes only on his smart TV at home and not on any mobile devices.

"I like to watch shows on a bigger screen. I organise viewing parties too. My friends and I will gather to watch TV in my living room."

And although he is aware of the presence of other streaming sites such as Amazon Prime Video, he has no plans to sign up for any other service.

"I'm not the type of person who needs to watch every single show out there. I watch TV just to relax, so I think the content available on Netflix is enough for me.

"Otherwise, I go on YouTube and watch random video clips. My attention span is quite short."


StarHub supporter: I just want what I want


Mr Yip Renkai. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Mr Yip Renkai is aware of streaming services such as Netflix, but has not been compelled to check them out.

He says: "My wife and I don't watch many movies and we don't really follow dramas. With our two kids around, I don't think I would ever be able to finish a season."

Television viewing is a family activity for the Yips and their programmes of choice include animated fare such as Paw Patrol and Dora The Explorer as well as animal shows.

Mr Yip, 34, concedes that it is his daughters, Mun Hyun, six, and Mun Kay, three, who wield the remote control.

"Sometimes I force them to watch shows on history. It is a bit boring to them, but I think it's good for them," says the former national water polo player who works in the sports sector.

After the children head to bed, he and his wife, Ms Lee Soo Ping, 34, who works in human resources, watch reality shows such as MasterChef and Asia's Next Top Model.

He subscribes to StarHub's HomeHub 1000 plan for fibre broadband, TV and mobile for $88.80 a month, which he considers reasonable - "if not, my wife would be complaining". The deal was sweetened by the fact that he gets to enjoy six months of TV and broadband for free.

On the whole, he is "very happy with what it has on offer".

He used to watch a lot of sports and his wife loved the Cantonese TVB dramas she could get on demand. But when their children came along, they no longer had the time for their old routines.

So Mr Yip dropped those channels.

But he thinks the pay-TV operator could be even more flexible in its pricing and packages.

"Viewers are very specific on what they want to watch. Don't give me the whole range of things, I just want what I want," he says.

In his case, while he subscribes to StarHub's group of Education channels, he watches only about five or six of them, including History, Discovery and National Geographic.

National Geographic Channel HD was dropped from StarHub last June and Mr Yip says that he will be "quite upset" if the regular channel goes.

"That's a genre I like and you can't get it anywhere else, not that I know of. If it does drop it, I'll definitely be complaining," he says

While StarHub has a streaming option, StarHub Go, he has not used it. "Sometimes, it's not very stable on the trains", he explains, and he is more likely to be reading news articles instead.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 22, 2017, with the headline 'TV cuts the cord'. Print Edition | Subscribe