Television’s biggest draw is just three weeks away. But millions of households have cut their cable subscriptions. They’ll soon turn to Google with queries like “how to stream Super Bowl 2023.” And site after search-optimized site will pop up with timely guides on the matter.
This year, the answers are confusing and dissatisfying. And there are solid business reasons for that. So, here’s a guide to Super Bowl streaming guides. Think of it as more of a why-not than a how-to. Solutions will be slim, but you’ll be armed to complain about the situation with just enough depth and detail to impress know-it-all football friends. And what are sports for if not to bring people together to one-up each other with obscure facts?
Also, I have some streaming stock recommendations from a Wall Street pro.
TV viewership is plummeting. It was declining by about 5% a year back in 2019, when I wrote in a cover story that the National Football League was the main thing propping TV up. Then the Disney+ streaming service launched in late 2019, followed by Peacock in 2020 and Paramount+ in 2021. The TV audience shrank 14% that year and another 8% last year. Streaming viewers have now passed cable.
Pay-TV subscriptions are following viewership lower, with a lag. “When people are faced with a decision point—changing their home, changing their broadband provider—they realize that they don’t need this product,” says Wolfe Research entertainment analyst Peter Supino. “But the subscribers who remain are pretty inertial.”
They’re also pretty old. The median viewer is suddenly 61 years old, according to UBS. Over-55s have gone from one-third of the audience to two-thirds in a decade. TV companies have been burning through billions of dollars fighting for audience share in streaming. But with interest rates rising, investors have turned pickier on profitability, sending industry shares lower. Now, TV execs must figure out in a hurry how to make streaming pay.
NFL viewership, meanwhile, remains sturdy. Through the regular season, it was down 1%, mostly because Thursday Night Football switched from airing on three venues—Fox, the NFL Network, and Amazon Prime—to just Amazon Prime, for which
(ticker: AMZN) paid the NFL richly. Not counting Thursdays, NFL viewership was up some 4%.
OK—on to the big game. Last year, streaming the Super Bowl was easy. NBC carried it, and cable cord-cutter streamers could turn to its corporate cousin, Peacock, which aired the game on its $9.99 a month premium tier. But this year, the Super Bowl is playing on Fox, which is a notable noncombatant in the streaming wars.
(FOX) sold the bulk of its TV and movie assets to
(DIS) in 2019 for $71.3 billion. What’s left of the company includes the Fox broadcast network and this year’s Super Bowl, but not enough to easily fill out a mass-market streaming platform, and management doesn’t seem interested for now. At a media conference last year, Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch called much of streaming a “gladiatorial” fight for “last position” in the three or four services that most households will pay for. “We’re happy to be sort of sitting on the sidelines,” he said.
Fox and Barron’s parent
(NWSA) used to be part of the same company, and have overlapping ownership.
So, cord-cutters who are looking to stream the Super Bowl on the equivalent of Peacock or Paramount+ won’t find it. Instead, they’ll be directed to services like Hulu+ Live TV, YouTube TV, Sling TV, and
Those are technically part of streaming, too, but they’re really live channel bundles that pay for the networks they carry, just like cable, which means they can be just as pricey. Hulu+ Live TV, for example, costs $69.99 a month.
There are elaborate workaround recommendations online ranging from signing up for a streaming bundle trial period and then canceling, to using what’s called a virtual private network to fool the internet about where you live, so you can watch the game through an overseas distribution deal. Personally, if I were that bent on not paying for TV, I’d spring for rabbit ears. Fox still broadcasts over the air, and the picture in many markets is better than cable.
When will TV companies return to minting money? In some ways, they’ve never had it so good, says Wolfe’s Supino. Viewers like me with both a streaming bundle for live TV and a handful of stand-alone services are effectively paying twice. All that’s needed now is for costs to come in line with revenue. And the two companies that are most likely to pull that off, in his view, are
(NFLX) and Disney, because of their global scale.
“There’s not a business in the
with $20 billion-plus of revenue that doesn’t make money,” Supino says of Disney’s streaming operation. “And the average profit margin of the S&P 500 is 13%.” Disney, he says, will push the business toward profitability of that level or better, either by growing into its costs, or bringing costs down to match its reach. Netflix, too.
The others have it worse. “The former broadcasters who are now building streaming businesses just don’t have rich international histories, and their programming tends to be more oriented toward a U.S. prime-time audience,” says Supino. He expects more consolidation. Paramount Global (PARA) is the likeliest target for its strong growth but weak cash flow in streaming, and
Warner Bros. Discovery
(WBD) is the likeliest buyer because it lacks Paramount’s scale in sports. But the federal government could spoil any deal for now. Congress, says Supino, is “very invested in the idea that broadcasters are sensitive and shouldn’t be permitted to combine.”
Write to Jack Hough at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter and subscribe to his Barron’s Streetwise podcast.