Will Media Bundling Save the Industry?

Offerings like Apple News+ might be a Band-Aid, but not a prescription for subscription fatigue

Scribd and The New York Times' partnership gives users access to each for $12.99/month. Courtesy of Scribd
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Bundling has been losing favor in the TV industry, as more consumers cut the cord in pursuit of á la carte TV options. But on the media side, the concept of media bundling—in which publishers and platforms partner to offer services for a discounted price—has been gaining momentum as an alternative to subscription fatigue.

However, it remains unclear whether media bundling will be the white horse that publishers are seeking—breathing new life into an industry desperate for revival—or more of a Trojan horse: offering just enough sparkle to entice publishers, drawing them in on a promise to expand reach, but not providing enough data or insight as to who that larger audience is.

On one end of the spectrum, there are offerings like Scribd and The New York Times (which offer new readers subscriptions to each for $12.99 per month) and Spotify Premium and Hulu (free for 30 days, then $9.99 thereafter), which give subscribers their own accounts on their respective platforms and fosters a direct relationship with the consumer.

That differs from the shiny new object on the table, Apple News+, which bundles services at $9.99 per month for access to more than 300 magazine titles and newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal. Conceptually, it is the same as the other partnerships: one price for a buffet of content, but the content lives on the Apple platform. Media buyers say they’re not optimistic that Apple will give publishers a full view of their audience on the platform, potentially skewing what those publishers try to sell to advertisers. Apple is also expected to take a significant piece of the pie—Apple will get 50 percent of revenue and publishers will split the rest of the pool based on time spent on their respective content.

That puts a special onus on advertisers and clients to ask the right questions regarding the data. “If we’re looking at things like bundling as a way to save an important part of the information ecosystem, advertisers have to play a role in helping figure that out too,” said Noah Mallin, head of content and experience at Wavemaker North America.

If they even have a spot at the table, that is. As publishers move deeper into the subscription model and away from ads, media buyers are keenly aware that it may become harder to work with them to find a place to put their message. Especially if they agree to work with tech giants like Apple that don’t prioritize data sharing.

“We’re relying on them to make the right calls for everyone involved. There’s not this natural state of competition that will drive innovation or better pricing or more engaging formats,” said Gosha Khuchua, managing partner, Fetch. “I feel pessimistic about it because of how centralized all the control has become.”

At least one winner is emerging in all of this: consumers, who are at or near capacity on the number of subscriptions they can afford each month.

As the slew of streaming and OTT options infiltrate the market, a recent survey found that 47 percent of consumers polled were frustrated by the number of subscriptions and services to watch shows. After such “an overload” of debundling, “the rebundling will be a huge win for the consumer,” said Sabrina Jordan, GSD&M’s group media director.

It also may help publishers by boosting their own audience reach, which is why New York Media, with properties like The Cut, New York magazine and Vulture, is participating in Apple News+. “There is no magic bullet to our industry,” said New York Media chief product officer Daniel Hallac. “It’s important that we try different things and we see what can work. Do I think this media bundling will work? It could, it could not.”

Like all these media “experiments” that fall into favor and may or may not prolong an inevitable demise of some brands, or the growth of others, media bundling is seen as a solution, albeit perhaps a temporary one, to solving the subscription fatigue that plagues readers’ willingness to pay for good content.

And creating great content that people want to read—whether it’s bundled or not—is still the most important task for publishers, said Karen Benson, evp, director of media planning at Deutsch New York: “Consumers are going to flock to the content that they want to receive, when they want to receive it, how they want to receive it. That’s the most important thing.”

This story first appeared in the April 15, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@SaraJerde sara.jerde@adweek.com Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.