By Jessica Toonkel
(Reuters) - Sliding ratings and a continued drop in cable subscribers has led programmers such as Viacom Inc, Univision Communications Inc and AMC Networks Inc to invent new ways to justify their worth to pay TV providers.
In the past, programmers could rely on their hit shows as leverage at the bargaining table with cable and satellite partners who buy their programs. But as online viewing continues to disrupt the traditional media business, programmers are pitching everything from co-producing series with distribution partners to offering data for use in advertising.
The way people watch TV is rapidly changing. Fewer people are watching live television, leading to declines in ratings and ad revenue. And at the same time, more people are cancelling cable subscriptions to watch shows online on their tablets or phones, resulting in record customer losses.
Declining subscriptions have left cable companies hard-pressed to pay higher prices for TV shows.
Cable and satellite companies shed 793,000 subscribers in the first quarter, more than four times the loss during the same quarter last year, according to research firm BTIG. Analysts at UBS estimate another 1 million customers will cut the cord in the second quarter as there are no signs of this trend abating.
"The distribution business has changed more rapidly in the past 12 months than in the prior five years," said Tom Gorke, executive vice president of content distribution at Viacom. "If we just focus on 'here are my channels and here is my price, call me with your response,' that is not going to grow the pie."
While the economics of renewal negotiations is still largely focused on programming, being able to offer other things can help, said Eric Ratchman, executive vice president of content distribution at Univision.
Viacom CEO Bob Bakish has made it a priority to improve relations with distributors.
Over the past several months, Bakish, Gorke and his team have met with the chief executives for all the largest distributors asking what they can do to help them do their business better, Gorke said.
For Viacom, the company said it is in ongoing discussions to help distributors on everything from identifying password sharing on paid TV apps, to using its viewer data to help target advertising around their broadband and other services.
Offering viewer data helped Viacom clinch a distribution deal with Suddenlink parent Altice USA in May, marking the end of a two-year dispute with the cable company.
Meanwhile, Univision is leveraging the popularity of European soccer to entice a pay-TV partner. Univision owns the Spanish-language rights for more than 600 Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) games and is looking for a distributor to become the exclusive partner on some televised games, said Ratchman.
Univision would also like to co-produce more dramas with distributors like it did with Netflix's "El Chapo," Ratchman said.
AMC, home of the popular "The Walking Dead," zombie series inked a co-production deal with Charter Communications to create programming exclusively for Charter's Spectrum subscribers to watch first before AMC airs it elsewhere..
Last month, AMC launched a monthly subscription option designed for customers of Comcast Corp's Xfinity TV packages. AMC is in talks to do similar deals with other distributors, said Ed Carroll, chief operating officer of AMC.
Such deals demonstrate how conversations between distributors and programmers have evolved away from pricing of content to a more comprehensive digital focus, said Matt Strauss, general manager, video and entertainment services for Comcast Cable.
"The conversation has gotten more sophisticated with respect to digital rights and customer experience," Strauss said. "I think you are seeing a lot of networks leaning into this."
(For a graphic on 'Viewing behaviour by age and device' click http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/TELEVISION-DISTRIBUTION/0100501B039/index.html)
(Reporting By Jessica Toonkel; editing by Anna Driver and Diane Craft)