Cord cutting accelerates as pay TV loses 1 million customers in largest-ever quarterly loss


Scratch the theory that cord cutting might be decelerating.

Cable and satellite TV providers lost about 1.1 million subscribers during the July to September period, the largest quarterly loss ever – and the first time the industry lost more than 1 million subscribers in a quarter, according to media and telecommunications research firm MoffettNathanson.

After Dish Network reported its third-quarter earnings Wednesday, the New York-headquartered research firm tallied up the publicly reported subscriber losses to arrive at the finding.

Dish lost 341,000 subscribers in the third quarter, compared to adding 16,000 in the same period a year ago. Overall, Dish lost 367,000 satellite subscribers but added 26,000 Sling TV subscribers, the company said.

Rich Greenfield, a media and technology analyst with financial services firm BTIG in New York, arrived at a similar conclusion and called it “the third-worst quarter in industry history and worst since Q2 2016.”

 

That continues a worsening trend line for satellite TV providers. Two weeks ago, AT&T said DirecTV lost a net 297,000 subscribers during the quarter – 359,600 satellite subscribers departed, while it added 49,000 new subscribers to its streaming TV service DirecTV Now. Overall, AT&T has 25.15 million pay-TV customers; Directv, 19.6 million; U-Verse, 3.7 million; and DirecTV Now, 1.86 million.

Looking just at satellite TV departures, the industry lost 726,000 subscribers during the period. Telecom TV services, which includes AT&T’s U-Verse and Verizon FiOS, lost 104,000 customers combined.

Cable TV providers lost about 293,000 for the quarter, but its trends “are getting marginally better,” MoffettNathanson suggests, as the industry lost 322,000 in the same period a year ago.

While Comcast lost the most video subscribers (106,000), it also added 363,000 broadband subscribers.

Slowing growth for DirecTV Now and Sling TV could suggest “price sensitivity” of broadband-delivered TV services may be “turning out to be greater than expected,” after several of the services increased prices, the analysts said.

MoffettNathanson did not list firm numbers for services such as fuboTV, but said there were “anecdotal reports of strong growth of smaller players” that could suggest a “shift in leadership” in broadband-delivered services. FuboTV last month said its subscriber base had doubled from a year ago to 250,000. The Motley Fool has estimated YouTube TV has more than 800,000 subscribers and PlayStation Vue, more than 500,000. Hulu two months ago said it surpassed 1 million subscribers.

Overall, about 78 percent of U.S. TV households subscribe to some form of pay-TV service, down from 86 percent in 2013, according to Leichtman Research Group.

During the April to June period, the top pay-TV providers lost about 415,000 subscribers, the fewest net losses in four years in what is traditionally a weak quarter, the firm said.

Some pointed to that as a sign that cord cutting was slowing. Not so, MoffettNathanson says. An increase in new households – many of which will show up as new pay-TV subscribers – hid defections of longtime customers, the analysts say.

With new homes running “a full 249K households per quarter faster than a year ago,” you should expect to see “about 200K more subscribers per quarter, on average” than a year ago.

Since that is not the case, the verdict is: “Cord cutting does not appear to be slowing at all,” they said.

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