More than 380,000 subscribers lost in a year

LONDON — As more U.S. webs owned by the likes of Disney and Discovery adopt a free-to-air model for some of their services in Europe, research suggests that the European pay TV market may be in decline.

Informa Telecoms and Media said that Western Europe experienced a historic slide in pay TV subscriber numbers last year.

There were 93 million pay TV customers across the region at the end of 2011, but more than 380,000 were lost during the following 12 months.

Adam Thomas, Informa’s media research manager, said: “This is the first drop in subscriber numbers since pay TV launched in Europe in the 1980s, so it is certainly a significant moment.

“It’s a wake-up call to the industry that confirms pay TV growth is no longer insulated against economic downturns.”

Heaviest losses were experienced in Italy and Spain, both still reeling from the Eurozone crisis.

Italy showed the biggest drop — a decline of 800,000 last year — while in Spain the number of pay TV subscribers fell from 4.5 million to 4.3 million.

There were also declines in Germany — down by 180,000 — and France, although here the fall was miniscule at just 3,000 customers.

But the U.K., where Liberty Media is buying paybox Virgin Media for $16 billion, bucked the trend by adding 190,000 subscribers.

Ted Hall, a senior analyst at Informa, said: “While these findings are unwelcome, they should not be overstated.

“There were a fairly unique set of fiscal circumstances in play last year and, as economic recovery kicks in, pay TV subscriber numbers will return to growth.”

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