Premium TV Networks Say NPD Study Purporting to Show Their Decline Is Hogwash

HBO, Showtime and Starz dispute NPD survey, with the cablers citing figures from SNL Kagan that show growth

A report this week from research firm NPD Group has drawn fire from premium cable TV networks — with HBO, Showtime and Starz saying the firm’s study, which found a decline in premium subscribers amid a rise in Netflix subscribers, is inaccurate.

The NPD report, based on a survey of about 7,500 consumers, said that total U.S. households that subscribe to premium TV channels declined by 6 percentage points over an 18-month span — from 38% in March 2012 to 32% in August 2013. Over the same period, households subscribing to Netflix and other subscription video-on-demand services rose 4 percentage points, from 23% to 27%.

But that’s just flat-out wrong, according to the cablers.

“The (NPD) study does not accurately reflect actual subscriber counts,” Showtime said in a statement. “While it is true that video services like Netflix have gained, so too have premium cable channels.” An HBO rep said that the NPD research “is simply incorrect. Both HBO and Cinemax services have shown significant domestic subscriber growth the past two years.”

HBO, Showtime and Starz cited SNL Kagan’s estimates for premium subscribers, which are based on industry sources (whereas the NPD study was based on a representative consumer survey). The SNL Kagan figures show that premium entertainment channels grew subscribers from March 2012 through September 2013 — the time frame of the NPD report. HBO’s penetration of total pay-TV households rose from 28.2% to 29.2%; Showtime went from 21.1% to 22.8%; Starz penetration jumped from 19.9% to 22%; and Cinemax grew from 11.2% to 13.6%.

In a statement, NPD acknowledged the report “should not have called out declines in subscribers” specifically for HBO and Showtime, and said its survey results supported the conclusion that individual subscribers are either subscribing to more premium channels or adding channels over time.

However, NPD did not retract the study — and insisted that the research correctly shows the overall number of subscribers of premium TV channels has declined, based on a representative sample of the U.S. population. The firm’s interpretation of the results is that “faithful premium channel subscribers are becoming more so.” In other words, NPD is suggesting that while fewer households overall are taking premium nets, they are subscribing to more channels (e.g., HBO subs are adding Showtime, or vice versa). But that’s speculative. For that to be true would mean not only that millions of households canceled premium subscriptions, but also that millions of existing HBO, Showtime, Starz or other customers also added at least one other service.

According to SNL Kagan, from September 2012 to September 2013, HBO, Showtime, Starz and Epix collectively gained 2.8 million net subs. Over that period, HBO had 29.2 million (up from 28.6 million), Showtime had 22.8 million (up from 21.9 million), Starz had 22 million (up from 20.8 million) and Epix tallied 5.7 million (up from 5.6 million).