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Cord-Cutting Malaise Continues in Q2: Pay-TV Operators Drop 1.3 Million Subs in Past Year

The pay-television biz kept up a slow pace of descent as U.S. cable, satellite and telco TV operators shed a collective 757,000 subscribers in the second quarter, according to Wall Street analyst Craig Moffett — the sector’s worst quarterly performance to date, and down 1.29 million over the past 12 months.

It’s worth noting that Q2 is seasonally the weakest quarter for pay TV. And while cord-cutting is certainly to blame for the year-over-year erosion, it could be worse: So far the industry hasn’t been hit by massive customer defections.

“We’ve been waiting for the watched pot of cord-cutting to boil for… at least 10 years,” Moffett wrote in a research note Tuesday. “As ever, cord-cutting will happen when the content providers decide they want it to.”

The landscape could change dramatically with the launch of Hulu’s live-TV streaming service in 2017. Hulu, which just announced its move to an all-subscription model, “is the one to watch,” Moffett wrote, now that Apple has reportedly shifted focus away from delivering a cable-like OTT service.

The factor determining how much cord-cutting will result from Hulu’s live TV launch is whether its media conglomerate owners — Disney, 21st Century Fox, Comcast and now Time Warner — will price the live-TV service aggressively and undercut traditional distributors, or in line with existing pay-TV packages. “We suspect the more conservative approach is the more likely,” according to Moffett, a principal with MoffettNathanson.

According to Moffett’s estimates, the pay-TV sector in Q2 experienced a 1.3% year-over-year decline in subscribers, compared with an annual drop of 0.8% for the second quarter of 2015.

However, if subscribers of Dish Network’s Sling TV over-the-top “skinny bundle” are included, the total pay-TV sector dropped 0.8% in the most recent quarter (compared with 0.6% in Q2 2015). Dish doesn’t break out OTT subscribers; Moffett estimates Sling TV had 707,000 customers at the end of June, after adding 49,000 in the quarter.

The overall declines were driven by record sub losses for Dish’s satellite TV business and AT&T’s U-verse TV. At the same time, Comcast posted its lowest second-quarter drop (just 4,000 video subs) in more than a decade, indicating that the No. 1 cable operator is taking share from satellite and telco rivals.

What’s harder to determine is how “skinny bundles” or “cord-shaving” are affecting programmers’ distribution reach, but those seem to be having an impact beyond cord-cutting alone. Discovery Communications said total subscribers across networks fell 2% year-over-year in the second quarter of 2016, while Turner said U.S. subscribers declines for its nets were nearing 2%.

In the second quarter, pay-TV operator losses would have been worse if U.S. household formation had not ticked up, growing by 697,000 occupied net households in the quarter, Moffett noted.

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