486,000 Pay-TV Subscribers Cut the Cord in Q3

Now that all the major publicly owned pay-TV companies have reported their third-quarter results, it’s time to survey the carnage. All told, the industry lost 486,000 TV customers in the third quarter, a decline of 1.4%, according to analysis from firm MoffettNathanson. That’s right around what the industry lost in the same time frame last year (432,000 customers).

BTIG Research analyst Rich Greenfield points out that the eight biggest providers lost, by his accounting, 926,000 subscribers in the first nine months of 2016, leaving them with 88.2 million customers. MoffettNathanson’s estimates, which include smaller providers, put the total pay-TV universe at 96.8 million.

As with most of these quarterly check-ins on the health of the pay TV industry, vantage point matters. Some analysts show an unfettered delight in the continued decline of the sector. Others take a more measured approach. Still others say that this is the natural life cycle of an industry that achieved saturation a decade ago.

Not all pay-TV companies are losing subscribers at the same rate. “The share shifts here are breathtaking,” MoffettNathanson analysts Craig Moffett and Michael Nathanson pointed out in a note to investors Friday. Telecommunications providers (AT&T’s U-verse, Verizon FiOS) were adding video subscribers at a rate of 9.8% percent just two years ago. This year? They’re losing them at a rate of 11.7%.

Most of those subscribers are going elsewhere, rather than completely dropping their TV service. Telco’s loss has largely been cable’s gain; Comcast even reported a net add of 32,000 video subscribers for the third quarter. Satellite provider Dish Network reported a loss of 320,000 satellite customers (somewhat offset by its Sling TV offering), but DirecTV added 323,000.

It is also true that many pay-TV companies, particularly cable operators with robust internet service offerings, pad out their video-subscription numbers by counting people who are merely paying an extra few bucks to get local broadcast stations (including the myriad little public-access channels), or those paying for skinnier programming bundles. That might be lifting these numbers a bit, but not by as much as you think.

The average revenue brought in by each subscriber isn’t declining at these companies, and while there are several factors that play into average revenue per user (ARPU), if a significant number were opting for much-cheaper packages, that would likely drag down the average. It could also be argued that these people are technically still paying for TV, shunting the problem of skinny bundles onto the programmers who depend on subscriber fees based on the number of customers receiving their channels.

The second and third quarters are typically down times for the industry as a whole, so losses in Q3 aren’t exactly a death knell. The problem is that these second and third quarter losses have been larger than usual over the last two years, and that the corresponding boom quarters — the first and fourth — haven’t made up for those losses like they did through as recently as 2013.

Yet there may be some hope. Those 486,000 lost TV customers don’t include subscribers to Dish’s internet-delivered TV package Sling TV, which brought in 204,000 customers to the industry. With those additions, that brings the sector’s losses down to 282,000, and its total number of subscribers up to 97.55 million, per MoffettNathanson.

True, Sling isn’t a typical cable package, but more and more, industry experts are arguing that these virtual MVPDs are, in fact, MVPDs, and should be counted as such, like satellite providers when they first came on the scene. Sling TV has been around for a little more than a year and a half, and while it hasn’t been a major source of growth for Dish, it isn’t a loser, either.

And there are about to be a lot more of these virtual MVPDs: AT&T’s DirecTV Now will launch by the end of 2016 with a base price of $35. Hulu is launching its own live TV package in the early part of 2017, as is Google’s YouTube.

The pay-TV industry is about to see whether the erosion of their customer base is largely due to people being fed up with awful customer service and hidden fees on their bills, with clunky set-top boxes and cripplingly old interfaces; or whether an increasing number of people just don’t want a pay-TV subscription at all.

“It is the next quarter, and the quarter after, that will matter,” Moffett and Nathanson wrote. “The music has barely begun to play.”

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