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Nielsen Stands by Report of Big Cable Subscriber Losses at Viacom, Time Warner, Disney

Nielsen is standing by its latest data suggesting sizable subscriber losses at many cable networks, some of which questioned the accuracy of the findings last week.

The measurement company reissued the November Cable Network Coverage Areas Universe Estimate on Friday after recalling the report, which showed losses at 82 out of 119 networks.

After Nielsen’s research team spent the week re-analyzing their data, the measurement company released a lengthy statement that reads in part:

“Nielsen has now completed an extensive review and has verified that November estimates were accurate as originally released and that all the processes that go into the creation of these estimates were done correctly.

“The month-over-month decline in coverage that most cable networks saw was driven primarily by an overall decline of approximately half a percentage point (.55) in the Cable Plus universe, meaning fewer households are subscribing to cable through the provider types listed above.”

In other words, Nielsen is attributing these losses not to the usual cord-shaving, or people making cuts to their cable packages, but to outright cord-cutting.

That’s because the report showed larger losses than usual at some powerful cable networks often included in basic cable tiers, including ESPN and channels operated by Viacom and Time Warner. The median subscriber loss among all the networks was 529,000, according to Pivotal Research Group senior analyst Brian Wieser.

ESPN, which issued a statement last week criticizing Nielsen for its data, saw a loss of 621,000 subscribers. The network, which carries what’s considered an outsize subscriber fee ($7.04, according to research firm SNL Kagan), is important to parent company Disney’s bottom line.

But ESPN’s loss, according to Nielsen’s figures, wasn’t as big as what Viacom experienced, where Spike lost 1 million subscribers from October to November, and CMT lost 1.1 million. Ten other networks had losses greater than ESPN. Time Warner’s suite of networks lost 2.2% of its subscribers, according to Wieser’s analysis.

However, Nielsen’s cable subscriber estimate is based on its national panel, and therefore is not a definitive household count. It is, by scientific sampling standards, considered accurate, but is mostly used as a directional indicator.

But more importantly, Nielsen’s estimates do not affect the subscriber fees these networks rake in. ESPN, Viacom and Time Warner don’t get paid based on these estimates; they are paid either a per-subscriber fee or a wholesale sum (in the case of some premium cable channels) based on how many customers a pay-TV provider has.

Sources at several cable networks said the losses indicated by Nielsen don’t track with their internal accounting of subscriber numbers. Networks don’t release these internal figures because, 1) it’s bad business, and 2) very few people are inclined to believe big companies that grade their own homework.

ESPN, which typically bears the brunt of the sky-is-falling cord-cutter rhetoric, released the following statement:

“This most recent snapshot from Nielsen is a historic anomaly for the industry and inconsistent with much more moderated trends observed by other respected third party analysts. It also does not measure DMVPDs and other new distributors and we hope to work with Nielsen to capture this growing market in future reports.”

ESPN continues to bring in more than $600 million in subscriber fees alone every month to Disney. The network is also part of the deal Disney just signed with Hulu for inclusion in Hulu’s forthcoming streaming live TV package.

There’s a bigger wrinkle than individual losses at networks, though. The Nielsen figures for November paint a seemingly bleak picture of the pay-TV landscape, but they don’t quite jive with the results pay-TV companies themselves are reporting.

Bruce Leichtman, president and principal analyst of Leichtman Research Group, has been collecting subscriber data on the pay-TV sector for decades, and even in an industry that he acknowledges is seeing a slow decline after achieving saturation, the Nielsen numbers for November stick out. “It’s frankly bizarre,” Leichtman told Variety. “I have no idea how to explain this.”

It’s not just the size of the losses that Leichtman can’t square with his customer data from pay TV companies — it’s the timing. Pay TV, like many industries, is cyclical. The first and fourth quarters typically see growth, while most losses occur in the second quarter of the year. October, the month in which the losses Nielsen is describing occurred, is in the fourth quarter.

“Never has there been a quarter with losses that high, much less a fourth quarter, much less a single month in the fourth quarter,” Leichtman said. “Those numbers don’t jive with the results we’re seeing on the provider side.”

Leichtman’s comments aren’t a criticism of Nielsen, but more a caution to those looking to fit the numbers into a particularly popular sentiment. “This feeds right into a narrative that the pay TV industry is dying,” Leichtman said. “But that’s simply not the case.”

In the meantime, this remains a problem of perception for networks and the pay TV companies that carry them. While that perception doesn’t translate to dollars and cents when it comes to subscriber fees, nervous investors might start feeling a little twitchy when they see these numbers.

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