Surprise: U.S. Pay-TV Subscribers Actually Grew Overall in Q3, Thanks to Internet Television

Cord-cutting has taken its toll on cable and satellite operators, which continue to shed subs at an accelerating pace. In the third quarter of 2017, however, the overall pay-TV ecosystem actually inched up when “virtual” subscription TV services are factored in — by a meager 0.6%, but growth nonetheless.

That’s according to a new report from MoffettNathanson. The firm estimates that total U.S. pay-TV subscribers overall grew by 90,000 in Q3 (versus a net loss of 275,000 in the year-earlier quarter).

So good news for programmers, right? Well, maybe. The top-line figures are a mixed bag, analyst Craig Moffett notes. For starters, not all programmers are included in the virtual pay-TV packages. Even if the do have distribution deals for the internet TV providers, not all their networks are necessarily in the lineup.

“Despite optimistic numbers suggesting the number of subscriber additions to vMVPDs [virtual multichannel video programming distributors] was even greater than the losses among traditional distributors, not everyone is benefiting equally,” Moffett wrote in the report.

Another caveat: Virtual pay-TV providers sell accounts to individuals, whereas traditional pay TV is sold to a household, making the comparison difficult to fully square.

The breakdown for Q3, per MoffettNathanson, is that virtual pay-TV providers DirecTV Now (excluding free trial subscribers), Sling TV, Hulu, YouTube TV, and PlayStation Vue saw a net gain of 962,000 subs. The firm’s estimates are adjusted to remove the impact of hurricanes that caused significant damage in parts of the U.S. and Caribbean during the quarter.

Traditional cable operators like Comcast and the satellite-delivered services of Dish Network and DirecTV dropped a collective 872,000 (versus 559,000 in the year-earlier period). That marks a 3.1% year-over-year decline in the segment. Note that from Q1 2014 through Q3 2017, traditional pay-TV ops have lost 9 million subs overall. “The trend of cord-cutting and cord-nevering won’t change much,” Moffett said.

The dynamics in the pay-TV biz are splitting programming groups in “haves” and “have-nots,” according to Moffett.

The haves: CBS, Fox, NBCUniversal and Disney, which are included in nearly every virtual internet-TV service. The have-nots, whose networks average less than 50% penetration into virtual pay-TV services, are A+E Networks, Discovery Communications, Scripps Networks Interactive (which is being acquired by Discovery), Viacom and independent networks, per Moffett’s analysis.

Most broadband-delivered skinny bundles are much cheaper than conventional cable, satellite or telco TV services — meaning the overall revenue flowing back to media companies is less per subscriber. Dish Network’s Sling TV starts at $20 monthly, YouTube TV is $35 per month and Hulu’s live TV service is $40 per month.

Among media investors, “views around cord-cutting and ratings/ads aren’t markedly better,” RBC Capital Markets analyst Steven Cahall wrote in a report Wednesday. “But another quarter has passed where [earnings per share] growth remained robust and the world didn’t fall apart.”

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