Traditional Pay-TV Operators Lost Record 6 Million Subscribers in 2019 as Cord-Cutting Picks Up Speed

By Todd Spangler

The U.S. satellite and cable TV business declined at an unprecedented rate last year — with traditional pay-TV providers dropping a staggering 6 million customers, a 7% year-over-year decline.

In the fourth quarter of 2019 alone, traditional TV distributors lost around 1.5 million subs, dropping to about 83 million total at year-end, according to estimates from Wall Street analyst firm MoffettNathanson. The primary loser in Q4 was AT&T, which shed a whopping 1.16 million TV accounts in the period, but losses at Comcast (-149,000) and Charter (-101,000) were the primary reason for the acceleration in the rate of cord-cutting, analysts Craig Moffett and Michael Nathanson wrote in a Feb. 19 research note.

The numbers show that cable and satellite TV customers, whose main complaint continues to be steadily increasing prices of pay-television service, are increasingly satisfying their home-entertainment diets with streaming packages like those from Netflix, Hulu and others.

The trend reflects “the growing normalization” of pay-TV declines, according to the analysts, with operators no longer looking to offer discounts to keep would-be cord-cutters in the fold and some smaller cable companies exiting TV completely.

“Operators across the pay-TV distribution map are reassessing video strategies, and they are universally shifting, albeit to varying degrees, towards strategies that accommodate, or even encourage, cord-cutting,” Moffett and Nathanson wrote. “As video distributors change their pricing and marketing strategies, the media industry is finally facing that long-feared moment of accelerating cord-cutting.”

Popular on Variety

Even factoring in the growth of “virtual” internet TV providers like YouTube TV and Hulu With Live TV — whose subscriber rolls rose from an estimated 7.52 million at the end of 2018 to 9.96 million last year — the total U.S. pay-TV universe declined by some 3.6 million households (down 3.8%). Notably, after initially launching with attractive price points in a bid to grab market share, all the internet pay-TV service hiked prices last year while Sony has exited the business altogether, shutting down PlayStation Vue at the end of January 2020.

“[T]the real change underfoot isn’t about technology. It is about decoupling live from non-live
entertainment,” Moffett and Nathanson wrote.

Cable operators like Comcast actually stand to be more profitable by pushing over-the-top video through their high-margin broadband businesses, while satellite operators DirecTV and Dish have a much bigger risk from the rise of cord-cutting. On Wednesday, Dish reported a loss of 194,000 TV subscribers, including its first-ever loss for Sling TV (which dropped 94,000 accounts sequentially).

Amid this backdrop, media companies that own TV networks have two options: to “reassemble consumer spending in new digital products” — as Disney, WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal are doing — or own “the minimum number of must-have networks that have true pricing power to offset the falling volumes of video subscribers,” which is Fox Corp.’s strategy, Moffett and Nathanson wrote. Meanwhile, media companies Discovery, ViacomCBS, AMC Networks “are facing these headwinds with few long-term solutions,” the analysts wrote.

Pay-TV penetration hit an all-time high of 87.8% of U.S. households in 2009 — slipping over the past decade to 65.3% at the end of last year, per MoffettNathanson’s estimates.