The first three months of the year are generally a time of growth for the pay TV industry — or at least a time when the bleeding slows. For instance, in the first quarter of last year, Dish Network, perhaps the most beleaguered of the pay TV companies, added a modest 35,000 subscribers to its count, thanks to the launch of its TV-over-the-internet service Sling TV.
But 2016 is off to a rougher start. The Englewood, Colorado, satellite company lost 23,000 TV subscribers from January through March, dipping to 13.9 million total customers — a loss of about 10,000 more than anticipated by Wall Street. If the subsequent quarters follow their usual trend (the good-weather months of April through October being the worst for these companies), the company could see a record loss this year.
The loss reveals that the satellite-TV sector is telling a different story than cable. Comcast, the biggest pay TV provider in the country, is expected to have tacked on somewhere between 32,000 and 35,000 net TV additions last quarter, attributable to its sleek X1 system, according to analysts from Jeffries and Macquarie Research. Pay TV companies in total lost around 385,000 TV subscribers in 2015, per data from Leichtman Research Group. Cable companies are managing all right, thanks to their robust broadband numbers, and telecom companies like Verizon FiOS may have merely hit a natural ceiling for their subscriber numbers, but for satellite providers like Dish and AT&T-owned DirecTV, things can get a little hairy, particularly for Dish, which doesn’t have the same kind of internet offerings its competitors do.
Dish has always been a bit of a laggard; as competitor DirecTV grew steadily to around 20 million TV subscribers, Dish remained in the same range of 13.9 million to 14.1 million. If you don’t count Sling customers as Dish TV customers, which the company didn’t when the service launched, the company saw a net loss of 134,000 TV subscribers in that first quarter of 2015.
But while Sling hasn’t proved to be the blockbuster cannibal streaming service some might have anticipated — analyst firm MoffettNathanson estimates 523,000 people subscribe — it is a bright spot. Sling just launched a package that includes Fox-owned channels like FX and NatGeo and the ability to stream on three different devices at once from the same account, and is rumored to have a device in development that combines an over-the-air antenna with Sling’s service, to erase cord-shavers’ irritation of having to switch back and forth.
Sling is geared to be a gateway bundle of sorts, a way to give younger urban dwellers a taste of the myriad wonders of pay TV and get them to upgrade to Dish proper.
And Dish proper will take all the help it can get. The provider has never shied away from carriage fights, perhaps to its detriment, going to the mat with programmers like Fox News, Turner and AMC to try to avoid massive increases in the amount it has to pay them for the privilege of carrying their programming.
Dish is currently battling Viacom over just such fees, and the threat of a blackout looms if the parties can't come to an agreement before 11:59 p.m. EDT on Wednesday.