Bad news for pay TV companies: Cord-cutting is definitely a thing, and the industry is definitely in decline. In 2015, the top 13 pay TV providers, including cable, satellite and telecommunications companies lost 385,000 subscribers, according to data from Leichtman Research Group (LRG). That’s a record high and a not-insignificant increase from 2014, which saw overall losses of 150,000.
And yet, when you look at the bigger picture, that’s still not a significant portion of the pay TV universe. LRG estimates those same 13 biggest providers had 94.2 million customers at the end of 2015. That turns those losses into just .4 percent. (Yes, that decimal point is correct.)
But the overall losses don't tell the complete story of what's really going on in the industry. Traditonal cable TV providers like Time Warner and Comcast actually had a pretty good year; nearly all the overall losses came from AT&T, Dish Network, and a small cable company, Cable One, that is actively trying to jettison its TV business.
Cable providers collectively lost around 345,000 video customers in 2015, which sounds like a big problem until you consider cable TV companies lost 1.2 million people in 2014. Time Warner Cable actually added 43,000 net video customers for the year; Charter, with which TWC plans to merge this year, added 11,000. Comcast only lost 36,000 net TV subscribers on the year, a massive improvement on 2014’s net losses of 194,000 and 2013’s net losses of 267,000.
Cable One, the aforementioned cable company attempting to beef up its internet capacity by dumping video, lost 87,067 TV customers in 2015, or 19 percent of its base.
Telco companies Verizon and AT&T saw big dips from 2014; AT&T’s U-Verse lost 303,000 net video subscribers as its parent company attempted to drive business to newly acquired satellite provider DirecTV. (It worked: DirecTV added 167,000 video customers in 2015.) And while Verizon isn’t quite as gung-ho as Cable One about abandoning video, “they’ve lost some enthusiasm for it,” says Leichtman. In 2014, FiOS attracted 387,000 net video customers; in 2015, the number of net additions was down to 178,000. “They’re a little bit a victim of their own success,” Leichtman says. In other words, they’ve hit their ceiling.
But Verizon’s focus now is on profitability. Video subscribers don’t bring in nearly as much profit as internet customers — internet providers don’t have to shell out big bucks to programmers like CBS or AMC — and so the company would rather not spend money trying to attract customers who aren’t going to contribute as much to the bottom line.
Dish’s Sling TV offering, which gives subscribers access to live TV and some on-demand content for $20 a month for its basic package (which includes AMC and ESPN), helped offset what would have been a massive loss for parent company Dish Network. LRG put the number of Sling subscribers at 535,000 for 2015. “That’s pretty impressive, considering it launched just that year,” Leichtman says. Even counting those Sling customers as Dish customers, though, Dish lost a total of 81,000 TV subscribers in 2015.
Accusations of squishy definitions for “video subscribers” are currently flying in the industry, with some analysts claiming many of these TV additions are coming from skinny bundles, or from video packages being forced upon customers. Verizon FiOS’ “Custom TV” package costs $65 as a standalone, but only $70 when bundled with high-speed internet.
The counter to this argument is that video subscribers are video subscribers, regardless of how they got there or how skinny their TV bundle may be — or even how that bundle is delivered.
How much revenue these customers bring in is up for debate, but they are still watching video on a pay TV service: “Sling counts as a pay TV provider,” Leichtman reasons. Too, Leichtman says he doesn’t fall prey to companies' subscriber-number chicanery; residential cable customers of some cable companies used to only count as only 60 percent of a subscriber, thanks to wholesale agreements for apartment buildings, and some business customers counted as more than one subscriber, muddying the waters. Leichtman calls a spade a spade: one household, one customer, one subscriber.
Of course, a decline is still a decline. What continues to be blown out of proportion is the magnitude, Leichtman says: “The industry is in slow decline. It’s not in a tailspin.”