For the first time ever, the 'Big 6' US pay-TV providers lost subs for a full year

By Jim O'Neill on Feb 22 2016 at 10:15 AM
For the first time ever, the 'Big 6' US pay-TV providers lost subs for a full year

Cord cutting over? Hardly.

For the first time since Verizon and AT&T launched their TV services in 2006, the Top 6 pay-TV providers in the U.S. lost subscribers for a full year. If that’s not indication enough of the change in the market, the somewhat murky subscriber numbers delivered by those companies for the fourth quarter and full year 2015 may be making the numbers look less awful than they actually are.

And, keep in mind that the fourth quarter is usually a healthy one for operators that have acquired college student, families that have moved into new homes in time for the school year and the restart of college and pro football, two of the highest audience garnering segments.

For the quarter, the six – DirecTV, AT&T, Time Warner, Comcast, Dish Network and Verizon, to much fanfare -- added about 125,000 subscribers.  For the year, however, they dropped 781,000. A year ago, by comparison, those companies added 472,000 subs and in 2013, they added 500,000.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • DirecTV reported a gain of 214,000 television subscribers in the U.S., but parent AT&T U-verse lost 240,000 for the quarter. It was AT&T’s third consecutive losing quarter, it’s only three quarters of subscriber erosion since it launched in 2006. But, for the year, AT&T was off 355,000 subs and DirecTV 568,000.
    The two services now have almost 29 million television customers between them. And, despite corporate promises that AT&T would again turn its focus to U-verse in an effort to reverse the tide, it’s likely DirecTV will continue to get the lion’s share of attention as AT&T looks to expand its less-costly (to AT&T) offering in the coming quarters.
  • Comcast saw its best subscriber Q4 in years, adding an estimated 89,000 subs to end the year with 22.35 million pay-TV customers. For the year, Comcast was down 36,000.
    But, reports say that Comcast included some subscribers that aren’t part of the the traditional pay-TV customer base, and in fact were streamers who subscribed to Xfinity Stream and Xfinity on Campus. Whether those numbers substantial impact the final tally isn’t known at this point, but that Comcast is following the lead of Dish Network and Sling TV is notable.
  • Satellite TV operator Dish Network lost 12,000 subs in the quarter and 81,000 over the year. But, that total includes Sling TV customers, who may have numbers as many as 600,000 at the close of the quarter. According to analyst MoffettNathanson, after redoing the arithmetic, Dish may actualy have lost 141,000 subs in the quarter. It finished the year with an aggregate 13.9 million subs, down from 13.98 million a year ago.
  • Time Warner Cable added 54,000 video customers in the last quarter and 32,000 over the year, arresting a long-term decline. It ended the year with 10.82 million video customers.
  • Verizon adding 20,000 FiOS television customers – its worst 4th quarter since launching in 2006 in terms of adds. For the year, meanwhile, it was up 178,000 to 5.83 million, once again moving past AT&T’s U-verse as the largest telco TV provider.

So, while the quarter was a little better, the bottom line is that the traditional pay-TV industry model is ailing; while it’s not likely to be terminal, there’s a lot more pain ahead and massive changes in the model are brewing.

Think mobile and stay tuned.

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