Cord-Cutting: How Far Will It Go?
Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading
Let's face it: This has been a really crappy year for traditional pay-TV providers. In fact, 2017 will undoubtedly go down as the worst year ever for the pay-TV industry.
Until next year, that is.
If you're wondering why, take a gander at the most recent cord-cutting numbers. In the third quarter, legacy US cable, satellite and telco TV providers lost about 827,000 video customers, according to the latest data compiled by MoffettNathanson LLC . That's substantially more than the 559,000 subscribers those same providers shed in the same quarter the year previous. As a result, the annualized rate of sub decline for the industry rose ominously from 2.7% in the second quarter to 3.1% in the third.
Added on top of the subscriber losses that piled up in the first half of the year, the latest data mean that pay-TV providers have already lost more than 2.5 million video customers this year, with one more quarter's losses still to come. That comes out to more subscribers than all but the eight largest pay-TV providers in the nation now have.
Moreover, there's no sign that the cord-cutting craze will stop growing in the new year. Even Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), the shining star of the pay-TV business the last couple of years, is no longer immune to the trend, shedding video subs right along with its brethren. In a recent note to investors, Jefferies & Co. Inc. analyst Scott Goldman predicted that Comcast will report a loss of about 40,000 video subs in the fourth quarter, following its loss of 118,000 customers through the first nine months of the year. In 2016, by contrast, Comcast gained 161,000 video subs in the fourth quarter and 239,000 for the year.
At the same time that traditional pay-TV providers are steadily losing ground, the growing ranks of OTT skinny-bundle services, also known as virtual MVPDs (or multichannel video programming distributors), are steadily gaining. For instance, the two biggest skinny-bundle services, Sling TV and DirecTV Now, ended the third quarter with about 1.7 million and 800,000 subscribers, respectively, as charted by Leichtman Research Group Inc. (LRG) . In a recent note to investors, Craig Moffett, partner and senior analyst at MoffettNathanson, projected that the emerging virtual MVPD industry will close the year with 4 million subs, up from zilch just three years ago.
While that total still pales in comparison to the 90 million or so pay-TV subs in the US, the trend lines are not promising. Plus, it doesn't take into account the popularity of à la carte OTT services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, MLB.TV and HBO Now, all of which are now in millions or tens of millions of homes. Indeed, PricewaterhouseCoopers International just reported consumer survey results last week indicating that just as many Americans now subscribe to Netflix as to a traditional pay-TV package.
In another telling study late last month, Parks Associates found that more than half of all US OTT households now subscribe to multiple OTT services, up from just 20% three years ago. Of these multi-OTT households, 81% take Netflix plus some other service or combination of services, typically Amazon or Hulu, according to the survey.
"We're long past any pretense that this is a temporary phenomenon, or that the OTT genie might somehow be put back in the bottle," Moffett wrote in his investors note last month. He projects that the annual cord-cutting rate will climb as high as 5% before levelling off, while conceding that the rate could easily go higher. In that scenario, we're talking about losses of 4 million or more video subs each year.
Looking further into the future, The Diffusion Group (TDG) predicted in a study late last month that legacy pay-TV providers will control just 60% of US homes by 2030, down from 81% today. Meanwhile, TDG forecasts that virtual MVPDs will more than triple their household penetration rate from a mere 4% today to a more robust 14% by then.
One possible glimmer of good news for legacy pay-TV providers is that the annualized cord-cutting rate didn't surge as much as some industry analysts feared it might in the third quarter, reaching 3.1% rather than, say, 3.4%. But that's cold comfort for providers struggling to hold on to their dwindling video customer base.
The other possible silver lining in all this is that while pay-TV customer churn is rising, OTT video customer churn is still much greater, hitting astronomical heights. As Parks has detailed, with the notable exceptions of Netflix and Amazon Prime, "OTT services are experiencing churn rates exceeding 50% of their subscriber base." So the OTT gods both giveth and taketh away.
That may not be much for pay-TV providers to pin their hopes on. But it's as good as it gets right now. May the Force be with them.
— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading