SNL Kagan: Cord Cutting’s A Fact; Other Factors Drive Down Pay TV Subs Too

Despite the insistence that there is no meaningful cable TV cord-cutting by media executives like Time (NYSE: TWX) Warner’s Jeff Bewkes and Viacom’s Philippe Dauman — not to mention research backed up by Nielsen — analyst SNL Kagan says that cord cutting has been a clear factor in why there are less consumers subscribing to pay TV. But it’s also clear that cord cutting is one of several factors at work, and it is not necessarily the prime mover behind the industry’s troubles.

SNL Kagan specifically found that across cable, DBS and telco video offerings, the U.S. multichannel segment dropped by 119,000 customers in Q3. In comparison, the space gained 346,000 pay TV subs in the same period last year.

Furthermore, the analyst estimates that U.S. cable operators lost 741,000 basic video customers in Q3, making it the single largest quarterly drop SNL Kagan has seen in 30 years. Cable MSO’s share of combined video subscribers continues to slide, dropping to 60.3 percent, versus 62.9 percent in Q309.

The downward trend appeared to gather steam during Q2, the first time SNL Kagan said cable subs declined in the industry’s history. Asked whether people actually were giving up pay TV for “free” internet streaming and paid downloads of shows and movies was the reason for this fall-off, an SNL Kagan rep said the “over-the-top substitution” (i.e., cord-cutting) was a factor.

But it certainly wasn’t the only reason. As the study says, the blame falls on “the weak economy, high unemployment and elevated churn off of former over-the-air households.”

Nielsen’s study of the issue found that a mere 6 percent of broadband households had cut the cord. Looking back over the past year, if there had been actual cord-cutting, Nielsen would have seen those households grow. But it didn’t.

Looking at both studies, the advent of cord-cutting has to be acknowledged. But it is still a small part of the story. And this the role of video streaming and downloading are still fairly new to the mainstream. But it does suggest that once the economy improves, subscribers who have gotten used to life without pay TV will probably have even more options to turn to, depressing any rebound in the number of cable subs.