With Cablevision (s CVC) reporting a loss of 23,000 subscribers and Dish Network (s DISH) shedding 135,000 in the second quarter, the U.S. pay TV industry has lost nearly 200,000 subscribers in the second-quarter — and those are just the ones we know about. But if there was a lack of concern about cord cutters on second-quarter earnings calls, it’s not because operators were unaware of the losses; it’s because in most cases, they didn’t want those subscribers anyway.
As seen in the chart below, public pay-TV providers collectively shed 193,000 subscribers in the most recent quarter. While losses by cable providers are nothing new, they are usually offset by stronger growth in satellite and IPTV providers picking up the slack. That didn’t happen this quarter, as somewhat weak growth by IPTV providers and a big loss at Dish highlighted what seems to be an exodus of pay TV subscribers amidst a weak economy.
|Company||2Q Video Net Adds/Losses|
|Time Warner Cable||-130,000|
When the numbers actually shake out, things are likely to be even worse than this. Keep in mind that these are just the top eight public pay TV providers, and most of those above operate in metropolitan markets. There’s a number of Tier 2 and Tier 3 providers not in this list, and many of those are in rural or underserved areas where the down economy has hit even harder.
Is competition really the cause?
On most of the earnings calls we sat in on over the past several weeks, there seemed to be a common refrain: Cable and satellite providers were losing subscribers in part due to increased competition and deals from the telco providers — Verizon (s VZ) and AT&T (s T) — who are aggressively buying share with steep upfront discounts.
But a look at the actual numbers doesn’t seem to bear that out. AT&T added 202,000 video subscribers in the second quarter, while Verizon added 184,000 in the same period. The addition of about 386,000 video subscribers combined is not out of line with previous quarters, and in fact is actually a little low compared to the 410,000 the telcos signed up in the first quarter or the 440,000 they added in the fourth quarter.
Will the real cord cutters please stand up?
If those pay TV subscribers aren’t actually going to competitors, where are they going? Most likely they’ve actually become cord cutters — two words that we didn’t hear much of on those earnings calls. In part, that’s because the rhetoric around cord cutters as anti-establishment, online video-watching rebels has largely been dispelled.
Studies have found those going without cable aren’t doing so because of over-the-top streaming offerings. Instead, those who are choosing to go without cable are doing so because they either don’t see much value in pay TV packages, can’t afford to keep paying for TV, or some combination of the two.
Operators acknowledge that the few video subscribers who have left the pay TV ecosystem so far have most commonly been on the bottom end of the cable value chain — that is, generally low-income users that just paid for TV and didn’t subscribe to broadband, HD or other higher-value services. And for most operators, that’s ok because they weren’t very high-margin customers anyway.
The myth of the higher-value customer
Cable providers are increasingly seeking ways to get more money out of their existing subscriber base. As a result, we’ve seen steady increases in average revenue per user (ARPU) as users sign up for more HD, more premium channels, more DVR set-top boxes throughout the home. That’s the reason Comcast’s (s CMCSA) ARPU stands at about $140, when basic cable service starts at about $39 based on some introductory offers.
On the other side, operators are increasingly shying away from customers who might not want to pay for the premium cable package, multiple DVRs and other bells and whistles. DirecTV (s DTV) and Dish Network (s DISH) both run credit scores of potential subscribers to weed out those who might turn out to be flakes and cancel after an introductory deal is over. The goal — to get customers signed up for as many value-added services as possible — is not just about driving up revenues, but about making those services sticky and increasing customer lock-in.
The problem is that in a world where all the cable operators are trying to sell ever-more expensive packages of services, there’s a sad truth of business they’re running up against, and it’s that not everyone is a luxury car buyer. That is, not everyone is in the market for the biggest and best. But in the cable world, there’s very little choice if all you want is a Kia.
Will cable reach a tipping point?
It’s not enough to blame the weak economy when things get rough and folks stop paying for cable; there’s also a structural problem with the way the industry views its subscribers. In the quest for higher margins and customer retention, those companies are generally willing to sacrifice subscribers at the low end if it means they can get more out of their so-called higher-value customers.
The question is how long the industry can keep pushing ARPU up before it starts to shed some of its better customers — those that aren’t necessarily poor, but don’t have $150 or more a month to spend on entertainment. There’s the old belief that TV is recession-proof, as consumers hunker down and spend more time at home rather than going out when their disposable income gets low. But at some point, the value proposition has to break down — especially when there are other ways to get low-cost video entertainment from services like Netflix (s NFLX) or Hulu.