After two quarters in which it seemed like cord-cutting had stabilized, the pay television industry saw its biggest ever quarterly loss in the second quarter.
But past history has shown that Q2 produces big losses that the industry somewhat offsets in later quarters. Of course, past results are not always indicative of what will happen in the future and it's possible that this may finally be the quarter where cord-cutting takes hold.
During the period, the 11 largest pay-TV providers in the United States (representing about 95% of the market) lost about 665,000 net video subscribers, according to numbers compiled by Leichtman Research Group (LRG). That compares to a loss of about 545,000 subscribers during the same period in 2015.
The numbers are even worse when you consider that the top pay-TV providers account for 93.75 million subscribers, but 710,000 of that total is people who have switched to DISH Network's lower-cost Sling TV service. Those people are semi-cord-cutters, who happen to be buying a skinny bundle of television channels from a traditional provider.
"The top pay-TV providers lost about 665,000 subscribers in the traditionally weak second quarter, with net losses in 2Q 2016 surpassing the previous quarterly low set in last year's second quarter," said LRG President Bruce Leichtman."Over the past year, the top pay-TV providers (including DISH's Sling TV) lost about 705,000 subscribers -- compared to a loss of about 380,000 over the prior year."
Is cord-cutting finally here?
While these numbers may not prove that cord-cutting has finally taken hold, they are heavily suggestive. It seems very clear that consumers want to cut their cable bill. For example, AT&T (NYSE:T) lost 391,000 subscribers to its full-price U-verse service in the quarter, while its cheaper DirecTV offering gained 342,000 customers.
The big losers here are DISH, which lost 281,000 customers, despite having Sling, and Charter (NASDAQ:CHTR), which lost 143,000. In Charter's case, the company's buying Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks may have been the final nudge customers needed to give cord-cutting a try.
The only winner in cable during Q2 may be Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA), which held relatively steady, dropping only 4,000 customers. Overall, only DirecTV posted a gain, but its parent company, AT&T, had an overall loss.
Charlie Nooney, CEO of MobiTV, a company that markets a service that allows cable operators to "upgrade their user experience" and use "the popular connected TV devices and streaming boxes already in a large majority of U.S. homes," believes the signs point to the idea that cord-cutters are becoming a serious problem for traditional pay-TV providers.
"If you look at the continued loss of Pay TV subscribers, there are clear signs cord-cutting is happening and it's starting to affect the industry," he told The Motley Fool via email. "I think the bigger question is how the industry will react to this major factor. I believe they'll react with the inevitable move to Internet Protocol (IP)-based TV delivery and by allowing consumer choice on devices. The rate of innovation and personalization required by consumers is already demanding this."
That trend, which would potentially benefit Nooney's company, has at least somewhat already started, with many cable channels being offered through Sling and a number of traditional providers making content available through various streaming platforms.
Can cable bounce back?
Last year, cable had a bad second quarter but somewhat recovered to lose only 385,000 customers for the year. That number may be small in a nearly 94 million-home universe, but it was a major acceleration over 2014, when only 125,000 subscribers were lost.
Cord-cutting appears to be speeding up and the Q2 numbers continue that trend. The numbers may not be enough to say where the bottom is for the industry or how quickly the deterioration will happen, but people do appear to be leaving traditional cable for cheaper services and that is only likely to increase.