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Is the Death of Cable Finally Real?

By Motley Fool Staff - Dec 6, 2018 at 3:14PM

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The industry lost about 1 million customers in the last quarter.

Experts have been predicting the death of cable for a really long time. If the industry is dying, however, it's been a very slow death.

Cord-cutting has started accelerating, and the most-recent quarter saw traditional pay-television providers lose around 1 million customers. The numbers were even worse for satellite providers who have been losing customers faster than the traditional cable providers.

A full transcript follows the video.

This video was recorded on Dec. 4, 2018.

Vincent Shen: Let's move on, we have to get into our main topic for today. That is, ultimately, we're checking in on something you and I have talked about in the past, the idea of the death of cable. Several firms and research providers released their third quarter reports for the industry earlier in November. What are some of the big themes that you're seeing in these reported numbers?

Dan Kline: It's the biggest one-quarter drop we've seen since cord cutting became the trend. It depends on exactly which data you look at, but it's one million to 1.2 million customers. That's more than most years have been since 2014, when the number started dropping. You're really starting to see things take hold.

It's actually a lot worse than that, because there are about four million people that have digital streaming services, things like Sling TV that are live television but they're cheaper products. If you look at cable, which is in about 90 million homes now, and subtract that four million, it's actually only about 86 million full paying customers, down from about 95 million only four or five years ago. It's a really stunning loss of customers.

Shen: Within this broad traditional pay TV subset of the industry, I'm seeing that one particular segment that took a really big hit also was with satellite. What were some of the numbers breaking down there?

Kline: The satellite companies took pretty big hits. Hold on, I'm pulling it up right here. DirecTV lost 359,000. Dish lost 367,000. They both made up a tiny bit of that when it comes to streaming customers.

But the reason for those losses are because the satellite customers used to be the low-price alternative to cable. That was the reason to put up with having a separate broadband provider. "Hey, I'll get DirecTV, I'll save money for a couple of years, maybe I'll bounce back and forth between providers to keep getting a deal." Those are no longer the low-cost options. They might be cheaper than traditional full-on cable, but they're not cheaper than cutting the cord and using streaming services, whether that's live TV or Netflix or Hulu or any of these different options. There's really no market for satellite TV anymore. It's sort of like, I'm going to get a product that's a tiny bit cheaper that's kind of a hassle that goes out when it rains. And I speak from knowledge because my building has DirecTV.

Shen: [laughs] There you go. I was looking at the trend line for these satellite providers. You look back to last year, DirecTV lost over 500,000 subscribers; Dish Network, another one million. Going back to what you said, in terms of some of the alternatives, I think they see what's going on with their core business, as well. DirecTV Now and Sling TV, those alternatives, made up pretty good chunks of those losses in 2017, both services adding about 700,000-800,000 customers.

But with this most recent quarterly report, they're really falling short now. You mentioned Dish Network lost almost 400,000 satellite customers. They only signed up about 26,000 people for Sling TV. AT&T's DirecTV business down about 360,000 subscribers in the quarter. But again, just 49,000 DirecTV Now additions. You're right, I think it really does come down to value and all the other alternatives that are out there now.

Kline: It's become unbelievably difficult as a consumer. I am both a cord cutter and a cable-haver. I have cable in my main home. I'm a cord cutter in the home I'm taping this from now right outside of Orlando, Florida. I have Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, WWE Network, DC Universe, and I'm sure one or two other things I'm forgetting -- oh, and Sling TV. I'm probably spending more. [laughs] I don't know if cord cutting has been a benefit for me. It really becomes something you have to manage too much. Or, to save money, you actually have to say, "OK, I'm going to have Netflix for two months. I'm going to catch up on all my Netflix shows. Then I'm going to drop it and have Hulu for a month, and I'm going to catch up on Hulu." Consumers have a lot of choice. While that is a good thing, and it's about to get even more crowded, it is confusing. There are probably people who think they're saving money that aren't.

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