It was rumored for a long, long time before it happened: Tech investors have been worried about Sony's (NYSE:SNE) live-TV streaming service for almost as long as it's existed. PlayStation Vue spent much of its short lifetime fending off rumors that it was doomed.
Now, it really is.
Sony recently announced that it will shutter PlayStation Vue in January of 2020. PlayStation Vue is the first high-profile live-TV streaming service to go down, but it may not be the last.
All but inevitable
As one might imagine, a streaming service that some investors thought would collapse in 2017 or 2018 was never exactly in good health. Though rumors that PlayStation Vue would fold years ago proved to be inaccurate, they weren't exactly unfounded. PlayStation Vue has been losing money for parent company Sony for as long as it's been around.
To some extent, that was the plan: Like its competitors, PlayStation Vue hoped to weather the storm and build out a product that would be the leader in its space -- a space that Sony, like Sling TV owner Dish Network (NASDAQ:DISH) and YouTube TV owner Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL), among others, presumably thought would grow along with the cord-cutting trend.
But PlayStation Vue struggled to establish itself. Though it was one of the first two major live-TV streaming services -- PlayStation Vue and Dish's Sling TV both came out in 2015, before any of their current competitors -- PlayStation Vue just kept lagging behind the competition.
Sony was more reluctant than the competition to offer big promotional deals like streaming device giveaways, and the company's caution with pricey carriage deals meant that PlayStation Vue's channel selection was less consistent than that of some competitors. The branding was a problem, too: Sony ran ads telling consumers that they didn't need a PlayStation to watch PlayStation Vue, despite the name.
There was and is a lot wrong with PlayStation Vue. But the problems were bigger than that.
Enough trouble to go around
PlayStation Vue was more troubled than most live-TV streaming services, but no service in this space is exactly lighting it up -- not in terms of subscriber counts, anyway, and certainly not in terms of profits. Industry leader Sling TV counted 2.4 million U.S. subscribers at the end of last year; subscription-video-on-demand (SVOD) giant Netflix has more than 150 million globally. AT&T's (NYSE:T) live-TV streaming service, originally called DirecTV Now, started with rapid subscriber growth but then stalled in stunning fashion, actually losing subscribers in consecutive quarters as promotional subscriptions ended and took illusory growth with them.
YouTube TV was reportedly losing $9 per subscriber per month as of 2017; basic analysis tells us that it's still losing money today. It's a virtual certainty that this is true across the board in this space. That in and of itself is not too crazy -- Spotify doesn't typically turn a profit, and tech investors generally like its position in the subscription music streaming space -- but combined with anemic growth, this is not a good look for the skinny-bundle market.
Subscription churn kills these services, too. Each offers a free trial, and the fact that many now check credit card numbers instead of email addresses is a testament to how many customers have hopped from service to service, snagging free trials for big games or must-see shows and then canceling them without ever paying. AT&T TV Now's downward spiral was widely blamed on lapsing promotional accounts.
Ultimately, this space doesn't look like one that can support the current crop of live-TV streaming services. PlayStation Vue will almost certainly not be the last service to go down. The better question may be how many will survive?
Whichever services last longest will find out the answer to an even more frightening question: Is there really a market for a multichannel live-streaming service at all?