Given the sheer massiveness of the number of cable television customers AT&T (T -0.16%) lost during the second quarter, it would be easy to conclude that the COVID-19-infected quarter represents the apex of its attrition, the worst of the worst. Between the 886,000 premium users who cut the cord -- mostly DirecTV -- and the 68,000 over-the-top customers who canceled their service, the company shed 954,000 customers. That's technically a slower pace of losses than previous quarters, but that's largely because there are now fewer customers to lose. Some customers were likely canceled because of financial issues related to the coronavirus, although surely a large number of stuck-at-home consumers signed on or remained on board while there was little else to do but watch TV.

A recent survey performed by streaming set-top box brand Roku (ROKU -0.35%) suggests things are likely to get worse before they get better, though, and not just for AT&T. Other cable players like Comcast (CMCSA -0.15%) and Charter Communications (CHTR -0.41%) are in trouble, too. Not even the virtual cable platforms like Alphabet's (GOOG 0.10%) (GOOGL -0.02%) YouTube TV seem safe.

A pair of scissors cutting through a coaxial cable cord

Image source: Getty Images.

Can't stem the tide

It's a story that needs little in the way of retelling. Tired of high cable television prices and now finding lots of cheaper alternatives like Netflix, consumers are cutting the cord. AT&T's DirecTV has arguably been the poster child for the movement. Last quarter's TV subscriber losses of 954,000 for AT&T simply extends a trend that's been accelerating since 2016; its over-the-top service peaked in 2018.

AT&T has been steadily losing cable customers for several quarters now

Data source: AT&T Investor Relations Operational Trends. Chart by author.

Comcast, for the record, hasn't fared any better.

Comcast has been losing pay-TV customers since early 2017

Data source: Comcast Trending Schedule. Chart by author.

Both AT&T and Comcast more or less illustrate what the rest of the industry is facing, too. eMarketer estimates the business topped out in 2014 with 100.5 million U.S. customers paying for cable, and has since fallen back to a figure that's apt to end the year around 83 million. The consumer research organization believes that tally will fall below 73 million in 2023.

Roku suggests the conventional cable business in the United States could implode even faster than that. Its 2020 research study, which was completed in March and released last week, found that, of the 25% of U.S. households that qualify as "cord shavers" (customers who have already dialed back the amount of cable TV they pay for), 45% are planning to cancel their service outright within the next six months.

It's a significant data point simply because these cord shavers make up 25% of the United States' estimated 119.7 million households. The 25% of U.S. households only marginally attached to their cable provider adds up to nearly 30 million. If 45% of them are planning to cancel, that's more than 13 million more households completely cutting the cord by the end of 2020.

To be fair, lots of consumers say one thing and then do another. Even if Roku's findings modestly overstate plans to cut the cord, though, that's still a wide swath of paying customers about to say bye-bye.

Virtual video media distributors aren't immune to the trend, either, perhaps because users are starting to become frustrated by price hikes that are starting to make streaming video nearly as expensive as linear cable television service. Parks Associates found that during the first quarter, virtual cable's churn rate was around 80%. That is to say, for every five customers brought into the fold, four left it. The industry's overall net numbers are impressive given its young age, but retention is already a major problem for the once-touted alternative to linear cable.

Fanning the cord-cutting flames

It remains to be seen whether sweeping stay-at-home orders helped or hurt these outfits in Q2. Given the cord-cutting trends, the survey's results, and the backdrop, though, that doesn't seem likely. The backdrop includes an alarming data nugget from Cowen: 33% of the country's current cable customers are only paying a promotional price. Of those, 20% of them will see their discount expire within the next year. Comcast is particularly exposed to that risk of subscriber cancellations, although it's hardly alone.

And yes, they're going to non-cable options. Netflix was noted, but the list of winners from cable's losses included Disney+ from Walt Disney, HBO Now from AT&T's Warner Media arm, and Apple TV+, just to name a few.

As for why the pace is picking up now, it's likely the fallout from coronavirus outbreak exacerbated trends that were already in place. In short, lockdowns have given consumers time to act.