The good news for the cable industry is that, in the second quarter, the pace of cord-cutting in the U.S. slowed from the first quarter's brisk rate. The bad news? Consumers are still canceling their traditional pay-TV service in droves.
The nation's six most prolific cable TV giants shed another net 1.5 million paying customers from April through June. That may be less than their attrition of 2.3 million in the first quarter, but the industry clearly has work to do if it's going to stop the bleeding.
The trend is hardly new. Indeed, the industry has been on this trajectory for years. In 2014, there were just over 100 million U.S. households paying for cable TV, but according to estimates from the analysts at eMarketer, 2020 will end with less than 83 million of them, and by 2023, their numbers will have been whittled down to less than 73 million.
What is new -- and a bit surprising -- is the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has made on the trend.
Reconfiguring with the help of streaming alternatives
Plenty of consumers have been stuck bored at home, which would be a natural recipe for watching more television. But rather than sticking with their existing cable services, a sizable swath of them took the time to reconfigure their entertainment menus -- pulling the plug on cable in favor of streaming alternatives. Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) now serves nearly 73 million North American subscribers, up by almost 3 million from Q1's final count. Disney (NYSE:DIS) boasted 57.5 million paying subscribers for its relatively new Disney+ platform, plus another 32.1 million customers of the broader-scope, non-live-TV version of its Hulu service. Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) NBCUniversal arm reported that by the end of July, 10 million people had already signed up for its new Peacock streaming service, which officially launched in the middle of the month.
The below graphic tells the tale.
For the record, the underlying data used to create the chart above consolidates numbers for companies offering more than one cable television option. For instance, Dish Network (NASDAQ:DISH) aggregates its satellite business with its Sling TV headcount. AT&T (NYSE:T) owns DirecTV and U-Verse, as well as a purely streaming version of cable service called AT&T TV. Numbers for all of them are combined in the graphic. Charter Communications' (NASDAQ:CHTR) figures, like Comcast's and others, include cable service bought by businesses as well as individual consumers.
No matter how you count it, though, the trend remains the same. The traditional cable TV business continues to shrink as consumers and companies find alternatives. The winners are the companies creating and supplying those alternatives.
No end to the cable exodus in sight
The downward trends imply a rejection of the conventional cable model, which has largely been built on large bundles that package in large quantities of channels people increasingly say they don't need or want. There's little doubt that the comparatively a la carte nature of streaming services -- and the sheer number of them -- has been a contributing factor to the acceleration of cord-cutting.
It should be noted, though, that not all cord-cutting consumers are completely giving up on cable television. A small percentage of them are simply giving up on their conventional cable providers. A handful of virtual cable providers have made some inroads of late. For example, the version of Hulu that includes live cable programming ended its last fiscal quarter with 3.4 million customers, up from the previous quarter's total of 3.3 million. Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) also seemed to buck the trend during the first quarter, adding about 300,000 new customers to its YouTube TV roster to bring the count to 2.3 million, according to estimates from MoffettNathanson.
Even so, the virtual (streaming) video media business still seemed to shrink as a whole during Q1, and both AT&T's over-the-top customer base and Sling TV's customer count contracted during Q2. It also remains to be seen how subscribers will respond to the big YouTube TV price increase announced a month ago. Given the degree of frustration being voiced about the move -- which prices the service on par with the traditional cable options consumers have been dumping in the grounds that they are too expensive -- it's tough to expect all of its subscribers will stick with it. It's also tough to believe that huge numbers of displaced conventional cable customers will jump at the chance to start paying the $65 per month Google is now asking for its cable television service.
In other words, it's more of the same for the same reason -- and the number of people willing to overpay for a bunch of cable channels they don't watch much is shrinking.