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AT&T's DirecTV Leads Another Quarter of Heavy Cord-Cutting. Here's How Bad Things Are.

By James Brumley - Feb 24, 2021 at 11:59AM

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Anyone hoping cable television's slow implosion was near an end has to be disappointed here.

The U.S's cord-cutting movement marches on. During the fourth quarter, the six biggest cable television services (which account for more than 90% of the U.S. cable industry) collectively lost nearly 1.2 million customers. That's an acceleration from the third quarter's attrition of 986,000, though it's still the lowest dropout pace since the first quarter of 2019. For perspective, these providers ended the quarter in question with a total of just under 68.2 million paying subscribers.

It comes as no surprise that AT&T (T 1.84%) led the charge, losing 616,000 "premium TV" customers (mostly DirecTV subscribers). The company has discontinued lower-priced plans and raised the price of remaining ones in recent months, seemingly unconcerned about preserving the satellite cable company's value in front of a frequently rumored sale of the service. No provider added customers on a net basis, though.

If you were thinking cable cancellations were going to level off, think again. The only thing even partially curbing cord-cutting is the fact that there are fewer cable television customers to cancel their service.

Scissors cutting coaxial cable cord

Image source: Getty Images.

Cord-cutting still going strong

The United States' cable TV industry has been losing customers steadily since 2014, when the business peaked at 100.5 million households, according to eMarketer. Partially prompted by the pandemic, the media and technology research outfit estimates there are only going to be 73.7 million traditional cable customers left by the end of this year, en route to only 63.4 million by 2024.

This downtrend jibes with the attrition data we're seeing just from the six biggest names in the business, which have lost customers in each of the past 12 quarters. AT&T has lost the most during this time, although Comcast's (CMCSA 1.18%) Xfinity -- by virtue of being second-biggest three years back -- has lost a few million of its own. Charter (CHTR) has arguably lost the fewest cable customers, yet it's still lost them, and it continues to do so. The graphic below tells the story in no uncertain terms.

The United States' cable television customer counts are steadily dropping.

Data source: Company investor reports.

All is not necessarily lost.

While consumers are saying sayonara to conventional cable media, some are showing interest in cable-like alternatives piped into their homes via a broadband connection. FuboTV (FUBO 3.15%) likely added another 90,000 users to its service during Q4, bringing its headcount to at least 545,000. DISH Network (DISH 11.60%) picked up another 16,000 SlingTV customers, even as it lost 149,000 satellite TV subscribers.

Even so, the streaming cable mania that translated into the addition of more than 1.5 million of these consumers during the third quarter only set up a slight loss in streaming cable customers last quarter. Walt Disney (DIS 3.69%) ended Q4 with around 100,000 fewer Hulu+Live customers than it started the quarter with; price increases may have played a role in that setback. AT&T lost 27,000 over-the-top television customers during the three-month stretch ending in December. Alphabet (GOOGL 5.11%) (GOOG 5.20%) didn't report how many YouTube TV customers it was serving as of the end of last year, though given the bigger trend it's difficult to say it added many more to its Q3 tally of "more than 3 million paid subscribers."

Streaming "live" cable customer counts have been growing well, but may have peaked in Q3 of 2020.

Data source: Company investor reports and media estimates.

No end in sight

The surge in cable cancellations early last year, followed by a relative lull in Q3, indicated cord-cutting may be about to level off, leaving cable companies with a smaller but stable base of paying customers. With cable cancellations picking up again nearly a full year into the pandemic, though, eMarketer's outlook is sounding increasingly on target. It's not likely a coincidence that the cord-cutting movement is marching on in the midst of an explosion of live-television and on-demand streaming options like Disney's Disney+ and Comcast's Peacock.

And for shareholders of any cable TV providers, that's a problem. It's less of a problem for owners of highly diversified names like Comcast or even AT&T, both of which generate most of their revenue outside of cable television. For more dedicated players like Charter or DISH Network, however, questions of sustainability have to be asked. Cable cancellations aren't slowing.

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Stocks Mentioned

AT&T Inc. Stock Quote
AT&T Inc.
$20.99 (1.84%) $0.38
Verizon Communications Inc. Stock Quote
Verizon Communications Inc.
$50.96 (-2.17%) $-1.13
Alphabet Inc. Stock Quote
Alphabet Inc.
$2,359.50 (5.11%) $114.66
The Walt Disney Company Stock Quote
The Walt Disney Company
$97.78 (3.69%) $3.48
DISH Network Corporation Stock Quote
DISH Network Corporation
$18.85 (11.60%) $1.96
Comcast Corporation Stock Quote
Comcast Corporation
$39.57 (1.18%) $0.46
Alphabet Inc. Stock Quote
Alphabet Inc.
$2,370.76 (5.20%) $117.07
Altice USA, Inc. Stock Quote
Altice USA, Inc.
$9.48 (1.83%) $0.17
fuboTV, Inc. Stock Quote
fuboTV, Inc.
$2.95 (3.15%) $0.09
Charter Communications, Inc. Stock Quote
Charter Communications, Inc.

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

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