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Goodbye, Fat Cable Bills

By Rick Munarriz - Updated Apr 6, 2017 at 12:02PM

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More consumers are cutting the cord with their pay TV providers.

Even couch potatoes have had enough.

Media market research specialist SNL Kagan is reporting that the country's pay television industry suffered its first period of net subscriber losses this past quarter.

All but two of the eight leading cable providers posted their worst quarterly defections ever, combining to shed 711,000 accounts. Satellite television giant DIRECTV (NYSE: DTV) and aggressive marketing by AT&T's (NYSE: T) U-verse and Verizon's (NYSE: VZ) FiOS have usually been there to catch the fleeing, but telcos and satellite television providers only tacked on 495,000 new subscribers, sequentially. Add it up and pay television lost 216,000 homes during the quarter.

SNL Kagan is advising GigaOm's NewTeeVee to view the slip as an anomaly. It expects the industry to actually gain 900,000 net subscribers during the second half of the year.

I wouldn't bet on it.

SNL Kagan explains the blip, in part, on folks that signed up for cable packages when broadcasters kissed analog goodbye. Now that their low introductory rates are over, consumers shocked over their gargantuan cable bills are cutting the cord.

I get that, but there are other things likely in play.

On the macro level, the housing industry's collapse has created a glut of vacant homes. Families are unloading their vacation getaways. Speculators aren't juggling properties. Empty homes don't need cable.

It's also impossible to ignore the allure of digital distribution.

Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) continues to flesh out its digital catalog, offering unlimited streams along with DVD rentals for as little as $8.99 a month. Networks offer many of their shows as free ad-supported streams. Commercial-free downloads are available cheaply on a piecemeal basis.

The pay television industry may be doomed on both ends. Lower-class audiences may not be able to pay the annually escalating fees. Middle- and upper-class homes with Wi-Fi connectivity may not need to, especially now that everything from a TiVo (Nasdaq: TIVO) box to a Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) Xbox console can scour the Web for video. Even if most subscribers don't cancel their accounts entirely, the incentives are certainly there to shed premium movie channels and broader programming packages.

So where exactly will these 900,000 new families of couch potatoes come from? Rural families mourning the loss of their Movie Gallery DVD rental shop? A booming economy that finds the affluent snapping up second homes again? The digital revolution may get in the way of the expected bounce.

Seriously, I can't be the only one to think that pay television -- in terms of sheer subscribers and the amounts that they are willing to pay -- peaked during the quarter.

Can pay television in this country bounce back? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Netflix is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is guilty as charged on still paying for cable, though he will likely scale back his premium package later this year. He does not own shares in any of the stocks in this story, except for Netflix. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy, and it knows that roaming charges weren't billed in one day.

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Microsoft Corporation Stock Quote
Microsoft Corporation
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Netflix, Inc. Stock Quote
Netflix, Inc.
$245.64 (1.86%) $4.49
Verizon Communications Inc. Stock Quote
Verizon Communications Inc.
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AT&T Inc. Stock Quote
AT&T Inc.
$18.46 (0.20%) $0.04
TiVo Corporation Stock Quote
TiVo Corporation

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