We've been told that 2015 will be the year of the cord-cutter. In April, Time Warner(TWX) launched HBO Now, allowing fans of shows such as Game of Thrones to take advantage of all of HBO's programming without a cable subscription. CBS' (PARA -4.96%) Showtime is also expected to release a stand-alone streaming service by the end of the year. Apple is reportedly planning its own streaming pay-TV service, too.
Meanwhile, Netflix (NFLX -1.13%) shares have soared 70% this year as the video streaming leader has topped subscriber growth expectations twice; it added nearly 2.28 million domestic members in its most recent quarter, representing nearly 20% growth from the previous year.
Hulu has stepped up its game with its recent purchase of the entire Seinfeld series, as well as a promise to ramp up its original programming, and Amazon.com (AMZN -0.16%) is making a play as a force in streaming video with its Golden Globe wins for Transparent and by signing Woody Allen to create a TV series.
Now, the first set of data on pay-TV subscriptions for the year has come in, showing that the industry is declining faster than thought. According to media research firm MoffettNathanson, pay-TV subscriptions fell by 31,000 in the first quarter. That might not seem significant, but the winter months are generally strong for growth in the industry. In the first quarter of 2014, those services added 271,000 subscribers, so the first-quarter decline marked a swing of 300,000 from one year to the next.
That would seem to bode poorly for results for the current quarter and the next. Using Netflix's seasonality as an example, in recent years Netflix has routinely added more domestic subscribers during Q1 than in Q2 and Q3 combined.
In the second quarter of 2014, about 305,000 households dropped cable or satellite TV, a number that could easily double this year based on first-quarter results. HBO Now and Showtime's upcoming streaming service should only speed up the decline, meaning pay-TV defections could top 1 million this year. That decline also comes as the country added 1.26 million households over the past year, suggesting the number of "cord-nevers" might be increasing.
Winners and losers
Not all major pay-TV companies lost membership in the first quarter. Comcast's (CMCSA -0.88%) rolls decreased by 8,000 while Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC) gained 33,000 members. DISH Network (DISH -1.26%) was the biggest victim in the quarter, losing 134,000 subscribers, which management blamed on a programming spat over Fox News.
DISH's results might have been skewed by the disagreement, but if its customers left because of that, they didn't switch to other cable or satellite providers. DISH, of course, also launched its own stripped-down subscription service, Sling TV, in February, which should also hasten the cord-cutting shift.
At a recent conference, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings predicted that linear TV (what the cable and satellite services offer) would decline each year over the next two decades while Internet TV would rise. As the recent results show, that prediction is well on its way to becoming an accepted fact.
The cord-cutting revolution will not happen all at once, but gradually, as different generations have different relationships with traditional TV. Millennials, for example, are rapidly fleeing from Comcast and its ilk, and linear-TV consumption among 18- to 24-year-olds fell by nearly 20% last year.
The most recent data make clear that cord-cutting is accelerating at a much faster pace than it did last year. In 2013, pay-TV subscriptions fell by 95,000; in 2014, that increased modestly to 125,000. This year, it could easily eclipse 1 million. Traditional TV viewing hours have also plummeted by about 10%, an indication that consumers are letting go of cable and satellite TV but still paying for them.
That should mean more customers for Netflix and the other streaming firms, and should induce more competitors such as HBO and Showtime to cut the cord themselves and offer their own streaming packages. As that happens, the cycle will only speed up as more streaming options create greater incentives for Americans to cut the cord.