The long predicted demise of the cable business may finally be happening.
In the second quarter of 2015 the 13 largest pay-television providers in the United States, which cover about 95% of the market, lost just over 470,000 net video subscribers, according to Leichtman Research Group. Every company dropped with Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) posting the biggest loss of the traditional cable providers shedding 69,000 subscribers. The biggest overall drop was AT&T's (NYSE:T) DirecTV which lost 133,000 paying customers.
"The top pay-TV providers lost about 470,000 subscribers in the traditionally weak second quarter, with net losses in 2Q 2015 exceeding the previous low-water mark of about 360,000 losses in 2Q 2013," said Bruce Leichtman, president and principal analyst for LRG.
There's no way to spin this other than as bad news for the industry. Losses are growing and they may accelerate as consumers become more comfortable going without traditional pay television.
Fortunately for the industry -- at least for the companies which also serve as Internet service providers -- cutting the cord in order to use streaming services still requires a broadband connection. That may prove to be a lifeline for an industry which is seeing its product become unnecessary, outdated, and, in some cases, unwanted.
How bad is it for cable?
Cord cutting has not reached cataclysmic status yet, but it has become a growing trend. It's more of a steady erosion than a massive drop-off, but the numbers are adding up and the second quarter was full of bad news for the industry. The losses were not uniform. Satellite was hit hardest, but the overall trend is down.
Traditional cable actually slowed its losses which may be directly attributable to being able to offer bundle deals which include broadband. In fact, while pay-TV was losing subscribers, many of the same companies affected posted gains on the broadband side.
Is broadband the answer?
In the second quarter the 17 largest cable and telephone providers in the U.S. -- representing about 94% of the market -- acquired about 360,000 net additional high-speed Internet subscribers, according to LRG. What's notable about that is the fact that cable companies gained over 500,000 subscribers while telephone companies dropped just over 151,000.
This is not an on-time thing for the cable providers.
"Over the past year, cable has accounted for 95% of the approximately 3,000,000 broadband additions," said Leichtman.
This suggests that it's not simply offering Internet service or bundles but offering packages including top-quality Internet service. In a broad sense, the wired Internet products offered by cable are superior to the DSL service offering by the phone companies.
Cable can be saved
In order to cut the cord with cable in favor of cheaper streaming options people still need a high-quality Internet connection and that can be exploited in two ways by the traditional cable providers.
First, those companies can keep broadband prices relatively high in markets where they have limited or inferior competition. That option may dwindle as more markets are served by alternative high-speed providers, but that is not widespread currently.
Second, and this is where the real opportunity lies, the cable companies can create bundles which make cutting the cord less attractive. Comcast has already begun testing skinny bundles and alternative package pricing in some markets.
If a customer has to pay $49.99 a month for broadband access anyway and can get a small cable package for $20 extra, it's not inconceivable that the subscriber may add HBO or other a la carte services down the line.
For cable, the key is keeping people as paying customers. Doing that makes it a lot easier to sell people more as time goes on. If the cord has not been cut then hope remains and broadband may be the cord that simply can't be cut.