IN THE PAST decade one American industry has lost 5% of its customers, suffered a 20% drop in consumption, but still managed to increase sales by 30%. Pay-TV, for that is the miraculous sector in question, achieved this by charging customers 50% more for the same old services. Until recently it remained a lucrative formula for most owners of distribution networks, like cable companies, and the media firms that supply them with programmes.
Now this cushy business is showing unprecedented signs of strain. In the first quarter of this year American satellite, cable and telecommunications companies lost 1.4m TV customers, the steepest decline on record, as Americans rejected overstuffed pay-TV packages costing as much as $100 a month.
Money for something
MoffettNathanson, a research firm, estimates that the drop was less severe—about 860,000 households—when counting “skinnier” pay-TV services sold over the internet. These include things like Hulu Live, backed by Disney and Comcast, and were introduced below cost. These boosted the overall number of pay-TV households but generated big losses for operators.
The first hints of losing customers to Netflix a few years ago drove a wave of consolidation, including AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner and Disney’s acquisition of much of Fox. Both are investing heavily in streaming as an alternative to pay-TV. That can only accelerate the pace of “cord-cutting”, when viewers ditch traditional television and move online.
About 96m households still have a cord in place (if you include the likes of Hulu Live). That is 5m fewer than in 2011, despite the fact that the total number of American households has grown by 10m this decade. “There’s every reason to believe that things will only get worse,” observes Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson.
This will happen much more quickly for some than for others. Two big satellite operators, DirecTV and Dish Network, lost 1.7m of their 30m combined customers in the past two quarters. AT&T’s bosses have said that the satellite business deteriorated more rapidly than they anticipated (AT&T bought DirecTV at the top of the market in 2015, for $63bn). Cable operators like Comcast enjoy comparatively bright prospects, thanks to fat margins on broadband internet, in which they hold what amount to regional monopolies, and which customers require to access streaming services.
The cable networks are suffering unequally, too. Those that offer Netflix-like fare—drama, comedy, children’s programming, documentaries and reality shows—are increasingly imperilled. Viacom’s collection of entertainment networks has seen a decade-long slide; in April ratings at its main children’s network, Nickelodeon, dropped by more than 20% compared with a year ago.
DirecTV, under pressure because of its subscriber losses, is believed to have won concessions from Viacom when it agreed in March to renew distribution of its networks. Viacom is expected to merge with CBS as Sumner Redstone and his daughter Shari, billionaires who control both companies, seek to increase their clout through greater scale.
Yet as survival strategies go, size is less important than the ability to offer what streaming services typically do not: live news and sports. Disney’s flagship sports network, ESPN, commands higher prices from distributors than any other channel, about $8 a month, in part because it is seen as essential. Rupert Murdoch chose to keep parts of Fox that offer news and sports.
Providers of news and sports may abandon pay-TV and sell directly to consumers. Some are already testing the waters. In November Mr Murdoch started Fox Nation, a streaming service based on Fox News that seems to be faring well. A year ago Bob Iger, boss of Disney, launched ESPN+, a sports streaming service that has notched up over 2m subscribers. A Disney-branded streaming service is coming this year. The smartest moguls are hedging their bets.