Total paying cable customers decreased by 31,000 customers in the first quarter of 2015 compared to a gain last year in the same quarter of 271,000. This is looking at cumulative customers for the whole industry including cable companies, telcos, and satellite. But within that number, the net losses for satellite for the quarter was 74,000 customers with a loss at Dish Networks of 134,000 customers and a gain for Direct TV of 60,000.
And cable companies as a whole are still losing customers to AT&T and Verizon, who together gained 129,000 new customers for the quarter, although as a group these two sectors had a tiny gain for the quarter.
This brings the overall loss for the year ending 1Q15 to 0.05%. While that doesn’t seem large, it’s the biggest (and the first) loss the industry as a whole has ever seen. And within the numbers is a worse story. Cable has now been shrinking for several years when measured against the growth of new households in the country. For the first quarter customers actually dropped 2.3% compared with the net change in total households, and for 2014 this was even worse with a net decline for the year of 2.8%.
As somebody who watched the telephone industry decline with landlines this is feeling very familiar. The industry first became sluggish for a few years, then had some tiny losses, and eventually began to bleed customers. But the loss of landlines was accompanied by the meteoric rise of cellphones, which gave people a good alternative to the home phone.
It’s impossible to sit and predict the same rapid decline of cable. For that to happen people are going to need to feel that the alternatives to cable are attractive enough for them to drop the traditional cable packages. So how are some of the alternatives to cable doing?
In the fourth quarter of last year Netflix streamed 10 billion hours of video, which represents 6% of all TV viewing. That number has been growing by double digits and is expected to continue to grow at that same fast rate. 6% of the market may not seem like a lot, but analysts say that Netflix contributed to 43% of the decline in ratings that TV experienced in 4Q14. So it’s not just that people are watching Netflix, but they are watching it during prime time.
And this is all very largely age-related. In the fourth quarter of 2014, viewing of linear TV (watching live broadcasts) was down 10.6%, a huge decrease over the year before. Millennials are flocking from traditional TV to either delayed viewing, viewing alternate content like Netflix, or viewing shorter content on their cellphones. Only about a quarter of millennials now watch linear TV while 44% of baby boomers do.
Linear viewing, in terms of hours watched, peaked in 2013 but has seen significant decreases since then. Over time this has to result in fewer people willing to pay the big monthly bill for something they don’t watch.
There have been surveys for years that predict an upcoming surge in cord cutting, but for various reasons none of those polls has held to be true. These polls tell that us that people are thinking about dropping cable subscriptions, but something is stopping them from pulling the trigger – there is a noted difference between intentions and actions.
There was another such survey recently released by TiVo. This poll says that about 1.5 million customers plan to ditch traditional cable in the next year. The survey says that another 38.1 million customers are dissatisfied with their pay-TV service. But that survey also reported that 20% of respondents had increased their TV packages within the last year, meaning there is a solid core of people who really love TV.
The TiVo survey might be right. When you consider that there has been no growth in cable for several years now it’s possible that there are already between 1 and 2 million people per year dropping cable, and that those drops are being masked by new households entering the market. But since most new households are younger and are the ones not buying cable that is probably not the case. The whole industry is scratching their head in the same way that I am, because the actual behavior in the market doesn’t match what surveys are telling them.