Pay TV networks start the new year with discouraging news from Nielsen: The universe of homes that subscribe to cable or satellite for January is down 1.7% vs. the same time last year, even though the number of TV households grew 1.7% to 118.4 million, Nielsen estimates — and Pivotal Research Group’s Brian Wieser reports.
Put together, the numbers suggest a 3.4% shortfall for pay TV. That’s the biggest spread in the numbers in at least a year — down from -3.3% for December and way behind the -1.3% reported for January 2016. In the two years up to September, Nielsen pegged the TV household universe at 116.4 million.
The tallies don’t include subscribers to virtual pay TV services such as Dish Network’s Sling TV or Sony’s Playstation Vue. That might reduce the drop in the pay TV universe by about half a percentage point, Wieser says.
While the number of pay TV subscribers fell 1.7%, the average penetration rate for cable networks dropped 1.9%.
That suggests cord shaving “is still an issue,” although it “has diminished as a trend since prior to last summer,” Wieser says.
The report shows accelerating declines in the universe for ESPN — to -3.6%: vs -3.1% in the report for November. Disney’s sports network challenged the fall number, calling it “a historic anomaly for the industry and inconsistent with much more moderated trends observed by other respected third party analysts.”
Nielsen took a second look and said that the estimates “were accurate as originally released and …all the processes that go into the creation of these estimates were done correctly.”
ESPN declined to comment on the new numbers. Last month Disney CEO Bob Iger told analysts that he has “taken a more bullish position on the future of ESPN’s sub base.” The growth of small pay TV packages that exclude the sports channel has “abated.” Meanwhile the growth of live streaming services including Sling TV and an upcoming one from Hulu provide “options they haven’t had before.”
Other networks seeing drops in the number of homes Nielsen estimates they reach vs this time last year include Esquire (-27.6%), Spike (-9.5%), CMT (-6.9%), Boomerang (-6.3%), and Cloo (-5.5%).
Some 35 of the 118 measured networks improved their distribution. They include Velocity (+7.8%), FXX (+7.3%), FX Movie Channel (+6.2%), Sprout (+4.9%), and BBC America (+4.5%).
Wieser says that another “underappreciated positive story” in the data is that the universe for the major broadcast networks “effectively matches the rise in TV households.”