This is Wall Street’s biggest concern about Big Media: If the pace of cord cutting and other strategies to pay less for TV is accelerating, then prospects for programmers, networks and distributors become dreary.
But while analysts differ about the trends, some who follow pay TV distributors say it’s time to relax, based on Q4 subscription numbers they can tally following morning’s report from Cablevision — the last major distributor to weigh in.
“The data simply doesn’t fit the story of accelerating secular decline that has so dominated discourse in the general press and on media earnings conference calls of late,” MoffettNathanson Research’s Craig Moffett says.
He estimates that traditional cable, satellite, and telco TV providers — including privately held ones that don’t report their numbers — lost about 49,000 subs in the three-month period at the end of 2015.
Those who believe cord cutting is a problem can note that, by Moffett’s count, this would be the first decline in the year-end period, which is usually strong for subscriptions. It also would be the first time that the industry declined for four consecutive quarters.
But Moffett says it’s fair to include an estimated 129,000 subs for Dish Network’s skinny bundle Sling TV. That brings the total to an increase of 80,000.
In any event, he says, the quarter showed “a small but material improvement to the rate of decline a quarter ago,” when the industry lost 426,000 without Sling, and 271,000 with it.
Some of pay TV’s decline is due to the slowdown in millennials’ ability to leave their parents’ homes to create their own households — and, for many of them, starting their own subscriptions. But “if and when a true recovery in new household formation comes, Pay TV and Media investors could be in for a rather sharp positive surprise,” Moffett says.
Evercore ISI’s Vijay Jayant’s subscriber estimates are a little different, but he says they still show that “all major cable operators showed improvement in video trends” in Q4.
He figures cable, satellite and telco video providers collectively lost 123,000 subscribers in Q4, for a total of 98.8 million.
While analysts following the pay TV distributors are upbeat, those who track content providers say they’re still concerned about recent trends.
Within the subscription numbers, there’s been a shift from small operators to large ones including Comcast and AT&T’s DirecTV. “We believe that these companies on average pay materially lower per-subscriber fees than smaller share losers for the same networks,” Guggenheim Securities’ Michael Morris says. “We expect this trend to continue into 2016.”
And investors have to guess about how many customers networks actually have: Companies typically just report Nielsen estimates, not the number of households for which they’re paid.
“In that vacuum, a narrative — typically bearish — takes hold,” MoffettNathanson Research’s Michael Nathanson says.