Broadcast, cable channels see 3% drop in summer viewers; pay-TV penetration declines slightly to 85%

Here's the good news for pay TV: The recent Republican presidential primary debate was the highest-rated non-sports cable telecast of all time, giving Fox News more than 24 million viewers and underscoring the cultural relevance of TV broadcasts. Further, the cable news network reported it pulled in 7.9 million viewers in the key 25-54 year-old demographic.

But here's the bad news for pay TV: Viewership of broadcast and cable channels dropped 3 percent this summer compared with the same period last year, and was down fully 6 percent from the summer 2013, according a Wall Street Journal report citing numbers from Nielsen. The research firm counted an average of 94.7 million viewers of cable and broadcast TV this summer.

Further, Nielsen found that the top 30 most popular cable channels saw notable declines in prime-time viewing. For example, Time Warner's TNT dropped 22 percent in July compared to the same month in 2014, while Walt Disney's Disney Channel fell 19 percent during the period.

The WSJ reported that Discovery Communications' Discovery Channel was the only channel to report a sizable gain, largely due to its Shark Week programming and its Naked & Afraid TV show.

As Re/code reported, even the NFL is seeing declines: The football league reported 202 million people tuning in last year, down from 205 million during 2013.

Worse still: According to Parks Associates, pay-TV penetration among households with broadband dropped from 87 percent in the third quarter of 2011 to 85 percent in the second quarter of this year.

Such figures have clearly spooked Wall Street investors. Media companies lost a total of $50 billion in value following their generally sluggish second quarter reports.

But a range of analysts remain optimistic on the future of TV in general and the cable industry specifically.

"Pay-TV adoption rates posted a small decline over the past four years. The recent heightened anxiety about cord cutting and cord shaving centers upon worries that this shift is impacting overall pay-TV revenues," said Brett Sappington, director of research at Parks Associates. "The overall volume of video consumed across platforms is as high today as it has ever been. As that consumption shifts to new devices and new content sources, revenues will inevitably shift as well."

And the analysts from MoffettNathanson told the WSJ that the declines in Nielsen's summer viewership numbers are mainly due to Nielsen's current inability to count viewership on newer platforms like mobile phone and tablets. Nielsen is working to add those devices to its figures.

Further, as the Financial Times pointed out, much of the decline in the pay-TV market in the second quarter came from sluggish results from satellite TV providers. Analysts estimate Dish Network lost 151,000 subscribers during the period, the FT notes, while AT&T's DirecTV lost 133,000 customers during the second quarter.

"As subscribers cut the cord they are more reliant on faster broadband, which favors cable," Jonathan Chaplin, an analyst at New Street Research, told the FT.

Indeed, SNL Kagan recently reported that cable companies added 608,000 high speed data (HSD) customers in the second quarter. The gains were cable's biggest in the second quarter since 2008.

For more:
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this Re/code article
- see this FT article
- see this Parks Associates release
- see this Fox News article

Related articles:
Analyst: 'ESPN not ready to go direct-to-consumer any time soon'
CBS' research guru David Poltrack: More people are watching TV than a decade ago
Pay-TV's Q2 was worst ever with 625K lost subscribers, says SNL Kagan tally

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