Editor's Corner—Operator sand-bagging aside, cord cutting got real in Q3

sandbagging
Whichever pay TV executive or investment research analysts next hypes how bad the fourth quarter is going to be for cord cutting, take what they say at face value. The erosion is bad, and it’s going to get worse. 
Daniel Frankel

For college football coaches, sand-bagging comes as natural as the zone read. In the week leading up to a big game, you talk up your opponent—and your team’s own injuries and inadequacies—to adjust the expectations of media and fans. 

If you do it right, the final score will ultimately be viewed from that manipulated lens. Great win! Or moral victory!

It's a visual ploy—a mind trick. Nobody picks on the fact that what you just said is true: your guards can’t block, your linebackers can’t run and your quarterback can’t throw. You, my friend, have successfully sandbagged everyone.

I’m not saying that Comcast consumer products chief Matthew Strauss was sandbagging when he publicly said his cable company might lose around 150,000 pay TV customers in the third quarter, factoring in hurricane calamity in Houston and Florida. But when Comcast’s losses actually came in at around 126,000, the general spin was that the attrition wasn’t as bad as anticipated. 

Hours later on Sept. 7, speaking at the same investor conference, AT&T entertainment group head John Stankey copied the play, warning analysts that flooding in Houston, an AT&T stronghold, would result in poor customer growth performance in a third-quarter period that is typically strong for the pay TV industry. 

A month later, AT&T reported that its DirecTV satellite platform and U-verse IPTV service combined to lose around 390,000 customers in the third quarter. Not only were investors braced for the sudden downturn in AT&T’s linear fortunes, endured so soon after it paid nearly $50 billion to get into the satellite biz, AT&T ran a little reverse, touting gains of 293,000 users for its low-margin DirecTV Now virtual MVPD service. 

RELATED: The top 7 cable, satellite and telco pay TV operators in Q3: Ranking Comcast, DirecTV, Charter and more

Dish Network had analysts sand-bagging for it, so when it combined gains by its vMPVD, SlingTV, with better-than-anticipated losses for its satellite TV service, the total customer loss came to only 16,000. Dish also successfully parsed out the 145,000 customers it lost in Puerto Rico.

In fact, the whole industry got a little sand-bagging from UBS analyst John Hodulik, who predicted linear pay TV customer losses would surpass 1 million. 

With another analyst estimating that vMPVDs gained 900,000 customers in the third quarter, and losses due to hurricane disruption being written of as ephemeral, what was the true loss of customers for the linear pay TV business? 

By our tally, the third quarter was record bad. The top 10 operators—AT&T, Comcast, Charter, Dish, Verizon, Cox, Altice, Frontier, Mediacom and Cable One—combined to lose 842,000 across their linear cable, satellite and IPTV services in the third quarter. 

Discount for a moment that this loss represents a more than tripling of the 255,000 customers these same linear services lost in the third quarter of 2016. Consider that these top 10 operators lost only 797,000 in all of 2016.

Through three quarters, the top 10 linear pay TV service operators have lost nearly 2.5 million subscribers. 

Of course, in an age when cable operators are “connectivity companies,” and “aggregators of aggregators,” while satellite TV corporations are wireless companies, and everyone is for sale, nobody’s dying. 

The but the sandbagging masked a reality in the third quarter. Massive changes to the TV video distribution business are coming even more quickly than anticipated. A year from now, the video side of the telecom business could look very different, because the great unbundling seems to be finally at hand. 

Whichever pay TV executive or investment research analysts next hypes how bad the fourth quarter is going to be for cord cutting, take what they say at face value. The erosion is bad, and it’s going to get worse. 

Suggested Articles

Alan Wolk, co-founder and lead analyst at TV[R]EV, explores what vMVPDs like YouTube TV need to do as their prices approach legacy cable levels.

In the event of a recession, consumers may consider watching streaming video “an austerity measure” compared to other entertainment choices.

Pluto TV, Tubi, Netflix and other streaming video services saw big spikes in viewership during earlier coronavirus-related lockdowns.