The top 6 cable, satellite and telco pay TV operators in the fourth quarter of 2019: Ranking Comcast, DirecTV, Charter and more

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Subscriber losses highlight 2019 results for top publicly traded pay TV operators. (Getty/monsitj)

The fourth-quarter earnings season has wrapped up for the top publicly traded pay TV operators in the U.S., and it's time to break down the numbers. FierceVideo has put together an overview of how the top cable, satellite and telco pay TV operators performed.

Charter, Comcast, Dish Network and DirecTV once again saw significant subscriber losses during the quarter. AT&T TV Now and Sling TV, two of the leading virtual MVPDs, also gave back subscribers while YouTube TV and Hulu + Live TV continued their rise to the top of the category.

How the top six U.S. publicly traded pay TV operators performed in the fourth quarter in video (ranking by subscribers.)

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Operators Video subscribers (mil.) Net additions (thousands)
1. AT&T* 20.4 (1,164)
2. Comcast 20.29 (149)
3. Charter 15.62 (105)
4. Dish Network* 11.98 (194)
5. Verizon 4.15 (51)
6. Altice USA 3.18 (44)

*AT&T's totals include U-verse and AT&T TV Now, and Dish's include Sling TV subscribers.

Cable losses pick up steam

U.S. pay TV subscriber losses were bad almost all over, with only Hulu + Live TV, YouTube TV and possibly some other virtual MVPDs managing any growth during the fourth quarter. Media analyst firm MoffettNathanson tracked the rate of annual decline at 6.8%, the fastest it’s ever been.

(MoffettNathanson)

AT&T once again lead the way into the darkness with a net loss of 1.164 million video subscribers between its DirecTV, U-verse and AT&T TV Now businesses. However, MoffettNathanson said cable is beginning to show signs of falling faster, calling the acceleration “breathtaking.” In the fourth quarter of 2018, Comcast and Charter together lost about 50,000 video subscribers. In the fourth quarter of 2019, the companies together lost 250,000 video subscribers, or five times as many.

The firm said the faster losses (which Comcast warned about for 2020) are a result of Comcast’s and Charter’s changed views on video subscribers and the end of trying to retain subscribers with “uneconomic save offers.”

“As it turns out, that is a friendlier way to treat customers than trying to shoehorn them into video packages they don’t really want anyway,” wrote Craig Moffett in a research report. “The fact that it saves money for both the customer and the cable operator makes for happier (broadband) customers, happier cable operators, and happier cable investors.”

AT&T’s formative year ahead

AT&T suffered a devastating 2019 for both traditional linear and digital video subscriber losses. The company lost approximately 4.1 million subscribers last year. However, the good news is that 2020 will still be bad, but not that bad. UBS analyst John Hodulik estimates AT&T’s video subscriber losses will total 2.8 million this year, equaling a rate of decline at around 14%.

In 2020, AT&T is launching both AT&T TV, its new streaming TV product with a fuller channel lineup on par with DirecTV, and HBO Max, its super-sized new version of the existing HBO product packed with lots of extra original and licensed content. That could mean positive things for video subscriber growth at AT&T, but it could also put extra financial stress on the company’s media business.

“Entertainment EBITDA will be under additional pressure in 1Q (UBSe -11%) due to higher amortization, and we now expect a decline of ~8% for the year. Investment in HBO Max will weigh on Warner Media EBITDA heading into its 2Q launch, driving an estimated ~11% decline for '20,” wrote Hodulik in a research note.

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