Cordpocalypse Now: Traditional Pay TV Subs Plummet in 2019

While the launch of the Disney Plus streaming service was not without its technical hiccups, the introduction of the newest over-the-top service was unquestionably a success. Just one day after its debut, Disney said the service had rocketed to 10 million subscribers, beating Wall Street estimates of an 8 million subscriber surge.

The strong demand for Disney Plus stands in stark contrast to the fortunes of the U.S.’s leading pay TV providers.

Shortly before the Disney debut, Comcast announced that it had lost 238,000 subscribers in the third quarter of 2019. That followed a similarly bruising second quarter, where the cable provider lost 224,000 subscribers. AT&T suffered even sharper declines, dropping 1.36 million subscribers between its UVerse, DirecTV and AT&T Now brands. Other major cable brands took their lumps, albeit not nearly as severe: Altice lost 32,000 subs in the quarter, Cox waved goodbye to 40,000 TV subs and Charter cable shed 75,000.

The rare bright spot was Dish Network, which managed to gain 148,000 pay TV subs over the quarter.

The third quarter pay TV bloodbath was hardly an isolated affair. The first and second quarters were  no better, with providers losing roughly 1.3 million and an estimated 1.5 million subscribers, respectively.

The fourth quarter may not be much better. Joining the aforementioned Disney Plus is Apple’s long-awaited service, Apple TV+, which is projected to grow sharply as well. Once the only way to get pay TV services, cable, satellite and telco subscriptions now represent about 70% of U.S. TV households. Adding in the virtual MPVD services puts the estimate at about 72%, a big fall from 2010 when it was about 88%.

Beleaguered as traditional service providers are, it’s not as if streaming faces all smooth sailing. The new Disney and Apple services are joining an already large and, to some consumers, increasingly confusing, lineup of OTT services. Linear “me too” streaming services like AT&T TV Now and YouTube TV aren’t hauling in the big subscription numbers, in part because the early introductory prices have been raised to better represent the service providers’ actual content costs.

More streaming services are on the way, including services from HBO and NBCUniversal. Many streamers say they’re done tacking on new services. “Subscription fatigue” may join “cord cutting” as the watchword du jure as 2020 dawns.