It is tempting to think that the declining number of subscribers at the U.S.'s biggest cable-television companies is a symptom of the industry's malaise as it slowly slides into obsolescence. Don’t buy it. The losses are accounted for in the gains by smaller and nimbler rivals.
Comcast Corp., the biggest provider of pay-TV services, has lost about 2.5 million subscribers since the end of 2008, and now has 21.7 million subscribers. Time Warner Cable Inc., the second-biggest cable service, just reported that it had 11.2 million residential subscribers at the end of 2013, compared with about 12 million at the end of 2012 and 13 million subscribers at the end of 2008.
Industry bears attribute these declines to the mythical "cord-cutters," people who only pay for broadband and stream their video content over the Internet through services such as Netflix Inc., Amazon.com Inc. or Hulu LLC. That doesn't seem credible, because the services offered by these Web-based companies are rarely substitutes for the sort of programming that is offered by the television providers.
For example, the Wall Street Journal reported last year that the children of some satellite executives preferred to access content over the Internet rather than pay separately for cable television. Daniel Gross at the Daily Beast has written that the pay-TV market as a whole is "crumbling" because "Americans are cutting their cords." He explicitly linked the decline in Time Warner Cable subscribers to the fate of the broader industry in a tweet about the company's fourth-quarter results last Thursday.
The customers who have been abandoning Comcast and Time Warner Cable in droves haven't given up on paid TV content, however. Focusing on the travails of the biggest cable companies obscures the reality that, according to Bloomberg Industries, the total number of pay-TV subscribers is slightly higher now than it was at the end of 2008 and that there were probably more people paying for television subscriptions at the end of 2013 than at the end of 2012.
To the extent that individual company results tell us anything, it could be about where Americans are moving, or the relative quality of service offered by the various companies. In the 12 months ended Dec. 31, AT&T Inc. added 924,000 subscribers to its U-verse TV service, while Verizon Communications Inc. added 536,000 subscribers to its FiOS TV service. Since the end of 2008, the two companies best known for their wireless services have added about 8 million pay-TV subscribers -- far more than Time Warner Cable and Comcast have lost.
Satellite providers have also done well. We don't have the data yet from the quarter ended Dec. 31, but data from the quarter ended Sept. 30 show that DirecTV has added about 2.5 million subscribers since the end of 2008 and is now almost as large as Comcast, while Dish Network Corp. has managed to add a few hundred thousand subscribers over the same period. The smaller cable providers, such as Cablevision Systems Corp., Charter Communications Inc. and Cox Enterprises Inc. have all lost subscribers during the past few years, but not by enough to make a dent in the overall story.
This growth is occurring during a period when the number of young people living with their parents, or with many roommates, has increased sharply. We don't need to invent stories about people cutting their cords when the simpler explanations is that we're seeing more people get TV from the same number of cable subscriptions than in the past. An economic recovery that enables younger people to move out of their parents' houses and start their own families would probably lead to a big jump in subscriber numbers. That's cord-cutting of a different kind, and it might be a boon for the cable industry.
(Matthew C. Klein is a writer for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @M_C_Klein.)
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