If you thought the cable TV industry's customer attrition would slow as COVID-19 issues go away, I've got bad news -- it isn't happening. The country's cord-cutting movement marches right along, claiming another 1.4 million subscribers during the final quarter of last year. That's in line with the pace of customer losses seen shortly before the pandemic took hold.
And yes, the contraction of the conventional cable business coincides with the ever-growing adoption of streaming services, which is a viable alternative means of television entertainment.
Some cable players are better equipped than others to fight the headwind. All of them, however, will at least struggle to overcome it. These companies' investors have every right (and good reason) to start asking what the long-term contingency plan is.
The cord-cutting cadence hasn't changed one iota
Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSA) Xfinity led the way, shedding more than 400,000 paying cable customers when counting its consumer and business offerings. Charter Communications(NASDAQ: CHTR) lost well over 100,000, while Dish Network(NASDAQ: DISH) saw nearly 200,000 of its 7.6 million customers cancel their satellite services. Dish's SlingTV also lost nearly 100,000 subscribers, extending a reversal of the growth trend that peaked in mid-2021. Verizon Communications saw its headcount shrink as well. Altice USA(NYSE: ATUS) too.
There are bright spots ... sort of. Virtual cable players like Walt Disney's (NYSE: DIS)Hulu+Live and FuboTV(NYSE: FUBO) added customers. These two brands alone picked up nearly 400,000 subscribers between them. And, while Alphabet hasn't provided updated figures for YouTube TV since the middle of last year, it's been growing its reach rather nicely since launching in 2018.
Even so, the virtual cable industry as a whole is starting to face a similar (albeit gentler) headwind.
So, let's face facts. The nation's cable television businesses are still dying the slow death that got underway all the way back in 2014, when streaming started to become an acceptable alternative to increasingly expensive cable service.
Stuck in the middle
Last quarter's customer losses aren't surprising, of course. They simply extend a trend that's been in place for years, and is still in place for the same reason it got started -- cable TV is offering less and less relative value, particularly now that other options like Disney+, Netflix(NASDAQ: NFLX), and Warner Bros. Discovery's (NASDAQ: WBD) HBO Max are readily available at a much lower (net) cost.
What is surprising is how little the cable companies have done or are doing to address the obvious challenge.
In some regards, they're helpless to do so. Studios and content producers like Walt Disney can apply tremendous leverage when it comes to pricing, effectively insisting cable companies pay for The Disney Channel and ESPN and ABC if they want to make any of them available to their cable customers. Sports is still the single-biggest reason consumers pay for cable service, according to CableTV.com, so the cable TV industry may feel it's ultimately best-served by ensuring ESPN is part of every plan package.
In other regards, it seems at least some cable players could do more.
Take Comcast as an example. While its Xfinity cable service continues to shed subscribers, this is the same company that owns powerhouse media brands like Universal Studios and NBC. Although it's in the streaming fray with Peacock, Peacock's headcount is strangely small at only a bit over 20 million paying customers. For perspective, Disney boasts 162 million Disney+ subscribers. Netflix was serving over 230 million worldwide customers as of the end of last year.
That small something is better than nothing, however. Smaller companies like Altice and Charter are only in the telco business and don't own or operate their own media production houses. They can only play defense, and they're fighting a battle they're ultimately going to lose as long as the big bundle remains cable's core product. And, as long as studios like Disney and Universal and networks like NBC and ABC can apply pricing leverage, unbundling remains unlikely.
The irony? As much as the cable business is shrinking, it's still an important distribution/revenue channel for the very same studios and content creators putting pricing pressure on these middlemen.
Steer clear until cable companies can stop the bleeding
Nothing is ever entirely insurmountable. The cable industry's key players may well figure out a new format or bundle size that's priced more palatably, allowing consumers to continue paying for their favorite streaming services while still enjoying their favorite cable channels.
With most studios like Warner Bros. Discovery, Disney, and NBCUniversal now populating their own streaming platforms with their own content, it's the cable industry holding the (much) weaker hand. All of these stocks are going to be tough to own for the foreseeable future. That's particularly true for cable players like Charter and Altice, which have few other profit centers aside from their cable businesses.
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Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. James Brumley has positions in Alphabet and Warner Bros. Discovery. The Motley Fool has positions in and recommends Alphabet, Netflix, Walt Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery, and fuboTV. The Motley Fool recommends Comcast and Verizon Communications and recommends the following options: long January 2024 $145 calls on Walt Disney and short January 2024 $155 calls on Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.