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Power

Cord cutting in 2020: Pay TV industry lost 5.5 million subscribers

Subscriber defections slowed toward the end of the year, but there's no end to cord cutting in sight.

Cord cutting in 2020: Pay TV industry lost 5.5 million subscribers

The pay TV industry is undergoing a bit of a power shift.

Photo: Nicolas J Leclercq/Unsplash

The five biggest pay TV providers lost a combined 5.5 million subscribers in 2020, narrowly staying below the 5.8 million subscribers the companies collectively lost in 2019. Subscriber losses slowed a bit toward the end of the year, but pandemic-related cutbacks still hit the industry hard — and may have led to hundreds of thousands additional cancellations if not for industry-wide billing relief efforts.

The industry is undergoing a bit of a power shift, with pay TV subscribers switching from traditional operators like Comcast and AT&T to tech companies like Google and Hulu and their respective pay TV services. However, a closer look at pay TV trends suggests that these gains may be temporary, as so-called skinny bundles fall out of favor with consumers once operators are forced to increase their price tags to make up for ever-increasing network licensing costs.

The holiday quarter saw significant improvements for AT&T, which got hit hard in late 2019 by consumers ditching its AT&T TV Now online service following significant price increases. Losses notably increased at Comcast, which lost 227,000 subscribers during the holiday quarter, compared to 133,000 during the same quarter a year before.

Looking at the entirety of 2020, AT&T was able to narrow its losses; the telco lost nearly 3.3 million pay TV subscribers in 2020, compared to more than 4 million in 2019. Comcast saw its losses increase from 671,000 in 2019 to nearly 1.3 million. Only Charter was able to actually grow its subscriber base, moving from a loss of nearly 500,000 subscribers in 2019 to a narrow gain of 19,000.

There's been some evidence for pay TV customers transitioning to nontraditional service providers including YouTube TV and Hulu's online pay TV service. Disney disclosed as part of its latest earnings results that Hulu's TV service ended 2020 with 4 million subscribers, compared to 3.2 million at the end of 2019.

However, these gains may be short-lived, if similar efforts run by major pay TV providers are any indication. AT&T effectively discontinued AT&T TV Now in January after losing millions of the service's subscribers when it phased out introductory pricing and raised bundle prices to make up for increased carriage fees. Dish's Sling TV service lost 118,000 subscribers in 2020 even before announcing a price increase in January.

Even Hulu's pay TV service doesn't look as rock-solid once you zoom in a bit: The Disney subsidiary lost around 100,000 pay TV between the end of September and the end of December; Hulu increased the price of its live TV bundle by $10 per month in late December, making it likely that we will see further subscriber defections during the current quarter.

People

No editing, no hashtags: Dispo wants you to live in the moment

David Dobrik's new photography app harkens back to the days of the disposable camera.

Dispo turns the concept of a photography app into something altogether different.

Image: Katya Sapozhnina, Diana Morgan, Amanda Luke

Instagram was once a place to share Starbucks cups and high-contrast pet photos. After Facebook acquired it in 2012, it has turned into a competition of getting as many likes as possible (using the same formula over and over: post the best highly-curated, edited photos with the funniest captions). More recently, it's essentially become a shopping mall, with brands falling over themselves to be heard through the noise. Doing something "for the gram" — scaling buildings, posting the same cringe picture over and over — became the norm. Pop-up museums litter cities with photo ops for posts; "camera eats first"; everything can be a cute Instagram story; everything is content.

And to be clear, Dispo — a buzzy new photography app that just came out of beta — is still a place for content. It probably isn't going to fix our collective online brains and their inclination to share everything about our private lives with others online. It's still an app, and it's still social media, and it encourages documenting your life. But it runs pretty differently than any other image-sharing app out there. And that might be what helps it stand out in an oversaturated market of social networking apps.

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Jane Seidel

Jane Seidel is Protocol's social media manager. She was previously a platform producer at The Wall Street Journal, creating mobile content and crafting alert strategy. Prior to that, she worked in audience development at WSJ and on digital editorial at NBC Universal. She lives in Brooklyn.

Sponsored Content

Building better relationships in the age of all-remote work

How Stripe, Xero and ModSquad work with external partners and customers in Slack channels to build stronger, lasting relationships.

Image: Original by Damian Zaleski

Every business leader knows you can learn the most about your customers and partners by meeting them face-to-face. But in the wake of Covid-19, the kinds of conversations that were taking place over coffee, meals and in company halls are now relegated to video conferences—which can be less effective for nurturing relationships—and email.

Email inboxes, with hard-to-search threads and siloed messages, not only slow down communication but are also an easy target for scammers. Earlier this year, Google reported more than 18 million daily malware and phishing emails related to Covid-19 scams in just one week and more than 240 million daily spam messages.

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People

Google vows to do better on DEI and firings. Timnit Gebru is not impressed.

Google AI lead Jeff Dean said Google had concluded its investigation into Timnit Gebru's dismissal in an email to employees Friday.

Google has ended its investigation into the dismissal of prominent AI ethicist Timnit Gebru.

Photo: John Nacion/Getty Images

Google has concluded its investigation into the firing of prominent AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru, and it announced some changes to its hiring, firing and research policies in an email from AI leader Jeff Dean to employees Friday.

While Dean did not share the results of the investigation into the circumstances surrounding Gebru's dismissal, he said that the company would enact new policies to "review employee exits that are sensitive in nature." His email, which was obtained by Protocol, said the company will also begin linking performance reviews for vice presidents and above, in part regarding diversity and inclusion goals, and it will report DEI goals and progress to the Alphabet board of directors in quarterly reviews.

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Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (@ anna_c_kramer), where she helps write and produce Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Amazon's new interface tries to rein in the chaos

The company is rolling out a new interface with profiles and a big emphasis on live content to additional Fire TV streaming devices next month.

Amazon's new Fire TV interface is coming to additional streaming devices next month.

Image: Amazon

When Amazon's Fire TV team began pushing out a new interface to select streaming devices in December, it wasn't just aiming for a cosmetic refresh. The new Fire TV experience, which is scheduled to launch on Fire TV Stick 4K and Fire TV Cube devices next month, promises to rein in some of the sprawl caused by Fire TV's last major UI change. However, the new changes also show how hard it can be for TV platforms to do the right thing for consumers without offending content partners.

The idea was simple enough: Instead of making consumers browse bland lists of apps, forcing them to choose whether they'd want to spend their evening with Netflix or Hulu, Amazon's Fire TV team wanted them to get straight to the movies and shows that matter. That's why in late 2016, the company was first among the major smart TV platform providers to introduce what's known in the industry as a content-first user experience, with rows and rows of shows and movies — from various streaming apps — directly on the TV home screen.

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Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

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