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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.
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.