The major pay TV providers saw cord cutting slow in the most recent quarter, with AT&T, Comcast, Dish, Charter and Verizon losing a combined 735,000 subscribers during the three months ending Sept. 30. During Q3 of 2019, the same companies lost almost 1.4 million subscribers.
However, it's not all good news for the pay TV industry: 4,181,000 households canceled pay TV services during the first nine months of 2020, surpassing the 3.8 million cord-cutters the five companies saw during the same time frame last year. This suggests that consumers who were on the fence about ditching cable did so earlier during the pandemic, much in the same way that Netflix saw its biggest subscriber growth during the first two quarters of the year.
What's more, pay TV operators are still granting pandemic-related billing relief to hundreds of thousands of customers who would have been disconnected under normal circumstances, suggesting that we might see a big bump in cord cutting once those grace periods expire.
The biggest change in Q3 was a notable improvement for AT&T. The telco saw its losses shrink from nearly 1.2 million households to 590,000, which is largely due to a massive shedding of subscribers to its internet-based TV Now service last year. Things stayed largely the same for most of the other providers, with Comcast increasing subscriber losses by 33,000 while Verizon lost 6,000 fewer customers.
Two notable winners are Dish and Charter, with the latter adding 53,000 subscribers during the quarter while it lost 77,000 in Q3 of 2019. Dish also grew its subscriber base, albeit at a lower rate than in Q3 of 2019.
The picture changes quite a bit when we zoom out and look at the year to date. During the first nine months of this year, four of the five big pay TV providers lost more subscribers than during the same time last year. AT&T leads in total losses with 2.58 million subscriber defections; Comcast's losses nearly doubled to around 1 million households; Dish faced the biggest decline of the industry; and only Charter managed a notable turnaround.
It's still unclear how much the pandemic simply accelerated existing trends and whether some cord-cutters will return to the fold now that sports leagues are playing again. However, any positive effects from such sports-related cord-pausing is likely outweighed by the continued economic outfall of the pandemic. In Q4 of 2019, the industry's biggest providers lost a whopping 1.54 million pay TV subscribers. Even if the picture continues to improve for AT&T, Charter and others, it's likely that the big five will end 2020 with around 5 million fewer customers.
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.