For years, the growing number of video streaming services available to TV viewers has eaten away at the subscriber base for pay-TV services. Traditional cable providers have avoided disaster thus far because even if customers cancel their TV package they still need to purchase their internet access from somebody (and many of us don’t have a choice about where to buy it). But satellite providers like DirecTV and Dish face the looming threat of cord-cutting without anything to offer cord-cutters other than ugly roof decor.
That’s why Dish and DirecTV each now offer so-called “over the top” (OTT) streaming video services that provide live TV feeds over the internet. Dish was first to launch with Sling TV in early 2015 while DirecTV’s DirecTV Now service didn’t come out until the end of 2016.
As we’ve covered before, there are a number of obstacles in the way of these services reaching mass adoption, like the fact that they may be a little too much like traditional cable for those cord-cutters who truly only want to pay for the channels they watch.
While it will take some time to see if OTT platforms are really what people want (but just don’t know yet) or just an evolutionary phase in video entertainment, the latest numbers from AT&T give us some idea of whether or not these streaming services are helping to make up for satellite companies’ cord-cutting losses.
According to DirecTV’s parent company AT&T, it added 296,000 DirecTV Now subscribers in its most recent quarter, pushing the total number of subscribers to the OTT service to just shy of 800,000.
At the same time, AT&T and DirecTV lost 385,000 traditional pay-TV customers. The report doesn’t break out satellite losses versus those who canceled their more traditional AT&T U-Verse service, but given that DirecTV has the overwhelming bulk of the company’s approximately 25 million pay-TV customers, we can probably assume that most of these cancelations were satellite.
The gains and losses still come out to a net decline of 89,000 pay-TV customers for AT&T, and DirecTV Now packages — which start at $35/month — are likely bringing in less revenue than the satellite and cable customers that were lost. However, there is also less overhead involved with DirecTV Now: no installation; no buying, leasing, repairing, shipping, receiving equipment; no having to send someone out to repair a knocked-over dish. And even the biggest DirecTV Now plan has fewer channels than your typical DirecTV video plan, which likely means fewer carriage fees for AT&T to pay.
The question for AT&T is going to be if it can continue to grow DirecTV Now at a rate that not only balances out the hemorrhaged pay-TV customers but ultimately results in a net positive gain for the company. Dish has been at this for two years, and its Sling TV gains do not appear to have reached that point.
Dish doesn’t provide specific numbers on its Sling TV subscribers. Instead, this figure is wrapped into Dish’s overall pay-TV customer base. However, analysts have estimated that — as of mid-summer 2017 — Sling had about 2 million paying customers.
In the first quarter of 2015, when Dish launched Sling, it had a total of 13.844 million subscribers. According to its most recent financials, the company now has 13.332 million subscribers. That means that, even with the infusion of 2 million Sling customers, Dish still has seen a net loss of more than 500,000 subscribers over the course of 10 quarters.
Sling is still the most popular of the OTT streaming services, but it was also the first and most heavily publicized. It also offers packages that start at only $20 a month.
While DirecTV and Sling are attempting to curb their losses by offering OTT video services, they have a growing number of competitors in this market.
Sony’s PlayStation Vue which was hampered at launch by requiring that subscribers have a PlayStation gaming console. YouTube TV launched earlier this year, but in limited markets, and without some of the premium add-ons offered by its competition. The YouTube TV app has been downloaded a few million times, but that has no correlation to actual subscriber numbers. Hulu also recently began offering live-TV access an add-on option to its streaming on-demand service.