The dreaded future is here for cable TV, and we'll soon see which business models will rule


There has been a heated debate in the last few years over whether "cord-cutting" - people ditching their expensive cable TV packages - was a trend or an overblown media frenzy.


But in the past few quarters, the pay-TV industry has turned in results that make it hard to say "nothing" is going on.

"For the better part of fifteen years, pundits have predicted that cord-cutting was the future. Well, the future has arrived," industry analyst Craig Moffett wrote in a recent report. The pay-TV industry lost about 762,000 subscribers this quarter, according to MoffettNathanson, which Recode's Peter Kafka called "a historically horrible number."

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And it's not just a blip.

Here is a chart from MoffettNathanson (via Carl Quintanilla), that shows how the industry has fared since 2010:




While the subscribers losses have accelerated in the last few quarters, the trend hasn't been good for awhile.

And the big decline this quarter could mean one bad thing for the pay-TV business: The new streaming TV bundles (vMVPDs), such as Sling TV and DirecTV Now, aren't going to immediately pull the industry back up. That doesn't mean they haven't had some effect. As the chart shows, the outlook without those packages would be a lot worse. Still, they don't seem to have enough juice to completely counter the trends.

"The cord cutting acceleration contrasts with the media bull case that [streaming TV packages] will stabilize or improve pay TV declines," UBS analysts led by Doug Mitchelson wrote in a recent report. They aren't a set of silver bullets.

The overarching question that still remains is whether these subscriber losses mean the traditional pay-TV model won't be as dominant in the digital era as it was before.


Streaming services like Netflix and HBO Now are betting that customers will pay an a-la-carte monthly fee and cut out ads, while Facebook and YouTube are prepping slates of TV-quality shows to be completely supported by their ad machines. It's not clear whether new models like these will prove effective - or whether the digital future will be ruled by the same old subscription-plus-ads one-two punch that has defined the pay-TV universe.

In the coming months, we'll see.

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