As the weather gets hotter, pay TV customers could be shedding their television subscriptions — along with their long pants and sweaters — in greater numbers, according to Sanford Bernstein media analyst Todd Juenger.
Juenger took a deep dive into the trend of pay TV customer “seasonality,” the annual summer decline in monthly video subscriptions as customers purportedly moved to summer residences or to more permanent homes. Summer is traditionally the most popular time of the year to move, primarily because it allows parents to settle in before the school year starts.
On a conference call, of which the analyst provided a transcript to clients, Juenger conceded that the seasonality phenomenon is nothing new. But what he found in his research is that summer pay TV disconnects could be a trigger for cord-cutting because, unlike in past years, the customers who cancel service in the summer don’t seem to be coming back. He pointed to last summer, when pay TV subscriptions rose substantially in the second and third quarters.
TRIGGERED LOWER GUIDANCE
Juenger said year-over-year pay TV subscriptions declined by 0.6% in the second quarter of 2015 (compared to a gain of about 1% in Q2 2014) and by 1.4% in the third quarter (compared to a 0.9% gain in Q3 2014). That sharp decline, he said, helped to trigger decisions by The Walt Disney Co. and Time Warner Inc. to reduce subscriber and financial guidance, which, in turn, fueled even more cord-cutting fears.
Cord-cutting wasn’t as bad in Q4 2015 and in the first quarter of this year, when video subscriptions were down about 0.9% and 0.4%, respectively. But Juenger said he sees the signs.
“We have a theory that summertime is now always going to be the worst time for cord-cutting, because that’s when people move and that’s their chance to cut the cord,” he said. “We have serious concerns that this summer is going to look like last summer.”
Not everyone agrees.
Pivotal Research Group CEO and senior media & communications analyst Jeff Wlodarczak said seasonal churn is commonplace in the pay TV business, and he sees no correlation with cord-cutting.
“I doubt it is that material of a driver,” Wlodarczak said.
Telsey Advisory Group media analyst Tom Eagan pointed to recent gains in the cable-subscriber universe — both Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable reported full-year video subscriber gains, while Comcast has consistently improved losses and reported a gain of 53,000 video customers in the first quarter, its best Q1 showing in nine years.
“If you look at the numbers, they continue to be pretty good,” Eagan said, adding that the summer is usually when churn is highest, and that’s likely to remain so. “Video is looking better than it has ever looked.”
The key to any increase in cord-cutting would be how attractive the alternatives are, Eagan said. While there have been some changes in products like Sling TV, which is testing a multistream service that includes regional sports networks, for the most part over-the-top offerings don’t offer the same value as pay TV.
“They [OTT] are nominally more attractive, not materially more attractive,” Eagan said.
Juenger argues that distributors aren’t the only ones affected by cord-cutters. With a declining subscriber base, network affiliate fees also fall. Couple that with an expected dip in advertising revenue growth and it could indeed be a long, hot summer for programmers.
Most networks have guided to slower growth in the second half of the year, Juenger noted, so that is not a surprise.
“The issue is how fast it will slow down,” Juenger said, adding that the Summer Olympics will be good for NBC’s ad sales but bad for every other network. He added that the loss of fantasy-football ad money — several states are deciding whether daily fantasy sports sites like FanDuel and DraftKings are gambling operations, or games of skill, which has caused a pullback in advertising on TV — and what he thinks will be the replacement of higher-priced scatter ad revenue with lower-priced upfront inventory all “conspires for an advertising slowdown.”
ACCOUNT REVIEWS CITED
Eagan said his main concern about the ad market is how much it will be driven by the slowdown of last year. In 2015, he said, several advertisers put their accounts up for review, which had an effect on total ad revenue.
“There was a slowdown in spending because of all the account reviews,” Eagan said. “To a degree, the significantly higher agency changes are catching up with us now.”
As a result, Eagan predicted that ad revenue could rise by the mid-to-high single digits for most programmers in 2016, compared to 1% to 8% declines in the prior year.
But that growth will depend on the company, Eagan said. In a research note last week, he predicted that ad sales would dip 2.5% for CBS in the second quarter, rising to 4% growth in the third quarter and 5.8% in the fourth quarter. At 21st Century Fox, ad revenue should spike 10.5% in the second quarter — fueled by Fox News Channel and the presidential election — and 11.9% in the third quarter before settling to 0.7% growth in the fourth.
The election, he said, could also impact local TV advertising.
“A lot of the regional advertisers that would spend locally, and spend higher on a CPM basis, can’t go local because of the elections,” Eagan said. “That should continue for the balance of the year.”