Pay-TV providers are facing grim numbers

August 11, 2011: 11:29 AM ET

Most pay-TV providers are losing customers in droves, as internet TV and movie services wait in the wings.

FORTUNE -- Cable and satellite-TV providers have spent several years denying the phenomenon of "cord-cutting" -- subscribers canceling pay-TV service in favor of Internet-based services like Netflix (NFLX), Hulu and iTunes (AAPL).

But the industry's numbers show that, for whatever reason, more people are canceling their service. Bloomberg News reported on Wednesday that the six largest publicly traded satellite and cable providers lost 580,000 subscribers in the second quarter. Of the six, Comcast (CMCSA), Time Warner Cable (TWC), Charter Communications (CHTR), Cablevision Systems (CVC) and Dish Network (DISH) lost subscribers. Only DirecTV (DTV) saw a gain -- of 26,000 customers.

The industry cites the lagging economy, as well as deep discounts offered by telco providers AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZ) to gain market share. That seems to be working, at least for now, as those two companies gained a combined 386,000 new subscribers in the second quarter.

Also a factor: pay-TV vendors are increasingly concentrating on their higher-end customers -- those who pay $140 a month and up for premium services, extra DVRs, high-def and other high-margin items. A large number of cancellations are coming from lower on the socioeconomic scale -- people who simply can no longer afford to pay for television. The industry is basically saying "good riddance" to them. Joseph Clayton, CEO of satellite provider Dish Network bluntly told Bloomberg that his company is "looking for a better class of customer" who will shell out for more and better services. That's telling because Dish has long marketed itself to the lower end of the market, as the cheap alternative to competitor DirecTV.

Market saturation is another problem. With housing starts still moribund, there are far fewer new installations than there were before the recession. So pay-TV companies are left to upsell current customers, which isn't easy -- even people with high incomes start to blanch when their cable bills pass $200. GigaOM's Ryan Lawler notes that revenues per customer have been steadily increasing, but he wonders how long that can continue.

It's hard to say how big an effect streaming services are having. Some studies indicate that people aren't choosing to cut their cords simply because they can watch video over the Internet. But it is doubtless a secondary consideration for many of them. A majority of cord cutters cite the high cost of pay-TV services as the main reason for their decision. But it's not clear whether they would have made that decision if services like Netflix and Hulu weren't available.

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