"Perfect Storm" - Cord-Cutting Erupts In Pandemic As Pay-TV Crumbles

"Netflix and quarantine" has been made famous by the pandemic as cord-cutting erupts in the first quarter. Millions of people were confined to their homes in March as the fast-spreading virus terrorized the nation, many folks, some of which lost their jobs, cut traditional cable and satellite TV at record speeds. At the same time, streaming TV also recorded a net loss in the period, reported Variety

Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson said cord-cutting accelerated in the first quarter and continued into the second quarter, as he believes virus-related shutdowns triggering an economic downturn has forced consumers to become more frugal, resulting in trimming expensive pay-TV service. 

Moffett's latest research note said it was a combination of high prices and economic devastation, along with the loss of live sports and other events, which led to an estimate of 1.8 million pay-TV subscribers dropped their service in the first quarter. In annualized terms, this is a 7.6% decline, the fastest on record. 

"At 63% of occupied households, traditional pay-TV penetration has reached a level not previously seen since roughly 1995," Moffett wrote. "There are now as many non-subscribing households (46M) as there were pay-TV subscribers in 1988."

In a separate report, UBS Securities analyst John Hodulik said the virus outbreak is creating a "perfect storm" of cord-cutting: 

"We believe the [coronavirus] outbreak could drive modest acceleration in cord-cutting in the lockdown phase but more dramatic declines post-lockdown given the expected recession," Hodulik said. "The absence of sports should pressure sports nets in the near term as distributors balk at paying high fees and post-lockdown if sports (especially professional and college football) do not return in the fall, potentially creating a cord-cutting perfect storm."

Variety says while pay-TV was hemorrhaging subscribers during the period, this was also seen to a lesser degree with streaming TV: 

"In Q1, the losses disproportionately fell on satellite TV: AT&T shed a whopping 1 million TV subscribers, mostly from DirecTV, while Dish Network dropped a net 413,000, the company's biggest-ever quarterly loss.

Meanwhile, virtual pay-TV players, which include AT&T TV Now, Dish's Sling TV, Hulu + Live TV, YouTube TV and FuboTV, collectively lost an estimated 341,000 subscribers in Q1, per Moffett's calculations. That indicates that former subs to Sony's PlayStation Vue — which ceased service at the end of January — "appear to have gone… nowhere," he added.

The only notable subscription-TV services to add subscribers in the first quarter of 2020 were Hulu + Live TV — which picked up about 100,000 to stand at 3.2 million — and Google's YouTube, which netted approximately 300,000 to reach 2.3 million per Moffett's estimate.

Amid the cord-cutting pain, large media companies — Disney, NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia — have launched or are about to launch direct-to-consumer streaming services. Disney Plus, for one, notched 54.5 million customers worldwide as of May 4 less than six months after initial launch. That will be joined by HBO Max later this month and NBCU's Peacock, which is slated for a national rollout in July."

And it appears staying-at-home public health orders could be a double-edged sword for media companies. Yes, more content is being consumed, but in the pandemic, massive cord-cutting is seen while some of the first net losses in streaming services have been realized as tens of millions of people have lost jobs and become more thrifty as recession unfolds.