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Cord cutting is speeding up as the coronavirus pandemic squeezes consumers

May 5, 2020, 4:11 PM UTC

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The coronavirus outbreak is accelerating the trend of people dropping their cable and satellite TV subscriptions. More than 1.6 million subscribers to five of the largest pay TV companies cut service in the first quarter, a 70% jump from a year earlier.

Comcast, the largest cable provider, lost 409,000 customers by itself, more than it lost in all of 2018 and over half its total cord cutting loss last year. Charter Communications, Verizon, and Altice USA, also among the largest cable TV providers, lost another 200,000 subscribers in the quarter. And AT&T, which is predominantly a satellite TV provider, lost over 1 million customers. Dish Network, another major satellite provider, reports its first quarter results on Thursday.

Cord cutting is nothing new, with the audience of people paying to subscribe to cable and satellite shrinking by 7% last year and 4% in 2018, according to Convergence Research. But with the pandemic putting a squeeze on many consumers’ finances, more people than ever are dropping off. The total loss of sports programming, without any commensurate reduction in sports programming fees, may also be feeding the trend. Convergence forecasts a 9% drop for 2020.

The loss of audience could hurt companies that make programming, like Disney and CBS, while further boosting the prospects of online video services that provide much cheaper fare, like Netflix and Amazon’s Prime Video. While all of the pay TV providers were hemorrhaging subscribers in the first quarter, for example, Netflix reported a record 16 million new subscribers in the quarter.

For shareholders of the pay TV companies, the news isn’t nearly as bad as the subscriber losses might suggest. While the companies lose revenue every time a subscriber cuts the cord, the companies also can reduce the amount they for programming, which is typically charged on a per-viewer basis. Providing traditional pay TV service hasn’t been that profitable for the companies since the cost of programming is rising at a rapid clip.

And, at the same time, most of the pay TV providers also provide high-speed home Internet service. That’s a much more profitable business, with no programming costs. And it’s been growing due to the cord cutting trend, as more customers seek faster Internet service to watch Netflix and other online video.

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—Work from home, online grocery shopping, cord cutting: What coronavirus trends will stick
—PODCAST: How Marc Benioff is helping out during the coronavirus pandemic
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