Dish lost 100,000 satellite television subscribers in the last quarter of 2019 and lost 94,000 Sling TV customers, the first quarterly loss for the online service. AT&T premium TV, which includes the DIRECTV satellite service, lost 945,000, while the AT&T Now online service lost 215,000. That is a combined loss of 1.35 million subscribers. Charlie Ergen, the chairman of Dish, suggests that a merger with DIRECTV is probably inevitable.
Speaking to analysts of the prospects of a Dish merger with DIRECTV, the Dish co-founder and chairman said it was: “probably inevitable that those two should go together just because the growth in TV is not coming from linear satellite TV providers. It’s coming from huge programmers, and trillion-dollar companies.”
He noted that such a merger could face regulatory issues but suggested it would make some sense because of the competitive challenges that streaming services post to traditional television service providers. “You can’t swim upstream against a real tide of the over-the-top, big players,” he said.
Dish had 14.33 million satellite television subscribers in early 2010 and still had 13.93 million in mid-2015.
Meanwhile, Dish launched its Sling TV online service, which grew to 1.50 million subscribers at the end of 2016, which it included in its overall numbers. The number of Sling TV subscribers was reported separately from the end of 2017, by which time it had 2.21 million customers, growing to 2.59 million at the end of 2019. However, a net loss of 94,000 in the fourth quarter of 2019 reflects increasing competition in online video services.
By the end of 2019, the number of Dish TV satellite subscribers had fallen to 9.39 million.
DIRECTV was acquired by AT&T in July 2015 for $48.5 billion. At the time DIRECTV had 19.54 million satellite television subscribers and 5.94 million U-verse telco television customers. After rising to 21.01 million satellite subscribers at the end of 2016, that fell back to 19.22 at the end of 2018, by which time U-verse numbers were down to 3.68 million.
AT&T rolls up both as ‘Premium TV’ subscribers, but nevertheless ended 2019 with 19.47 million. That looks a lot like a loss of nearly 6.40 million subscribers, or a quarter of its combined television customer base in four and a half years.
The DIRECTV NOW online service, renamed to AT&T TV NOW reached a peak of 1.81 million subscribers in September 2018, but fell back to 0.92 million by the end of 2019.
Both Dish and AT&T seem to see satellite television as a legacy business and are more interested in the opportunities presented by 5G services. Yet between them they have around 27 million satellite television customers, which would make the combination the largest pay television service in the United States. It may not be growing, but it is still a big business.