Dish Loses 334,000 Pay TV Subs Amid HBO, Univision Disputes

Charlie Ergen - 2001 House Hearing - Getty - H 2018
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The company lost 386,000 traditional satellite TV customers and added 50,000 Sling TV subscribers.

Dish Network on Wednesday said it lost 334,000 net pay TV subscribers in the fourth quarter amid carriage disputes with HBO and Univision as growth at streaming service Sling TV again couldn't make up for declines in traditional satellite TV subscribers.

The stock dropped 7 percent before the market opened as the latest period underlined continued weaker subscriber trends. In the third quarter, Dish lost 341,000 subscribers, while in the fourth quarter of 2017, the company had added 39,000.

During an afternoon analyst call, Dish Networks execs discussed the ongoing carriage standoffs with Spanish-language channel Univision and premium channel HBO. Those contract disputes cost Dish around half of its subscribers losses reported during the latest quarter.

"It's always disappointing when you lose a long-term partner and both Univision and HBO are long-term partners," Dish chairman Charlie Ergen said during the call. He added HBO, which remains unavailable to Dish subscribers since Nov. 2018 because of the contract dispute, has shown little incentive to negotiate a new deal because parent AT&T has adopted an “anti-competitive stance" to defend DirecTV.

"They've made a decision not to engage in any kind conversation that any company would realistically take," Ergen said of HBO and its bargainers. He warned a crunch will likely come in April when HBO's popular Game of Thrones series returns for another season, which in turn will threaten yet more subscriber losses for Dish.

Dish has a history of contentious carriage negotiations that lead to networks and stations going dark before a new agreement is reached later. Dish also earlier dropped the Univision Deportes sports network, and Ergen told analysts that contract dispute could be resolved if a new management at Univision took a more realistic position at the bargaining table.

Dish’s market share could also come under added pressure in the future as major players like Comcast, Walt Disney and AT&T get set to launch streaming services later this year as they go direct to consumers. For now, Dish during the latest financial quarter lost 386,000 traditional pay TV subscribers and gained 50,000 Sling TV subscribers in the final quarter of 2018.

In comparison, AT&T's DirecTV recently said it lost 267,000 subscribers at its DirecTV Now streaming service in the final quarter of 2018.

Dish noted that it added approximately 205,000 net Sling TV subscribers during the year, compared with 711,000 in 2017. "This decrease in net Sling TV subscriber additions is primarily related to increased competition, including competition from other OTT service providers and to a higher number of customer disconnects on a larger Sling TV subscriber base, including the impact from Univision and AT&T’s removal of certain of their channels from our programming lineup, discussed above," Dish said in commentary that accompanied its latest financial results.

Dish's total of 12.32 million subscribers at the end of 2018 compared with 13.20 million at the end of the third quarter of 2017. The latest figure includes 9.90 million traditional pay TV customers and 2.42 million subscribers of the Sling TV streaming service, compared with 11.03 million and 2.21 million, respectively, at the end of 2017.

Fourth-quarter earnings came in at $337 million, or 64 cents per share, below Wall Street estimates. Quarterly revenue fell 6 percent to $3.3 billion from $3.5 billion.

Dish is led by CEO Erik Carlson and chairman Ergen.

Feb. 13, 13:30 p.m. Updated with comments by top Dish Networks execs made during an analyst call.