Pay TV Industry Returns to Slight Sub Growth in Fourth Quarter

Premium networks also did well in 2010, according to SNL Kagan, as HBO maintained its lead, but Showtime and Starz added subscribers.

NEW YORK – Now it’s official. The pay TV industry returned to slight subscriber growth in the fourth quarter after two quarters of declines in a row.

The first-ever drops led to an intense industry discussion about whether consumers are cutting the TV cord amid cheaper online options. Analysts had predicted a return to subscriber gains in the fourth quarter, but have also said the cord cutting debate is likely to continue amid expectations that quarterly trends could go back and forth between growth and decreases in the near future.

Research firm SNL Kagan, whose data industry folks generally use as the official figures, on Monday said it calculated an increase of about 65,000 TV subscribers in the final quarter of 2010. While cable operators once again recorded declines, that was more than offset by satellite TV and telecom gains.

For the full year 2010, pay TV subscriptions grew by 211,000. That means U.S. homes with such subscriptions rose 0.2 percent to about 100.1 million, well below the typical one to two percent growth of the past decade.

Meanwhile, despite a still-sluggish economy, premium TV networks also had a good subscriber year in 2010, SNL Kagan said on Monday. Releasing subscriber data for the likes of Showtime, Starz and HBO, it highlighted Showtime's big jump from 17.7 million subscribers in 2009 to nearly 19.5 million at the end of 2010.

Starz also continued to climb, while HBO, still the leader by a wide margin, had mentioned a decline in non-paying promotional customers, but "remained relatively steady" in 2010 otherwise, according to SNL Kagan.

For 2011, SNL Kagan predicts premium TV subscriber figures for the three big players to rise from 154.9 million to 157.9 million.

“Going forward, some aggressive marketing campaigns and more attention to the category in general from operators could generate significant numbers in the next year,” said SNL Kagan analyst Deana Myers. “Also at play is original programming, which appears to be helping maintain - and possibly growing - subs, including top series like Showtime's Dexter, HBO's True Blood and Starz's Spartacus."