Deeper Dive—YouTube TV, Hulu could change the cord-cutting story if they wanted

A cord-cutting catastrophe struck the U.S. pay TV industry in the second quarter and took a collective 1.53 million subscribers with it. Or maybe not, but it’s hard to know for sure without data from two of the biggest streaming TV services.

Leichtman Research Group on Monday dropped its quarterly assessment of the U.S. pay TV subscriber base and it wasn’t pretty. The top seven cable providers lost about 455,000 subscribers combined and the two U.S. satellite providers, DirecTV and Dish Network, together lost 857,000 subscribers (though DirecTV was responsible for more than 80% of that total).

At the same time, Sling TV and AT&T TV Now together lost 120,000 subscribers, as Sling’s 48,000 net additions were more than offset. But that doesn’t tell the whole story in the virtual MVPD space. As Leichtman is careful to point out, its numbers only include subscriber totals from the top publicly traded vMVPDs. That’s for a good reason since the others, namely YouTube TV and Hulu with Live TV, don’t reveal their numbers.

Alan Wolk, co-founder and lead analyst at the consulting firm TV[R]EV, said that by throwing in YouTube TV, Hulu with Live and fuboTV, that cord-cutting total could have fallen below one million.

Of course, including any of those services in the overall total would require an educated guess, something that MoffettNathanson included in its new Cord-Cutting Monitor. The analyst firm projected that Hulu with Live TV had 2.1 million subscribers at the beginning of the second quarter and ended with 2.4 million. Similarly, the firm estimated that YouTube TV started the quarter with 1.2 million and ended with 1.5 million. Taken together, if correct, it would mean that Hulu and YouTube TV added a combined 600,000 subscribers, which is not enough to offset the traditional pay TV losses but would go a long way toward altering the narrative around cord cutting.

But neither Google nor Disney – which now has full control over Hulu – offered up any concrete numbers on their virtual MVPDs. Google made barely any mention of YouTube TV during its most recent earnings call. Disney offered something slightly less opaque when CFO Christine McCarthy mentioned during last week’s earnings call that Hulu with Live TV grew the most of any vMVPD during the second quarter.

Will Disney or Google ever offer up actual subscriber numbers? Wolk said don’t count on Google since it doesn’t even offer up YouTube numbers, but added that Disney’s consolidated ownership could change the disclosure strategy for Hulu with Live TV.

Michael Greeson, president and co-founder of TDG Research, pointed out how Hulu is fond of occasionally publicly dropping subscribers totals for its SVOD service but also speculated that Disney+ numbers will quickly move into the tens of millions, which could make Hulu with Live TV look like a failure by comparison.

Likewise, he said that Google may be concerned about misleading comparisons with non-TV YouTube properties, which would make YouTube TV’s numbers look small.

“Of course, this could all just be a result of corporate preferences to keep such numbers close to chest. No doubt both Amazon, Hulu, Google, and other major streamers are enjoying the larger public narrative that ‘linear pay-TV is dead’ and don’t want to do anything to hinder it,” Greeson said in an email.

If that’s true, then maybe Disney and Google are just fine with running their live TV services and letting us all speculate. But if MoffettNathanson’s estimates are close, then those seem like the type of subscriber growth figures that video distributors would be happy to share.

Until Disney and Google decide to open the books and give us all a peek (which may never happen) we’ll have to settle for a pay TV subscriber puzzle with some big missing pieces.