News and Analysis
Dish reported on Friday that it lost a net of 462,000 video subscribers in the first quarter, including 234,000 for its live streaming service, Sling TV, and 228,000 for its satellite service. Company executives blamed the loss on a variety of factors, including increasing competition, a first quarter price hike, a now-settled programming dispute with Tegna, and poor execution by each service.

However, the decline continues a longtime trend for Dish which has lost several million subscribers over the last several years. Sling was once seen as the company’s escape hatch, at least in the video category. (Dish is also investing heavily in wireless.) But the streamer’s growth has slowed significantly of late as it also has for other live streamers such as Hulu Live, YouTube TV and DIRECTV Stream. FuboTV, another live streaming rival, also lost subscribers in the first quarter.

Consumers were once infatuated with live streaming’s low prices, but they have fallen out of love as prices have risen to offset escalating programming costs.

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It would appear that the escape hatch of live streaming might become a booby hatch.

What Now?
So Sling is stalling.

Dish is declining.

And it could get even worse for the satellite TV service over the next few years.


The majority of Dish’s satellite subscribers are in rural areas, many of which lack reliable high-speed Internet service. They often subscribe to Dish or DIRECTV because it’s the only way to get quality television; they can’t stream, and cable is usually not available.

However, the federal government last year approved $65 billion to bring the Internet to rural communities as part of a larger infrastructure bill. (The FCC has estimated that roughly 20 million Americans are without reliable Internet access.) Over the next few years, many of those Dish subscribers will have more video options than they ever have. Will they stay with Dish or will they opt to subscribe to less expensive Net-based services such as Disney+ and Netflix.

Dish executives understand what they are up against and Charlie Ergen, the company’s chairman, last week said it behooves Dish to find new ways to entice viewers, particularly those who suddenly have multiple alternatives.

“You can give people a good user experience,” Ergen told financial analysts last week in a conference call following the release of the first quarter report. “I think that the company is going to be very profitable. But I think there’s a transition there, and we’re all going to have to feel our way around. But we’re problem solvers. We think we can make our product better with the help of our content providers.”

But many analysts, and perhaps Ergen himself, would say that Dish’s best hope is to merge with longtime rival DIRECTV. Ergen says such a merger is “inevitable” but it would appear that it’s quickly becoming a short-term necessity.

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— Phillip Swann