By Phillip Swann
The TV Answer Man –@tvanswerman

TV Answer Man, I read that Sling TV lost subscribers in the second quarter. How is that possible? They only charge $20 for the first month!! How can they be losing customers with that price? — Danny, Boulder, Colorado. 

Danny, you’re right. The Dish-owned Sling TV, which charges just $20 for the first month of its base service (goes to $40 in month two), lost 97,000 subscribers in the second quarter, bringing its overall total to two million. The streamer lost 234,000 subscribers in the first quarter, which means it has lost 331,000 subscribers in the first six months of the year. But the news gets worse for those who once preached that the live streaming industry would quickly eclipse the pay TV industry. Fubo, another live streamer, lost 278,000 subscribers in the first half of 2023. That means that Sling and Fubo have combined for a loss of 609,000 customers in the first six months. (Update: Hulu Live has lost 200,000 subs in the first six months, according to new Disney second quarter report. That means the three streamers have lost a combined 809,000 subs in six months.)

We don’t know the sub results of YouTube TV and DIRECTV Stream because Google and DIRECTV respectively do not release those numbers publicly. But it would appear that the live streaming category is not the growth category that many said it would be. YouTube TV, which now has the NFL Sunday Ticket, may still be adding subscribers, but it seems unlikely that the five major streamers (Sling, Hulu, DIRECTV Stream, YouTube TV and Fubo) actually had a net positive in the first six months of the year.

Of course, pay TV operators, including cable and satellite TV, are continuing to lose customers as well. In fact, they are losing even more. But the live streamers are not offering much hope that they will be viable replacements. There are many reasons for this, starting with the base prices now offered by the streamers. Sling is the exception to the rule here with its $40 a month package. DIRECTV Stream, Fubo, YouTube and Hulu Live all charge at least $70 a month for its base plans. That’s not much better than what cable and satellite charges – and, in some cases, it’s worse. In addition, live streaming still has issues with buffering, particularly during high-profile viewing events, and their lineups often lack coveted niche channels such as regional sports networks.

But there’s another development in play that I suspect is causing serious damage to the live streamers’ subscription efforts. There’s an abundance of ad-supported free channels available today on services such as Pluto TV, Tubi, Freevee and Xumo. While the free lineups don’t have must-view channels such as ESPN, Fox Sports and the local networks, they do have a lot of programming. And for many people, that’s enough for them, particularly since it’s free! Even Sling has fallen prey to the trend with its own free service, called Sling Freestream, which offers more than 400 free channels. Why pay Sling even $20 a month when you can watch TV for free on Sling’s own web site and app?!

I have serious doubts that the live streaming industry can continue this way without a few providers falling off the cliff and/or consolidating with another streamer. There’s just not enough money to go around.

Danny, hope that helps. Happy viewing and stay safe!

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— Phillip Swann