By Phillip Swann
The TV Answer Man –Follow me on X.

TV Answer Man, I know you’ve been covering DIRECTV for a long time so can you explain why they have lost so many subscribers. I’ve been a DIRECTV subscriber for more than 20 years and I can’t understand it. (I also worked for them for three years!) They’ve lost more than anyone by far. It’s not just cord cutting. It’s AT&T and DIRECTV. What in your opinion did AT&T do wrong with DIRECTV? — James, Huntington Beach, California. 

James, you are right. I have covered DIRECTV before it even launched on June 17, 1994. In fact, I traveled to Indianapolis in the summer of 1994 to watch DIRECTV go on sale there, just the second city in the nation to get it. (DIRECTV started in five test markets in the summer of 1994 before going nationwide. This year is the company’s 30th anniversary.)

There were long lines of people waiting for the store to open, and many of them told me they were excited to finally get a serious alternative to cable TV. I decided to buy a DIRECTV dish and receiver myself, brought it back with me and installed it on my balcony in my 18th floor apartment in Alexandria, Virginia. I was the first person in the Washington, D.C. area to have DIRECTV.

Over the years, as a magazine and web site journalist, I reported on the meteoric rise of DIRECTV, which eventually became the leading pay TV provider in the nation. I also partnered with Nielsen Media Research in the 1990s to do four comprehensive studies of the DIRECTV audience to determine why Americans were so taken with the ‘little’ dish.

So, yes, I know a little about DIRECTV. And it’s stunning to me as well that the satcaster has lost 14 million subscribers after AT&T purchased it in 2015 for $49 billion. (DIRECTV had more than 20 million subscribers in 2015, more than any satellite or cable operator.) Not all of the defections are from the satellite service but most are. (The numbers also include losses by DIRECTV Stream and U-verse. After AT&T spun off DIRECTV in 2021, which included selling 30 percent to private equity firm, TPG, DIRECTV has stopped releasing sub numbers publicly so it’s difficult to determine how many were lost per service.)

While it’s true that all pay TV operators have lost subscribers in the last several years due to escalating prices, and cord-cutting, DIRECTV’s subscriber decline is unparalleled. By comparison, Comcast’s Xfinity TV service has lost approximately eight million subscribers since the third quarter of 2015 (when AT&T purchased DIRECTV) to DIRECTV’s 14 million. Dish, which also owns the live streamer, Sling TV, has lost roughly 5.4 million subscribers in the eight plus years. (13.9 million to 8.5 million.)

The reason for DIRECTV’s dramatic decline in satellite subscribers can be found in plain sight.

In 2015, John Stankey, who was then AT&T’s entertainment chief (he’s now the company CEO), was asked by USA Today what was AT&T’s vision for DIRECTV.

“The simple vision is we want customers to take their premium entertainment experience and enjoy it anywhere,” Stankey told the newspaper’s Ed Baig. “Our job as a company that provides connectivity, whether it’s fixed or mobile, is to make sure that they have that portability. Nobody else has the kind of toolset (and) breath that we now have–scaled content, world class mobile network, broadband network, the technical compatibilities to take all that out over an IP infrastructure. That’s the big strategic thrust.”

Note that Stankey does not mention the word, satellite. He’s basically describing taking DIRECTV’s customers to a streaming platform, which was AT&T’s primary mission in buying the company. In November 2016, less than two years after the purchase, the company launched DIRECTV Now, a live streaming service which later became AT&T TV Now (and later again became DIRECTV Stream.)  Company executives in November 2016 gushed over DIRECTV Now, saying it would eventually replace satellite TV.

You see, James, AT&T has never believed in satellite TV. (AT&T didn’t even do any promotion for the company’s 25th anniversary in 2019.) They just wanted DIRECTV’s subscribers, the vast majority of which they believed could be converted to streaming soon after the sale.

Why did they want to convert them? Streaming is less expensive than satellite, and streaming subscribers would be more likely to use AT&T’s mobile service.

AT&T’s master plan, however, failed because the vast majority of DIRECTV’s subscribers did not make the switch to AT&T’s streaming services. If they made any switch at all, they decided to drop DIRECTV because AT&T failed to invest in the satellite TV service, often leaving it without new technologies, and new sports channels. AT&T also failed to invest in DIRECTV’s customer service team, which was once pay TV’s best.

Meg James of The Los Angeles Times chronicled this strange strategy in her excellent January 31, 2020 story entitled, ‘Nearly 3 Million Subscribers Ditched DIRECTV Last Year. Will AT&T Do the Same?’ The story illustrates how AT&T decided to spend their research and development dollars on streaming rather than DIRECTV.

“Since AT&T took over, hundreds of (DIRECTV) workers have been cut. Software applications and other functions have been outsourced to IBM and Accenture. The company has been eager to sell smaller assets, including its regional sports networks, and has even considered abandoning its exclusive arrangement with the NFL for the popular NFL Sunday Ticket, according to knowledgeable people who requested anonymity because they’re not authorized to comment publicly. The NFL package — a signature DirecTV offering for 25 years — has become a money loser for AT&T, given the high cost of sports rights,” James wrote.

The plan didn’t work. But to Stankey’s credit, he didn’t pretend that the company had a different strategy in 2015, one that misfired for other reasons. In 2020, Stankey was asked during an investors call if AT&T believed it still needed DIRECTV.

“You can go back and look at comments I made, I think, very early on and post-transaction of DIRECTV that we didn’t necessarily make that move because we love satellite as a technology,” Stankey told analysts. “We like the customer base. It was an opportunity to move that customer base into the right technology platforms moving forward.”

He’s right. It was an opportunity. But the opportunity passed due to miscalculations and bungling and AT&T ultimately had to spin the company off with a private equity firm as part of the deal. Talk about a fall from glory.

To be fair, the current DIRECTV management team is working hard to keep the company afloat and relevant despite the environment. But it’s an uphill battle thanks to AT&T.

Have a question about new TV technologies? Send it to The TV Answer Man at Please include your first name and hometown in your message.

The TV Answer Man is veteran journalist Phillip Swann who has covered the TV technology scene for more than three decades. He will report on the latest news and answer your questions regarding new devices and services that are changing the way you watch television. See the bio for Phillip Swann here.