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UK cord-cutting spike impacts pay TV's premium bundles

The U.K.'s pay TV providers experienced a spike in cord cutting in 2019, ahead of increased competition from streaming services launching in the country this year.

According to data from media research firm Kagan, multichannel subscribers are projected to decline for the second year in a row, quadrupling from almost 23,000 net losses in 2018 to close to 95,000 losses in 2019. Kagan is a division within S&P Global Market Intelligence.

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To put this figure in context, Germany and Spain saw pay TV subscriptions increase in 2019, while France saw 5,600 losses in the year, down from 135,000 in 2018.

Stagnating subscriber growth and competition from streaming companies such as Netflix Inc. and Inc.'s Prime has prompted a range of responses from pay TV providers.

In what was viewed as a reaction to Amazon Prime Video's English Premier League, or EPL, broadcasts during the holiday season, British Telecom for the first time began offering its EPL and Champions League soccer content as a stand-alone service in December.

Until now, the telco has bundled its pay TV packages with its broadband and phone services in order to retain customers on long contracts. The introduction of the annual pass sees BT taking a page out of Comcast Corp. unit Sky Ltd.'s book, which offers pay-as-you-go access to its movies and sports content through its pay TV lite service Now TV.

Under the current three-year EPL deal, Sky paid £3.58 billion for the majority of matches, including a larger share of games between top clubs, while BT paid £975 million for a smaller package of games.

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Amazon said its EPL streams drove record-breaking signups to its Prime subscription service in the U.K. Its broader aim is to attract soccer fans put off by pay TV sports package costs to its overarching Prime service in order to boost e-commerce sales. Prime costs £79 a year and also includes access to Amazon's video and music streaming services among other membership perks.

Other pay TV providers continue to exclusively leverage their broadband services to sell TV subscriptions.

In a sign that lower-priced bundles are resonating with consumers, cheap broadband provider TalkTalk Telecom Group PLC was the only pay TV operator tracking for a rise in multichannel subscriptions in 2019. This despite the company's introduction of a £4 monthly TV access fee in January that saw it finally charging a premium for its previously complimentary pay TV service.

TalkTalk said the charge was necessary in order for it to recoup its investments in TV, including the addition of add-on services from Sky, BT, and on-demand apps like Amazon Prime Video.

Liberty Global PLC unit Virgin Media's focus on higher-priced bundles — combining pay TV with the U.K.'s fastest broadband speeds — led to the steepest losses.

Its parent attributed the decline to its focus on premium pay TV customers and to competition at the lower end of the market.

As the only provider not to piggyback on BT's Openreach national internet infrastructure, Virgin has limited reach compared to its rivals, with its broadband service currently available to roughly 60% of the U.K.