The multichannel television industry—including cable, satellite and telecommunications companies—suffered its first-ever drop in total subscribers in the second quarter, according to research firm SNL Kagan, and reported by the Wall Street Journal.

First ever. So the question is whether multichannel video entertainment will now start to show the same sorts of trends the other big legacy service–wireline voice–has been showing for about a decade, namely slowly declining subscriber numbers, and slowly-declining revenue contributions.

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Housing troubles and the weak economy undoubtedly played some role, but that is not the headline here. Never before, in any quarter, have subscribers actually dropped. As in the fixed-line market, there are ongoing market share shifts. More customers are choosing telco or satellite providers. The bigger issue is the overall market decline.

SNL Kagan said the entire industry lost 216,000 customers in the quarter compared with a gain of 378,000 a year earlier. Cable suffered its worst quarterly video loss to date, losing 711,000 subscribers, with six of the eight U.S. operators reporting their worst quarterly video losses.

Satellite companies, such as DirecTV and DISH Network Corp., managed to add 81,000 TV subscribers, while telecommunications companies, such as Verizon Inc. and AT&T Inc., gained 414,000 customers.

Subsequent quarters will tell us whether something has changed, whether there has been some sort of inflection point reached, or whether other short-term factors are at work. But it’s a big deal if the trend now reverses. The multichannel video business has done nothing but add more subscribers every quarter, for decades. A change would be quite significant, as it will add incentives for content owners to explore online, mobile and other delivery channels more seriously.

The big changes in the video distribution system always come when content owners decide they will be no worse off by changing their favored distribution channels. If the multichannel video subscriber base does start a slow decline, content owners are going to have increasing incentives to explore alternatives that offer better long-term growth prospects.

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