Updated with comments from TheStreet's Jim Cramer.
Investor concerns about the changing nature of video viewing have morphed into fear and loathing on signs that consumers are fast ditching pay-TV for streaming video. It's not just Netflix, of course, but the increasing amount of time people of all ages are spending on Facebook (FB - Get Report), Google's (GOOG - Get Report) (GOOGL - Get Report) YouTube and countless other Web sites that supply video.
Walt Disney (DIS - Get Report) shares tumbled 9.2% on Wednesday after the company reported record profits but acknowledged there had been "modest subscriber losses" at ESPN during the second quarter. The decline resulted from some households switching to so-called skinny bundles -- smaller cable packages that don't include the high-priced sports network, according to Disney CEO Bob Iger.
Disney's nosedive triggered broader investor worries about consumers opting for skinny bundles or dropping cable TV completely as shares of other traditional media giants also plummeted. Time Warner (TWX), despite beating revenue and earnings expectations for the quarter, closed down 9%. Viacom (VIAB - Get Report) was down 7.5%; 21st Century Fox (FOXA) fell 7%; and CBS (CBS - Get Report), 4.6%. Those drops haven't stopped in Thursday trading.
Compare that with Netflix, whose stock climbed 2% Wednesday to more than $123 a share. The company's stock had more than doubled this year before it announced a seven-to-one stock split in June. Netflix stock was rising in Thursday trading.
"This is a nasty market but I remain faithful to Netflix as the cable company to the world that's a huge bargain," said Jim Cramer, portfolio manager of the Action Alerts PLUS Charitable Trust Portfolio. "I would use any weakness in the overall market to continue to buy this mispriced company that could still double and not be expensive if you think about the worldwide multi-year growth path it is taking."
The contrast with Netflix highlighted investor jitters about the viability of the traditional cable bundle in the face of heightened competition from on-demand video services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon (AMZN - Get Report), which are investing heavily in high-quality programming.
"The Disney story is probably a bellwether, because you can make the argument that ESPN is the most successful cable brand on the planet," said Tim Hanlon, founder and CEO of Vertere, a media advisory firm. "If that's showing wear and tear, there's probably not a lot of other cable brands that are going to be any better."
Hanlon added that U.S. TV viewers are increasingly finding it hard to justify paying nearly $200 a month "for a bundle of programming options they know inherently they only watch a handful of."
Nearly half (46%) of U.S. homes have access to a streaming service as of July, according to Nielsen data. That figure rises to 62% for homes with people age 18 to 34, underscoring the allure of on-demand video especially among Millennials.
Separately, media research firm SNL Kagan estimates the share of cord-cutting households had reached 9.7% during the first quarter of 2015. The number of homes getting TV shows and movies from Internet services rather than pay-TV providers has more than doubled from last year.
Cable heavyweights like ESPN and Time Warner are trying to combat the consumer flight away from pay TV by expanding across digital platforms and even introducing their own standalone video services. ESPN, for instance, is part of Dish Network's (DISH - Get Report) Sling TV service, and Time Warner launched its HBO Now app in April.
But those moves won't necessarily offset slowing growth in their core businesses built on the cable-TV model combining subscription and advertising revenue. Time Warner executives on Wednesday conceded that the HBO Now app would be a money-loser this year as marketing costs outstrip gains in subscriber revenue.
There are also limits to how far big media brands will go to woo cord-cutters or cord-shavers. ESPN, for example, filed suit in April against Verizon (VZ - Get Report) for offering smaller cable packages that included the sports channel, allegedly without permission. The suit is pending.