Did you ever think you would live to see a day when we would ask if cable TV is dead? If you were born before, say, 2000, then we're willing to guess probably not. Cable TV has been an essential part of American life almost since it first came into existence back in the 1960s.
However, as the great Bob Dylan once said, "The times they are a-changin'"
Now, thanks to streaming, we have more ways to watch TV than we ever did before, and many people are jumping ship in favor of these new services, a move we now refer to as "cord-cutting." Cord-cutting has become such a phenomenon that many have wondered if we are entering cable TV's final era. Is this true? Is cable TV dead? If not, what's keeping it alive? Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed people's attitudes?
We've answered these questions and more below. Read on to find out if we really are witnessing the death of cable TV.
To give you an idea of the state of the cable TV industry in 2021, consider the following statistics:
These numbers tell us that things are not looking good for cable companies. More people are cutting the cord than ever before.
This data also tells us that the Coronavirus pandemic does seem to have accelerated the pace of cord-cutting. This is perhaps driven by financial need or because so much time at home has forced people to reconsider their entertainment options. More people chose to ditch cable 2020 than in any previous year, which is telling the least.
China is the largest (342 million subscribers), followed by India (112 million subscribers.) However, despite being just third on the list in terms of the number of subscribers, North America, which includes Canada and Mexico, represents around 57 percent of the global revenue share.
This tells us something: cable TV in the U.S. is considerably more expensive than in other, highly-populated countries. If it were the same or cheaper, we would expect Asia to be the cable TV revenue leader, but it's not.
This fact is significant because it contributes to the downward trend in the cable TV industry in the United States.
In short, people are fed up with rising cable bills, which have reportedly grown at a rate three times that of inflation, and they are adjusting by dropping cable TV and switching to other services which provide more and charge less.
The United States is set to see some of the most significant drops in cable TV revenue in the entire world. In fact, it's expected the US's market share will drop to below 50 percent by 2023, a change also fueled by the growth of cable TV in the rest of the world.
Does this mean cable TV is dead? Not exactly, but it's undoubtedly struggling, and it may be it is dying. However, no experts are claiming that cable TV will cease to exist anytime soon.
For example, we mentioned a 32 percent growth in the overall number of people who dropped cable from 2017-2018. This number is considerable, but we should note that the year before saw an increase in the number of people quitting cable of 46 percent, suggesting that in reality, cord-cutting may be slowing down.
However, it's still difficult to overlook the overall downward trend occurring in the cable TV industry.
We are hesitant to say cable TV is dead because there are still quite a few networks and TV shows that have high viewer numbers and that only air on cable. As a result, until these programs become available through some other means, we can probably still expect cable TV to exist in some form or another.
To give you an idea, here are some of the stats about popular cable TV networks:
However, we don't know if people are paying for cable solely to have access to these networks. They may have cable and watch these shows because they can, but they might simply not watch if they were to drop their subscription.
To get some clues as to whether this might happen, it's essential to look at who is paying for and watching cable TV.
One way to try and figure out if cable TV is dead or not is to look at who is still paying for cable TV, and unfortunately for the cable companies, things don't look good. For example, consider:
These numbers make sense when we stop to think about them. Younger people are less likely to pay for cable because they are more used to the alternatives, mainly streaming services, and are therefore less likely to "cut the cord" and avoid paying a cable bill.
Furthermore, when we look at what people watch when they tune into cable, we see mostly news channels. Young people tend to find their news elsewhere, and this would leave them little incentive to pay for a cable subscription.
In general, the data backs up these claims. Here's a look at who pays for Netflix as broken down by age:
This suggests that things do indeed look pretty bleak for cable companies. Their primary market – older people – is only getting older. Younger people who used to replace lost revenue from the elderly are more willing to pay for streaming services than cable.
Of course, things can change. Yet, the trend at the moment does seem to be a downward slope for cable companies.
Another way to take the cable industry's pulse is to look at the state of the major companies providing this service in the United States. There are over four hundred cable TV providers nationwide, but four companies control the bulk of the market. They are AT&T, Comcast, Dish Network, and Charter.
Other companies include Verizon, Google Fiber, Frontier, Cox Communications, and many more, but combined; they make up just 12.9 percent of the market.
Here's an overall look at how the cable TV industry is divided up, with some stats on each one.
AT&T is the largest cable TV company in the United States primarily because it owns both its propriety service, U-Verse, as well as DirecTV, which operated independently until 2015.
However, because it's the largest provider, it means AT&T has suffered some of the most dramatic losses in terms of subscriber numbers. In Q4 of 2020 alone, AT&T lost more than 600,000 subscribers. Over the year, they lost around 16 percent of their video customer base.
These are some pretty shocking numbers, and while AT&T remains a profitable company thanks to the many other services it offers, it's slowly losing its grip on the cable TV market.
Comcast, which sells the cable TV product Xfinity, is the second-largest cable TV service provider in the United States. It, too, is saying goodbye to its customers at record rates. In 2020, the company lost around 400,000 subscribers per quarter, bringing their total losses to well over one million.
These big losses are also starting to hurt the bottom line. In 2020, Comcast reported a 3.2 percent drop in its cable TV revenue, which contributed to a 12 percent drop in overall revenue.
Again, these companies are in trouble.
Given the news coming from the nation's leading cable providers, you would think that everyone is struggling. However, this isn't the case. Despite reporting having lost around 66,000 pay-TV subscribers in Q4 of 2020, Charter actually added around 100,000 subscribers in 2020.
Compared to the others' losses, which total in the millions, this is a small gain, but it shows that cable TV can survive even amid the cord-cutting phenomenon.
How did this happen? Well, Charter has some of the most competitive pricing in the market, and they also have come out with a whole host of new products that speak directly to the problems cord-cutters have with cable. So far, it seems to be working.
Whether or not the other companies pick up on this and can reverse the trend remains to be seen, but the Charter example shows us that it is possible. Maybe cable isn't dead?
Based on these numbers, it's clear that cable companies are in trouble. While Charter is busy working out ways to combat the cord-cutting trend and stay relevant, what are the other companies doing? Well, they're sticking to what they do best: raising prices.
Yes, you read that correctly. Despite losing customers in swaths, cable companies continue to charge more and more each year for their services.
So, while cable TV might not be dead just yet, the cable companies themselves seem to be doing everything they can to speed up this process and perhaps even make it inevitable.
Cable TV in the United States is clearly on the decline. Overpriced bundles plus the wide range of alternatives to consumers have made it too easy for people not to switch. Still, is this the case in the rest of the world? After all, the United States is just one of many countries, so before we pronounce cable TV dead, we should look at what's happening elsewhere.
Surprisingly, the number of homes with cable TV is growing in most of Europe. In 2010, there were just 25 million people with a cable TV subscription, and in 2019, there were nearly 70 million. This number is expected to grow to almost 80 million by 2023.
The landscape of the cable TV industry in Europe depends slightly on where you look.
In some of the wealthier countries of western Europe, such as Germany, the UK, Denmark, and Switzerland, cable TV subscriptions are declining at similar rates as in the United States, if not even faster.
However, in places such as Spain, France, Russia, and Poland, cable TV is growing. In Eastern Europe, more and more homes are signing up for cable TV, partly because many of these countries are still "developing," which means there is considerably more room for growth than other countries.
No matter which way you slice it, the picture in Europe in terms of cable TV does not look as bleak as it does in the United States. Of course, this market is controlled by different providers than in the US, meaning the trend doesn't do companies such as Comcast and AT&T much good. But for cable TV as a whole, this is probably a sign there is still some life in the industry.
Due to expanding incomes and economic growth in Mexico and Brazil, Latin America was one of the fastest-growing cable TV markets in the world. However, in recent years, this growth has slowed, and the Mexican and Brazilian markets are expected to remain relatively unchanged over the coming years. Growth is expected in other Latin American countries, meaning revenues should climb, but these increases will be relatively modest compared to what happened over the previous half-decade.
As the most populous continent on the planet and as the fastest-growing region in the world, it should come as no surprise that there are more cable TV subscribers in Asia than anywhere else in the world. Currently, there are more than 623 million subscriptions on the continent. China leads the way with more than 350 million subscribers, and India is number two with around 150 million.
Furthermore, pay-TV is the primary means of content consumption in Asia. This means we can expect further growth moving forward, although this growth will likely be slower than what we've seen over the past decades as China and India mobilized their massive populations. In the coming years, we can expect most growth to come from countries such as Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
As the fastest growing continent in terms of population, Africa is experiencing growth in many different areas, and cable TV is no different. Overall, the number of subscribers across the content is expected to double by 2024 from roughly 25 million to 50 million. This is primarily due to the overall economic growth occurring on the continent. A new middle class has more money to spend, and cable TV is one thing people like to have. Naturally, this means competition is ramping up, which should be good news for consumers. In fact, revenue is expected to lag as companies seek to reel in new users with lower prices during a period of exceptional growth. However, these companies likely see this as a worthwhile sacrifice as getting in on this market now can produce significant long-term returns.
In the United States, it's safe to say that cable TV is dying and doing so quickly. It is not yet dead, and we may never see a day when it is completely gone, but it is clear that things are changing. Companies that have depended on their cable TV services will need to adjust if they hope to survive.
However, in the rest of the world, this is not the case. Cable TV is growing pretty much everywhere except Western Europe, and it's set to expand rather rapidly in Africa.
One thing to keep in mind is the leapfrog effect. This occurs when a less "developed" nation jumps over a past technological advance to catch up with a current one. A great example of this is with phones. Many people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America went from having no phone to having a cell phone, skipping right over landlines. Something similar could happen with cable TV as internet use grows around the world as well. In other words, people could become cord-cutters even before they have a cord!