There was once a time when having cable TV was a true luxury. Those who had it would brag to others about how many channels they had, and those who didn’t have it would feel hopelessly left out when their friends talked about the cool sports shows or great games they watched on cable TV. For a while, people resisted, as TV had been free for so many years. But eventually, they were seduced by the lure of cable, and having cable, at least in the United States, became the norm.
However, as is the case with almost any industry, there are peaks and valleys in the world of cable TV. But the current valley is one of the lowest ever. The major cable companies are losing subscribers at record rates, and TV watchers now have more options than ever before, from streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu to YouTube and much more.
This trend has helped to reshape the cable TV industry, and it has led many to ask: is cable TV dead? At first glance, the answer appears to be a definitive yes. But that may only be the case in certain parts of the world. When we zoom out and take a more global perspective, there still may be hope for cable TV. Yet as internet penetration rates continue to rise, this might just be the equivalent of cable’s final stand before defeat.
To give you an idea of the state of the cable TV industry in 2020, consider the following statistics:
The United States, with roughly 90 million pay-TV subscribers is the third largest market for cable TV in the world. China is the largest (342 million subscribers), and it’s 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, then we would expect Asia to be the leader in cable TV revenue, but it’s not.
This fact is significant because it is contributing 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.
Because of this, the United States is set to see some of the largest 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 that will also be fueled by the growth of cable TV in the rest of the world.
Does this mean cable TV is dead? Not exactly. It’s certainly struggling, and it may be it is dying, but no experts are claiming that cable TV will cease to exist anytime in the near future.
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 cord cutting may be slowing down.
However, it’s still difficult to overlook the overall downward trend that is occurring in the cable TV industry.
Part of the reason why we are hesitant to say cable TV is dead is that 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 and shows:
However, what we don’t know is 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 if they were to drop cable, they might simply not watch.
To get some clues as to whether or not this might happen, it’s important to look at who is paying for and watching cable TV.
One way to try and figure out if cable TV is really 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 do 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.
As a result, things do not look good for the cable TV industry unless they can find a way to convince younger people to stop relying on streaming services and instead rely on traditional cable TV. However, that 46 percent of the youngest age bracket in the US still pays for cable suggests the end is perhaps not as near as we think, unless of course subscription losses continue to accelerate.
Another way to take the pulse of the cable industry is to look at the state of the major companies providing this service in the United States. In total, there are over four hundred cable TV providers nationwide, but four companies control a 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:
Here are some stats on each one.
AT&T is the largest cable TV company in the United States largely 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, this also means AT&T has suffered some of the most dramatic losses in terms of the number of subscribers. More specifically, AT&T experienced a net loss of 544,000 subscribers in Q1 of 2019.
Unsurprisingly, considering what we know about the industry as a whole, this represents a trend for the company over the past several years. This past year, revenue declined by 1 percent, but the cable TV portion of AT&T’s business still brings in yearly revenues of $11.33 billion.
This is troubling for the company, though, since it has cited a desire to move away from its dependence on phones and phone service. But the decline of its cable TV segment means this is unlikely to happen in the near future. However, AT&T remains a giant in the industry, and it’s hard to see it suffering too greatly as a result of this downward trend in cable TV revenue.
Comcast, which sells the cable TV product Xfinity, is the second-largest cable TV service provider in the United States, and it too is seeing a decline in this part of its business. However, Comcast comes in just behind AT&T in terms of the number of subscribers (20 million as compared to 22 million), yet it has been losing customers at a slower rate. For example, in the first quarter of 2019, Comcast had a net loss of 121,000 subscribers.
There are a few explanations for this. First, Comcast operates as a virtual monopoly in many areas of the country, which leaves around 30 million people across the country with no other choice than Comcast. So, even in instances where someone might want to change, they might not always have the option to do so.
Another reason why Comcast is losing subscribers more slowly is that they have made partnerships with services such as Roku that allow it to offer cable in addition to popular streaming options for a much cheaper price. However, there are many critics of these initiatives, largely because it’s not really any cheaper and doesn’t offer consumers much more value, which is why a move like this is unlikely to stop the overall decline in the number of subscribers.
Between these strategies and growth in its internet and mobile phone segments, Comcast has managed to increase revenue year over year despite inconsistencies in the cable market. Only time will tell, though, if these efforts will help stave off the death of cable TV.
Charter Communications offers cable TV through its Spectrum brand, which delivers service to around 15 million people. However, as we would expect, Charter is also losing users by the thousands. In the first quarter of 2019, it lost 152,000 cable TV subscribers, which is up from the 121,000 it lost in the first quarter of 2018, suggesting Charter is also a victim of the overall industry trend.
However, like Comcast and AT&T, Charter also offers additional telco services, which have helped keep the company moving forward despite losses in its cable segment.
With just over 12 million subscribers (a number made up of 9.9 million Dish subscribers and roughly 2.4 million Sling TV subscribers), Dish Network is already one of the smallest of the large cable providers in the United States.
However, it is also losing subscribers at a much quicker rate than many of its competitors. In fact, in Q1 of 2019, Dish Network lost more than 250,000 subscriptions. This helped contribute to a 5 percent decline in year over year revenue, and this is becoming the trend for the company.
Furthermore, without a strong presence in other markets, it’s difficult to see Dish Network being able to withstand this overall industry trend and remain afloat while cable TV slowly dies.
All major cable companies are losing subscribers. No one can escape this trend. However, we must not forget that companies such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon are major players in the telecommunications industry. So, while it’s clear no company has yet to figure out how to slow or stop the death of cable, we shouldn’t assume these numbers mean these companies will fail. They still provide internet access to most of the country, and it would not be surprising to see them try to enter the streaming market in one way or another. However, at the moment, things do not look good for the many companies operating within the cable TV space.
Cable TV in the United States is clearly on the decline in the United States. Overpriced bundles plus the wide range of alternatives to consumers has made it too easy for people not to switch. But 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 take a look at what’s happening elsewhere.
Surprisingly, the number of homes with cable TV is actually growing in most of Europe. In 2010, there were just 25 million people with a cable TV subscription and in 2019 there are 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, and 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 as compared to other countries.
However, no matter which way you slice it, the picture in Europe in terms of cable TV does not look as bleak. Of course, this market is controlled by different providers than in the US, so this 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 yet to be lived.
In recent years, 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. But growth is expected in other Latin American countries, meaning revenues should climb, but these increases will be quite 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, and 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. But in the coming years, we can expect most of the 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 mostly due to the overall economic growth occurring on the continent. A new middle class has more money to spend, and cable TV is one of the things 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, it’s likely these companies 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.
But one thing to keep in mind is the leapfrog effect, which occurs when a less “developed” nation jumps over a past technological advance to catch up with a current on. 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. It’s possible something 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.
Of course, there’s no way to know what will happen in the future, but we can be certain that cable TV is set to continue to change and will need to overcome some serious obstacles if it wants to remain relevant in the decades to come.