Most of us like to watch something to wind down, and for decades that was done on broadcast or cable TV. Yet over the last decade or two, we have seen the rise of streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Apple TV. This is not even counting many of the more niche and obscure streaming services that appeal to a more targeted audience. In tandem with this rise of the streaming service, many notice a fall (or stagnation) in Pay TV services. Some say that everyone will cut the cord eventually, and streaming is the inevitable future.
Yet while many people are cutting the cord, it isn’t as simple as that. There are a lot of factors at play, cable companies are adapting, and demographics and preferences don’t change so easily. It’s helpful to understand these factors and trends, whether you are a professional in one of the industries or just someone who is interested in where entertainment is heading.
Here are the key statistics and trends when it comes to streaming vs. cable in 2022:
The Rise of Streaming
First, we need to talk about streaming and how popular it has become over the past 15 years or so. Additionally, we should look at a few of the major trends and how they might compare to what is going on in the pay-TV industry. Here is what you need to know:
- About 85 percent of households subscribe to at least one video streaming service (60 percent subscribe to a music streaming service). Compare this to pay TV, which has a penetration rate of 71 percent in the United States as of 2021 (more on this later).
- Naturally, anyone with access to a television will have access to broadcast TV, but comparable stats aren’t applicable here, nor are they easily available. And while the change is certainly a long trek from the past, this could also be an adjustment period for pay TV. It wasn’t always popular, and now it has a competitor outside of itself for the first time.
- Yet it isn’t just a single service that most people are subscribing to. The average United States user has a subscription to about four services at any given time.
- The pandemic, which forced many people inside for a period of time, had a significant impact on both streaming and cable numbers. There was a 21 percent increase in streaming in Q3 2020. In some places around the world, streaming increased significantly more than that. Netflix saw a large increase in subscriptions in the first quarter of 2020, clearly as a result of the lockdown restrictions.
- Alongside the watch times, we have to look at the money. Revenues are increasing each year, with the video streaming industry taking in 72.2 billion in 2021. Much of that revenue is coming in from the United States, which is no surprise.
- Also, when it comes to streaming, which is the most popular service? Which gets the most subscribers?
- Based on the data we have, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ are the most popular. However, it should be noted that these are worldwide numbers, and Amazon Prime Video just comes with an overall Amazon Prime subscription. The number is people who streamed video, but people might not be signing up for Amazon just for the (in truth, they probably aren’t). The numbers for HBO Max are just U.S. subscribers, making it a formidable competition and competition that originated with a content provider heavily related to premium cable.
- And on top of the major services listed above, dozens (if not hundreds depending on what you count) specialize in more niche or focused content. Whether someone is interested in classic movies, anime, or horror, there is a streaming service that is for them. And if you compare those options to specialized channels, many people with the means to subscribe to something that appeals to their interests will do so.
- And yet, while some services have found their niche and sticking with it, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t heavy competition among them, especially among the largest services. Just consider the market shares of the top apps. It might be closer than you think.
- If you consider how things have changed over the past year, we are seeing a decline in Netflix’s dominance (though it is still clearly dominant) and a rise in how popular HBO Max is.
- Though remember that unlike pay TV companies and many other industries, the market shares of streaming companies can change quite quickly. Disney Plus has a strong share of the market now, and it didn’t exist a few years ago. And while it has the backing of Disney and all that implies, that in itself doesn’t guarantee success in this space.
- We also cannot escape talking about the impact of social media and video-sharing platforms such as YouTube. If people can get their entertainment from social media and YouTube, then that means they are less likely to be watching television, specifically pay TV. There is a lot more general competition for people’s time, and that doesn’t just involve streaming services people pay for. One can likely find entertainment for life that’s entirely ad-supported or freely available.
- Users of Snapchat spend an average of 30 minutes each day on the platform. People will spend an average of nearly an hour per day on Facebook. And YouTube users will spend nearly 20 minutes a day on the platform. That’s a lot less time spent paying attention to the television.
The Twists and Turns of Cable
Cable TV and pay TV, in general, are not where they used to be and not where they are compared to previous years. Even if numbers are up in some cases, remember that the population is growing as well. In just the third quarter of 2021, pay TV lost 650,000 subscribers. There could be economic reasons for this, but there have been economic downturns in the past, yet cable numbers have kept growing.
Yet cable is not out for the count, and there are areas where cable is doing well. Here are some stats about how cable and pay TV are doing:
- It’s pretty easy to see that while there are some slight ups and downs, there is an overall decline in the percentage of households subscribing to pay TV.
- Yet why is this the case? It’s generally other factors to be discussed, but a lot of it is simply that there are other options now, and some people have grown up with little to no television, just using streaming services.
- Price isn’t everything, but it is a major consideration when it comes to people getting cable subscriptions and ensuring that they are getting what they want. The cost of an average cable package is now over $200. While it can provide much more than a single streaming service, most people can subscribe to a few services instead and get practically everything they want.
- Yet while all the previous stats spell doom and gloom for cable, the truth is a little more complex than that. Even with such steps and the later discussion about cord-cutting, pay TV is an industry that has tens of millions of customers. By 2026, there will still be almost 60 million subscribers.
- Additionally, you can also look at Pay TV revenues over the past few years. Pay TV brought in $74.4 billion in 2021. And while that number is expected to drop to $57.4 billion by 2026, that’s still a lot of income and money for pay-TV companies to work with.
- So, where does cable have the edge? It is with news and sports programming. While there are some streaming options for both, depending on your preference for news source and sport, it simply hasn’t reached the level of other types of programming.
- Cable news channels regularly get the highest average ratings among the cable channels, some special events and programming notwithstanding. The same can be said for sporting events, though many of the top events are on broadcast TV and, as such, are not comparable.
- However, it’s not all perfect for cable in this regard. While 30 percent of respondents to a survey cited live programming as the reason they subscribed to pay TV, that number was 60 percent just nine months prior. About 39 percent of the people who watch live TV are now doing it via social media platforms, streaming services, and the like. Much like premium cable channels, sports networks and related outlets are realizing that with the right infrastructure (and a bit of marketing), they can get right to the viewer.
- One more thing: most of what we have discussed so far has focused on the United States. That is because that is where the forefront of this battle is. Pay TV revenues are relatively tiny in other countries, even those with huge populations, such as India and China. While streaming services operate in other countries, the U.S. also brings in the majority of streaming revenues. And it is as simple as following the money from there.
- Yet that is not to say that other countries will not have their day in the cable limelight. As the U.S. shifts a bit away from cable, other countries with growing disposable income might see a greater pay TV market with a focus on more premium programming.
Cord Cutting Stats
We cannot talk about streaming vs. cable without discussing the “cord cutting” trend that has occurred over the past years. In fact, it might be the best measurement we have of the changes going on in entertainment. People are just not subscribing or canceling their cable subscriptions and not looking back. Yet what is the rate at which this decision is being made, is it reversing at all, and what are the numbers? Here is what we know:
- It is estimated by eMarketer that by the end of 2022, there will be 55.1 million cord-cutters in the United States. That is a significant percentage of the population. Additionally, in 2020 there were 5.1 million cord cutters (though some sources say even more than that). That is even considering the pandemic and its influence on keeping people inside and watching TV (or something, at the very least). If you are looking for a greater trend, then take a look at the graphic below:
- It is estimated that 5.2 million households cut the cord in 2021 and that 4.9 million will cut the cord in 2022. We are waiting for the final numbers to come in, but the estimates are on point with what we are already seeing.
- After launching, Disney+ gained 54.5 million customers within six months. In the same period, some ISPs lost nearly or even more than 1 million subscribers. While the two aren’t necessarily directly related, there is a clear insight to take away from this. It is much easier to sign up for or cancel streaming service subscriptions than cable subscriptions. A person can sign up for Netflix or Disney+ in five minutes or less. Cable is a much bigger commitment and can take a day to get set up after a delay. While Disney+ is backed by a giant like Disney (with all the advertising that implies), cable companies will need to make it easier for people to sign up and keep people subscribed.
- Out of people without paid TV, about 70 percent say that the internet has everything they need. This means two things:
- Many people are happy with the current state of things on the web or aren’t interested in the programming unique to pay TV.
- Some people want something that’s on pay TV, but the price isn’t worth it to them.
- Compare the above statistic to the following: Only 34 percent of people are happy with the value they get from their Pay TV subscription. Prices have risen over time, and customers don’t feel like they’ve gotten much more that’s worth it for their money.
- People can only have so much time per day, so the number of channels sometimes doesn’t matter. People want to watch what they want to watch when they want to watch it. Additional content and features after that have diminishing returns.
- Out of cord cutters, about 25 percent of them are opting for free TV with an antenna. That seems to be enough for them, and antennas have improved to the point where signal quality is not the issue it once was.
- The demographics of those who cut the cord have remained the same, but the share of people across the country who cord cut has increased.
- Looking at the information above, you’ll see that people in the 18 to 29 demographic are the people most likely to cord cut, which makes sense. They are not as ingrained in their habits as people above the age of 65, for example, who have had paid TV all their lives (most likely). Nonetheless, the numbers suggest that people of all age ranges are still interested in pay TV and that a sizable population will subscribe for years to come.
- Out of people in 2021 who didn’t have pay TV, 39 percent say they have never had it. It is just the norm for them, and they likely don’t feel they are missing much when other options remain open to them.
- Out of those who are not subscribed to pay TV services, 71 percent say they can access what they want online. The price is a factor for 69 percent of them, saying that the price of service is too high. And 45 percent of them say they just don’t watch much TV.
How Cable Is Changing
Streaming is a newer industry and, as such, is always subject to heavy changes, yet pay TV was much more established. Sure, it grew, and there have been changes in programming and networks, but fundamentally it has remained the same, save for a few developments such as DVR.
Yet the industry can’t afford to do that anymore. We’ll talk more about how cable and streaming companies will adapt in response to each other, but there are also the ways that cable is changing right now.
Here are some ways in which cable is changing and what the major trends seem to be:
- DVR started as one of the technologies that brought new life into cable, and in some ways, was one of the stepping stones to the “watch when you want to” viewing culture we have today. It was on the cutting edge for a while, and deservedly so. It was a huge step up from VHS taping and the mess that entailed. Now it almost feels essential to a modern TV experience and a necessity to adapt to modern culture.
- Estimates say that more homes than not that have cable use DVR, although recent data is hard to find on the subject (everyone is focused on streaming and not so focused on DVR).
- Given that live sports are key to cable, DVR is perhaps most often used in relation to live sports, whether in a more active (to get instant rewinds and the like) or passive form, such as watching the game when someone is home from work.
- Yet what does DVR have over streaming? Immediacy. And while there are websites and streaming services (Hulu perhaps being the most notable), that can get many of the popular programs streaming right after the initial airtime (or just the next day), this isn’t the case for many niche programs, and options.
- And while we might not see DVR advertised as much anymore, that is because it is built into a lot of what pay TV providers have to offer. The days of the separate box and subscription service are fading away now that pay TV needs to compete with streaming, and you will find that there is a
- Going on the news and sports (live programming) discussion from earlier, Fox News is generally the most-watched cable channel in the United States, averaging 1.22 million daily viewers in April of 2021. Quarterly ad revenue is hundreds of millions of dollars. And while cable news ebbs and flows (compare an election year to a non-election year), it is one of the major holdouts, even if ratings aren’t what they used to be on average.
- Will streaming try to take on the news? Strangely enough, we haven’t seen many successful attempts. CNN tried out its CNN+ streaming service, but it only lasted a month, not getting even close to the numbers it was hoping for.
- And to whatever degree cable companies know it, advertising is going to have to change for however much income it brings in. Premium channels generally don’t have ads and instead have their premium model. Streaming services operate under mostly the same idea, though a few have ad-supported options. Cable TV might adopt more premium options or instead include more items like banner ads that are less intrusive to the content. Of course, that will also require changes to the entire infrastructure of television, so don’t expect this to be the first thing to change.
- Still, TV advertising is a fantastic way for marketers and brands to reach people, with a lot of current brand awareness in the United States being the direct responsibility of TV advertising.
- Interestingly, many viewers of TV don’t mind the ads, with only 52 percent of consumers tuning them out. However, it should be noted that these people wouldn’t mind ads, and those who do mind are more likely to have cut the cord or use streaming long ago.
- Yet TV advertising might not be as effective as it used to be, with the advent of other forms of advertising potentially leading to a more direct sale (the internet and mobile marketing are generally better at that, or at least more cost-effective). TV advertising will become more about brand awareness than getting direct sales soon.
How Will Cable and Streaming Companies Adapt?
The only certainty is uncertainty, though change is nearly certain in any industry as well. As you can tell by this point, the introduction of streaming services has made it so that cable companies now have to think about what they will do next. Similarly, streaming services will need to adapt to the efforts of cable and other pay TV companies and adjust to a changing online and, in some cases, legal landscape. While exact predictions are impossible, here are some of the methods we are currently seeing that you should also keep an eye out for:
- Cable companies can and have set up streaming options of their own. For example. However, given that none of these options have taken off nearly as much as Netflix and the like have, which makes us wonder why not. In part, is it because the platforms are not easily accessible and not easily used, at least compared to alternatives? Some websites have options to log into them with confirmation of a cable subscription to watch episodes of a show, but such systems are not too intuitive, and not everyone knows about them (or thinks about them when they might want to use them).
- Some competitors are effectively live TV streamed over the internet, creating a new type of competitor. Services such as Sling TV, YouTubeTV, and a few other options allow people to stream TV over their internet connection. This makes for a cheap alternative to the major cable packages many people don’t use while providing many of the basic cable channels people watch. It’s not as extensive and not a full substitute for either cable or a streaming service, but they are finding a market.
- Streaming companies are now entering the phase where they are hoping to make a better profit now that investors have already put in a lot of capital. We see this with some struggles Netflix is having, for example. If you look at the revenue Netflix has, it isn’t going anywhere, but we might see different pricing strategies and pricing changes over the next few years to make up for this. After a certain level of market saturation, companies cannot rely on unlimited growth, which Netflix has recently learned (again).
- In response to the cable companies and in response to the competition among the many streaming services, we can still expect many innovations in the streaming space as well. It might be in terms of content offerings or better players and streaming infrastructure. However, content is king and where the value lies for consumers.
- If a streaming service has nothing to watch, then a customer might cancel. If there’s nothing on TV at the time, a person will either settle or go do something else. There’s a major difference between those two things.
- Something that both cable and streaming companies will have to do is adapt to mobile. While we might not hear too much about live broadcasts reaching our phones, the technology is obviously there (if Twitch and YouTube can do it, so can the biggest TV providers in the country). Major streaming services also know the importance of mobile, even if most of their audience watches on their TVs or computers.
- As we mentioned, there is likely to be a greater focus on both international content and international expansions for business ventures. As demographics in the United States change, cable companies will want to appeal to those demographics.
- However, that is not to say that streaming services will not think the same and add more content that appeals to an international audience. In fact, it is easier for larger streaming services such as Netflix to get ahold of content in any language and/or provide subtitles and dubs. Getting streaming rights and getting broadcasting rights are different processes, but streaming has the framework to reach a lot more people with less effort. The customers just have to want it and seek it out (with perhaps a little push).
- And what of the streaming sphere as a whole? Over the past several years, we have seen a wide host of different services start up and shut down, perhaps due to the different interests and attempts to capitalize on the streaming boom (there is a lot of investment going around). Yet for every Hulu, there are several more apps like Quibi. We do not think this stage has ended just yet, and we can expect some more major streaming ventures (and minor ones) start-up either as major competitors or set to fill a niche.
- And as all businesses do, we’ll see mergers, acquisitions, and the like. It can happen either directly or through one larger company acquiring another.
There are, of course, other things that we could talk about relating to the developments between streaming and cable, but it would be a near-endless list. Be on the lookout for interesting headlines and developments over the next few years, and be on the lookout for initiatives and experiments from cable companies and streaming services alike.
While no one can predict the future regarding both streaming and the cable industry, we better understand what forces are at play. The trends are unlikely to change soon, if ever, and it will take adaptation and compromise between cable companies and streaming services if both persist. Yet there is no guarantee this will happen. Regardless of the end result, we hope that you have a better grasp of what streaming and cable will look like in the coming years, and we invite you to return to this page as needed.