If you’re reading this, do you still have a cable subscription? How many people do you know who have “cut the cord”? While millions of households still have a cable subscription (more on that in a bit), millions of people each year decide to go without cable, making this the most turbulent time in the history of cable television. There are competitors on the scene, and cable needs to respond accordingly.
And it's important to know where cable is heading, whether you work in the industry or are just a regular viewer. Even if you don’t have an active cable subscription, it can be helpful to know what the cable industry is up to and how relevant it will be to your life in the coming years.
Here are the key things you need to know about cable subscription trends in the United States in 2023:
While there are all sorts of small details that people might be interested in, we need to start with the key number: how many households in the United States have a cable subscription? And furthermore, what does that number look like over the years?
While there has generally been an increase in the number of cable households over the years, there has been a slowdown and even a decrease at some times. Currently, based on the information we have available, the number of households is on a steady decline. Cable companies are naturally going to try and combat that as best as they can, and there is even population growth to help them. Yet younger generations, as you will see, are not as interested in cable, and there are simply other things people would rather spend their money on.
While there are still tens of millions of households with a cable subscription, that also means that at least a hundred million people are still watching cable television regularly in the United States. And the ratings for popular shows on cable showcase how popular cable can still be, as most systems currently do not take into account the number of people watching online or streaming the content after the fact.
And people, on average, spend a significant amount of time watching TV each day. In 2021 the average person spent 196.6 minutes watching television. However, it is forecasted that this number will go down over time. Yet this will not be immediate.
There is a decline in some areas, to be sure, but TV is not to be counted out by any means. And even if a decline continues, at the current rate, it will still take a decade or more for TV viewing to decline to dangerous levels (for the TV industry). And it will not decline so quickly over time unless the TV industry does something to quickly drive away customers.
Overall, we can also break down the number of adults who subscribe to a TV service or have previously subscribed.
As you can see above, there is a slow, steady decrease in the number of people who are currently subscribed to Cable TV, and less than half of the respondents are current subscribers. Interestingly, the share of cord-cutters remains consistent enough that we cannot derive any true trends. Yet the number of people who never subscribe is trending upward. And the number of people who have never subscribed is going up, perhaps indicating a trend towards people never getting cable in the first place when they move out of home (it wouldn’t be a priority for them).
And while all of this is interesting in the immediate sense, the trend is going to have long-term consequences for the future of cable. Many people got cable television because it was something they grew up with and almost expected to have. That expectation is no longer there, which could speed up the decline of pay TV as we know it when more of Gen Z leaves the nest and move into apartments and homes of their own. Many will just use the internet and internet TV for entertainment, as they always have.
There is also the pandemic to think about. While it is still with us in some ways, life has mostly returned to normal in the United States. What effect did the pandemic have on cable subscriber numbers? We imagine it kept people hooked up to their cable subscriptions longer than they otherwise might have stayed on them, given that some people might not have had much else to do. We might now see that cancellation rates go back up to pre-pandemic levels, if not higher. People might want to do other things than watch TV.
Considering how many cable subscribers there still are, it begs the question of who is providing the service. Which are the most popular companies? And are there any major changes or surprises that we should be aware of?
By the latest data that is available, here are the most popular providers:
You should be familiar with most of these names and others you might have heard others mention or talk about before (they might be more regional). Even the most popular names have no more than 15 million subscribers. And we would also like to quickly point out that the list includes pay TV providers, not just “cable” providers. In practical terms, the cable or pay TV model of television is more important than the specific method of delivery, and for the average customer, it makes little difference.
It should also be noted that while these are the most popular TV providers, they are by no means the best. They are simply the largest and have the best advantage in terms of available people. To find the best (if that can be determined), you should look at other factors and see what people are generally happiest with.
And if the numbers seem low in the chart above compared to how many people you know who watch TV, then remember that each subscriber is a household, not an individual person. If you look more closely at the data for each service provider, you will still see a total loss among them, but some pay TV services are likely to lose more than others, often relating to more subjective metrics such as service quality, price, and channel selection. It is still possible for a pay-TV company to gain subscribers at the effective expense of another (as it has always been).
Is it possible we will see new contenders or major changes to the above list? In terms of growth causing changes by itself, we doubt that will be the case. It takes a massive amount of money to set up a cable company, and it doesn’t look like the best investment for anyone with enough capital to get things off the ground. Additionally, the most populous areas across the country are already covered by at least one company, if not several more. It is not impossible, but it would make little sense in the current environment.
We can and will see some mergers and acquisitions, particularly as the overall cord-cutting trend squeezes some companies. It makes consolidation more attractive, and it is already a practice that you often see in the news. There are concerns about monopolies involved in this, especially depending on the previous service regions, but that will not stop every merger or acquisition.
We would also like to point out that entertainment is becoming increasingly globalized, and television around the world is likely to do fine for decades. Cable is thriving in some countries, especially countries where sports are an even more important part of the culture. While we are mainly focused on U.S. statistics here, there is something to note: while globally, it is expected that there will be a decrease in revenue, the total number of subscribers (just a bit over a billion) isn’t expected to budge. So, the cable is expected to become less popular in countries like the U.S. and perhaps more popular in less developed or poorer countries.
This piece might not be explicitly about cable TV revenues, but you can learn a lot of things if you follow the money, and thankfully the trail is at least on a base level available for us to look at.
While household data usually includes people of mixed ages, we can determine a bit about who subscribes to cable by who watches cable and TV and how much. And from that, many of the same trends we’ve previously discussed and alluded to come to light. There are more older TV subscribers and viewers than younger ones. About 63 percent of Americans over the age of 68 pay for cable TV. Part of this might be that older people have more time to watch TV or fewer realistic alternatives about what they can do with their time. Yet it is also the fact that older people are used to television.
That is not to say younger generations have completely abandoned television entirely. Many households still have cable TV, even if they do not watch it as much, and it is more common in certain areas (often those that don’t have the best internet). Overall, 56 percent of Americans get either satellite or cable TV as of 2021.
If you break it down by ethnicity in the United States, there is a difference but not a huge difference. African Americans are most likely to be current cable subscribers and are the least likely to have never subscribed to cable TV.
The gender breakdown is much more difficult to determine given all the factors involved and that we usually measure households, but men, on average, watch more TV than women.
What will be expected is that networks will have to try harder as there are more options for everyone for entertainment. As people get older, the people who are sticking with cable will not be around in the same numbers, and people who grew up without cable will need a strong argument to sign up.
In some ways, production companies and creatives will follow the money, so an indirect bidding war for the best content is always possible. Yet if you are looking for the future when it comes to cable subscriptions, look to them. People aren’t loyal to cable companies. They might be a bit more loyal to their favorite shows or networks. They will be more in tune with the industry than the rest of us and have much more invested (literally) in making sure that viewers (subscribers) stay interested.
There has always been a balance between networks, companies producing content, and distributors. We think that the balance of power will shift in some ways, and with more options for producers (the internet), networks hold more power than before. However, it should still be noted that without television, most programming would never get enough views to warrant the budgets involved.
However, what will occur is a fair amount of turbulence in the world of entertainment, streaming, and television. It is already an industry fraught with constant changes and shifting trends, but there is still even more to consider. Expect to see more experiments (and more experiments gone wrong) as there are more than 50,000 people employed by cable networks and more than 1,250 businesses related to the cable TV industry.
There is no shortage of data; as much as you might be looking at it, cable companies are looking at it even more and likely have more accurate and relevant data to their interests. Therefore, cable companies are going to be reacting to the trends and have already started some plans in motion. While cable companies might not be able to completely fight the tide, they are aiming to adjust their sails. Here are a few things to be on the lookout for when it comes to paid TV:
As you can see, there is a lot to tell from the cable numbers in the United States, and there are a few clear trends to follow in the coming years. We hope that this information has been helpful and that if something interests you further, you do additional research. We cannot go into everything, but we did cover the major trends, so note what is important to you and use this information to plan either your business strategy or personal entertainment plans in the future. We wish you the best of luck and invite you to bookmark this page for future usage.