Cord cutting? Maybe not. Pay TV in the U.S. grew 3% last year

According to this report in Media Daily News, the number of people paying for TV in the U.S. grew by 3% last year, to 99.9 million. That's good news for me in the TV business because everyone over here is fairly terrified that "cord cutting" in favor of watching free TV online might catch on before a business model to support it comes along.
The increase to nearly 100 million comes as the popularity of online video continues to expand. Plus, Hulu and ESPN are offering premium product for free -- at least for now -- that is prompting some fear that people may drop a pay-TV subscription entirely, known as "cord-cutting."
This may be a one-time affair due to the transition from analog to digital TV though. We'll have to see what happens next year. Satellite, Telco TV On Rise, Cable Losing Subscribers (via TV by the Numbers)


  1. I work for a cable company and it’s my guess the increase was due to the switch to digital broadcasts by the Networks. In talking to people when they switch to cable, they’ve had nothing but problems with the digital antennas and converters. I’m actually surprised it’s not higher than 3%.

  2. i cut the cord 10 years ago and prefer to rent or own shows rather than have an endless stream of nothing to watch more than 90% of the week. I think cable TV is outdated.

  3. Cory puts it like something like this:

    When people can get things online for free, they do more of those things, not less. The people who download the most music also go to the most gigs and buy the most band merchandise. The biggest consumers of online books are also the people who buy the most dead-tree books, and go to the most signings, and so on.

  4. Uh, what was the population growth? Percentage growth in this case is meaningless until you know how many more people there were in the country.

  5. what is the general statistic in the past few years of ppl paying for TV? Does it usually go up each year? I mean what are the trends, is this typical or unusual? I can’t comment on what it means until I know that much.

  6. When ‘the switch’ happened, we got the converter box. We get 3 channels really clear now. One is a ‘weather’ thing though so doesn’t really count. Before with analog, we got 2 clear, 3 sorta clear and 2 or 3 watchable but fuzzy at any given time. This was plenty. Now we get no PBS which is what we miss the most. We live too far out for cable, and really don’t want a dish…so not sure what to do. We have been watching a lot more hulu and rent a lot of movies. We are considering blowing up the TV and moving the computer into the living room.

  7. “…watching free TV online might catch on before a business model to support it comes along.”

    Part of the problem facing the TV industry is that they are waiting for a online business model to just ‘come along’ rather than putting the effort into building a new business model.

    To start with, they could look into the misconceptions built into the current models. For example, when I watch a cable TV show recorded on a DVR, I am watching zero advertising. When I watch a show on Hulu, I watch the ads they air on it (which thankfully are few enough to make it worthwhile). For viewers like me, advertising dollars spent is actually more effective when online than on cable TV. Unfortunately, the antiquated ratings system doesn’t take any of this into account.

    I doubt that the networks and cable/satellite companies want to peak behind the curtain to see how much DVRs are eroding advertisement viewing. It will probably be up to the advertisers themselves to force a better accountability in this area.

  8. What free-TV-via-Internet may do is lure those of us who simply Will Not Pay for cable, not least because it lets us watch on our own schedule rather than the broadcast schedule. I didn’t see most of Firefly when broadcast; I did go back and watch it when I realized it was on Hulu.

  9. I think at least part of the reason that internet TV hasn’t replaced cable has to do with the fact that internet from the cable company and internet + TV from the cable company are pretty close to the same price after the “bundle discounts”. In my experience, when they take your discounts away and start charging you full price for all of your services, all you have to do is call up and ask to remove one or all of them and your discount comes back fairly quickly.

    1. Internet + TV = $120+ (this was with a “bundled Discount”)
      Internet = $45

      the TV was costing me almost double what the internet was, and I was using it less then 1/2 as much.

  10. I worked it out. due to the price increases from Comcast, I was paying $10 / hour for the little bit of TV that I was watching. I have since canceled my cable TV subscription. It was too damned expensive and the majority of it was crap or “reality TV” (which is just as fake as the rest of it).

    When I had it, I noticed that I was (on average) not able to watch good Sci Fi on “SyFy” (BTW don’t like the name change, but that is me), actual shows about History on the “History Channel”, and such like that.

    At least on Hulu and other on-line services, I can watch what I want, and not have to wait for some other crap to end.

    but then again, I blame MTV for this trend. After all, when was the last time anybody saw an actual show about Music on MTV? Much less music video’s.

  11. Here’s another fun fact: there are now far more swordmakers in the world than there ever were during the Middle Ages. But their sales aren’t anywhere remotely near those of firearms manufacturers.

  12. There are a few things I would need to know before concluding that this statistic supports the conclusion that cord-cutting is not yet a serious issue.

    1. How much of the increase was due to the digital conversion (as Mr. Engler notes).

    2. How many more households are there in the US compared to a year ago? Is the increase in paying customers keeping pace with the increase in population?

    3. How much of the increase is due to some providers’ agressive and temporary price-cutting? What will happen when Dish raises prices to the exorbitant levels of cable?

    4. How much of the increase was due to new availability of satellite and other services in previously unserved areas?

    I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but I think we need to before reaching any conclusions from one simple statistic.

  13. It would be interesting to see how this breaks down across age groups. I don’t know anyone under 30 who subscribes to cable, and most never have. And I’m Canadian, where there’s little over-the-air broadcasting.

  14. I will never pay for TV again. Having said that, I do have Netflix. I’m bypassing the networks and paying the rights holder directly.

    Also, I’m 52 years old and have never met a Nielson family; what does that say about the sample rate?

  15. I’m just happy that there are people out there paying for HBO because otherwise there probably wouldn’t be enough money to subsidize the TV shows I end up watching on Netflix.

  16. I canceled my cable TV (Time-Warner) almost a year ago and went completely to high speed Internet. I use Miro (video rss feeds), Hulu, Netflix and Bittorrent instead. Unless Time-Warner institutes some sort of bandwidth cap I am sticking with it.

  17. a few months before my daughter was born my wife and i were spending hours, days, weeks just zoned out watching massive amounts of whatever was on. some evenings we literally spent an hour going through every channel at least 20 times before going to bed. we gained weight, hardly spoke to each other, stopped being creative, etc. after looking at our bills we decided that cable tv was a huge waste of money and we could get everything online that we wanted to watch. we canceled cable and kept our internet. another few months passed. things improved immediately. we started reading more, talking, enjoying each others company, gardening, etc. unfortunately we both have our needs so we decided to sign up for netflix. what a blessing! at a fraction of cable costs we could still watch tv but we could get what we wanted when we wanted it plus there are select titles streaming online. recently netflix became available for the wii and that’s even better. we can still enjoy our ‘shows’ but we’re not using television as a drug like we used to. it also helps that in order to get the media we have to fire up equipment and wait for streaming info to load. 75% of the time we just leave everything off and go outside. this has been going on now for almost 2 years now and i don’t think we’ll ever go back to cable tv. it’s too expensive and the quality programming is too far and in between. don’t even get me started on the mass amounts of advertising that interrupts everything and no one watches anyway.

    1. Just like our family experience, thanks for sharing! Nice to know there are others like us!

  18. I cut the cord last year. It really wan’t worth it, and I say this as a guy with a job and plenty of disposable income. I have never looked back. In fact, me and my three roommates are all now perfectly content with our new setup. Basically, we just rock a Roku with netflix. We also have a computer plugged into the TV, but it doesn’t see that much use.

    The net result? We now watch vastly better TV when we want it. The thought of having to show up to watch a stream at a specific time defined by a network is so fucking arcane and absurd I don’t even have words for it. Netflix has meant that I get to watch entire series in one bite with no nasty filler. When netflix doesn’t come through, I just drop a dollar or two at Amazon and pump that through my Roku. It is a vastly cheaper way to live and the programing as much, much better.

    SyFy is actually a pretty good example. SyFy is 95% filler. Wrestling, dumb reality TV series, and crap like that is worthless to me. I just want the meat in the form of Caprica and SG:U. Even if I couldn’t get those shows on Hulu, I would just wait for Amazon or Netflix to release them. It is a lot cheaper to pay per pop (or a flat rate with Netflix) than it is to buy an entire cable package for just two shows that only appear at a certain time.

    Personally, I find the entire cable experience absurd. Why is this stuff still appearing at certain times? Why can’t I simply pick the show I want to see and watch it then? Why do I need to be at the TV at Monday night at 8?

    In fact, why do we even have “channels”? Why can’t cable just be a big old list of programs, you pick the one you want, and it plays. It can still have commercials, but why on in his noodlinesses name does it have to come through a “channel” at a certain time?

    Frankly, I think it is the cable companies that are really blowing their own foot off by clinging to their current model. They have a chance to dominate. Dump channels. Tell the channels they are all now production companies, take it or leave it. Production companies sell programing to cable companies. Maybe the production companies insert advertising, maybe the cable companies do, maybe there is no or little advertising. You make money by getting people to watch shows. SyFy gets out of the wrestling business because they don’t produce wrestling. Hell, SyFy might become the Caprica and SG:U channel because that is the only thing of worth they make. Maybe they even keep on the shitty reality TV shows because their budgets are small enough to sell for peanuts, but MY stream doesn’t get cluttered with that mindless crap.

    The cable companies have the chance to do it. It would take an infrastructure investment, and it would mean strong arming the networks, but it is sink or swing. Netflix is already doing this. Netflix is the new cable, it isn’t going to take much longer before people realize like I do that watching only TV that you want to watch when you want to watch it is the way to go.

  19. Dish Network (Echostar) — I’m paying $60 / mo. for infomercials, re-runs, religious programming, and TV shopping channels. If I could get a decent online connection out in the boonies (I’m on 28 K dialup), I’d cut the cord.

    If I could get cellular service out in the boonies, I’d cut the land-line to the phone.

    We’re part of the American infrastructure in rural American that technology hasn’t reached. (Digital Nomad, using WiFi in town.)

  20. In my neck of the woods I have comcast internet. Here, Comcast offers a ~$15 discount on internet if you subscribe to cable television too. ANY of their packages qualify. So I’m signed up for the absolute bare bones $9/month basic analog cable tv package that they offer. This saves me a net $6 a month. And I don’t even have a TV plugged in. So, I imagine that I’m not the only one who is a paying for TV without ever watching it.

  21. The only cable I ever had my whole life was in college… and it was part of my “rent” bill that the school charged so there was no choice. Its interesting to see how many people have cut the cord in these comments. Since so many people are getting news online now, the only long term group I can think of that would want cable is for live sports. Unless they change the model to ala carte.

  22. “I will never pay for TV again. Having said that, I do have Netflix. I’m bypassing the networks and paying the rights holder directly.”

    What you actually mean is that you’ve chosen to pay a different intermediary.

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