Cable television has evolved from a simple way to watch a few more premium channels to something indispensable to many modern homes, complete with hundreds of channels from all over the world for every audience under the sun. To completely understand it would be a monumental undertaking, yet to know nothing about it would mean that there would be a gap in your cultural awareness that would only stand to hurt you in the future.
And while we aren’t imploring you to start watching cable every night (unless you would like to), a lot can be learned from looking into the industry, programming and viewing trends from recent years. Let’s look a little more into some numbers and facts to get a better understanding of cable TV in 2020 and try to see what else we can find.
Who is Watching?
The first question you will want to ask when considering the question of who is watching cable TV is answering the question of who is watching TV at all? The answer, at least in the United States remains practically everyone.
As you can see in the graphic above, there is an overall trend upwards (and very few dips) over the last two decades in the number of households in the country that watch TV. This is partially due to the fact that there are more households in the country from population growth, and partially based on the fact that television is so common that to go without a set almost has to be an active choice.
- Among people who watch TV in general, there is an interesting divide among races or ethnicities.
- Rates of traditional live TV watching were five hours and 31 minutes per day for Black adults. Among Hispanic adults, this rate was two hours and 45 minutes per day. And among Asian-American adults? Only one hour and 51 minutes per day.
- As a reminder, these numbers did not include streaming video or video on-demand services.
- Older people watch more television. While the reasons could be many, the data by Nielsen clearly shows that younger people watch on average less than two hours a day of television, while people 65 and older will watch upwards of seven hours and fifteen minutes each day (which is almost half of time spent awake.)
- Similarly, regarding Cable TV specifically, it seems that it’s mostly older people paying for it, either because they are less comfortable or interested in streaming options or because they’re more likely to use it often. Here’s the breakdown:
More Channels Than Your Entire Family Could Ever Watch
First, take a look at how many cable channels are available on a nationwide basis, and how that number has grown (or more recently stagnated) over the years.
While the graph above goes in five-year intervals, that’s generally all that is needed to show the overall trend. Ever since the conception of and first widespread use of cable networks, more commercial channels have appeared to cater to specific markets (or perhaps to compete specifically with already existing channels).
When looking at the chart above, it’s also important to consider the fact that channels, especially the lesser-known ones, change hands frequently. While the numbers in more recent years may appear stagnant, in truth there’s a regular turnover that is created in response to audience ratings, changes in the cultural landscape, and many other factors.
Another way to look at the problem is to look at the number of shows being produced. Based off of information originally researched by FX Networks Research, the number of scripted original series from basic cable and pay cable networks has been on a slight decline, even as the overall number of shows produced each year rises (with streaming services and broadcast TV picking up the difference).
Producers will go to where the money and viewers are, and viewers will go to where the good content is, so it will be interesting to see how this tug of war continues.
What Are People Watching?
People watch a lot of TV, or at least a lot of video content. To be more specific, the average adult will spend five hours and 24 minutes each day watching something on a screen, which to put into perspective isn’t that far away from a quarter of one’s life. What we watch defines a lot of our lives, that much is clear.
And as you saw above, there are more networks, channels, and shows than any single person can keep up with, even if they were watching several shows at once for 24 hours a day (and that’s not even counting in news programming, reality television, and many other broadcasts). However, while there are many channels or networks, some of them have naturally grown more popular over time. Here are the top networks as of October 2019, based on information provided here:
News channels dominate several of the slots, perhaps in part because many people have it on all day while for other channels people will only tune in for specific shows. Other than this, some specialized channels (the Food Network and Nickelodeon) stick out, as do the cable mainstays such as ESPN and TBS. Ultimately, we don’t expect these rankings to change a great deal over time, because while hit shows may come and go, networks such as those above tend to have a more static audience, especially those without strong competition.
Is Streaming and On-Demand Television Killing Cable?
While there have been some drop-offs in the number of cable subscriptions in the United States, as well as many people saying they’ve “cut the cord” due to the availability of streaming options, the idea that cable TV is dead is an exaggerated and ultimately incorrect statement. Cable TV is fine, and we expect it to adapt to fit into the modern world stronger than ever, as it has been trying (with some successes and some failures) over the last decade.
Yet to better understand this, it’s best to look at this debate from several sides. Here are some statistics to help you do just that:
- While we don’t want to exaggerate the fears surrounding cable TV, more people are dropping their pay TV plans in favor of standard broadcast television or another alternative, and the trend is likely to continue.
- And while there are plenty of cord cutters, most of them don’t regret anything. About 52 percent of them don’t feel like they are missing anything after removing cable or satellite TV from their lives. The rest mostly just regret live events or sports events, which are coincidentally some of the major revenue sources (either as reasons to subscribe or as separate channel packages) for cable companies.
- Financially, the cable industry and pay TV providers are still taking in billions. To compare, United States pay TV providers brought in $85.5 billion in revenue in 2018. Netflix took in $20.16 billion worldwide in 2019 but had a far thinner margin of profit. They’re growing their content, but eventually Netflix may have to slow down, with other streaming services following suit.
- That being noted, the amount of revenue streaming services are bringing in each year is growing, and expected to grow further as companies such as Disney get into the market. Equilibrium will likely occur between the two distribution methods, but when this will happen is difficult to predict.
- Streaming services in the United States have also reached a point of market saturation that has almost reached the same level as cable, with only 25 percent of American adults having not subscribed to one yet.
- According to another study, the United States’ pay TV penetration rate dropped from 78 percent of households in 2018 to 75 percent in 2019. This is a vital statistic and one that cable companies will fight back against with both great effort and great difficulty. However, as you can tell, the penetration rate is already extremely high and to predict the immediate demise of the cable industry based on this would be hyperbolic.
There’s a lot more information that one can go through when considering the streaming vs. cable debate (probably the most important one happening in the entertainment industry at the moment).
The Top Companies and More About Them
The cable industry is generally dominated by a top tier of providers who serve millions of households each. By learning more about these companies, we can more easily know where the industry is headed and how to prepare for the future. Cable companies themselves are often jockeying for position not only for viewers but for dominance in a certain region, and in some cases will even neglect to compete in favor of companies taking greater root in regions where they already have a foothold.
First, what’s the who’s who of the cable world? Here are the top cable companies or pay TV providers operating in the United States.
The numbers may shift, but for decades the top companies have remained supreme, with a few major shifts due to major government policy or regulatory changes allowing telecommunications companies to provide more than one service.
One interesting factor that might interfere with how cable companies do business is that many towns and cities are starting to consider creating locally owned ISPs in response to the near-monopolies telecommunications giants have. Given how cable and internet (and phone) packages are so commonly bundled, many people are reconsidering how they buy cable subscriptions as a result of this change. Even so, we expect cable companies to adapt instead of dying.
Cable TV Around the World
While the figures around television and cable TV are remaining relatively stable in the United States (where the service has effectively reached full market saturation), cable TV around the rest of the world continues to grow as an industry and as a pastime. While we can’t investigate every country and go into detail about them in the confines of this article, here are a few statistics and trends that will give you the important takeaways:
- Cable is a major force in Europe and is still, in general, the primary way people watch TV and consume content. By 2023, we can expect that there will be 80 million households with a cable TV subscription in Eastern Europe. In 2019 that number was 70 million. It should be noted that this amount has nearly tripled in the last ten years, showing remarkable growth. As infrastructure improves, so will the numbers, and there are plenty of opportunities left to improve infrastructure.
- In Latin America in 2018, 55.39 percent of TV households had pay TV services. These services generated about 19.5 billion in revenue for providers in 2017. Market penetration has increased, and there is still room to grow despite the large impact the industry has already had there.
- Another way to consider the popularity of cable TV in a country is not by the total number of subscribers, but the number of subscribers per the population. Here are the top countries by that metric:
- Naturally, the United States is high on the list, but the rest of the list is primarily occupied by countries in Europe or smaller, wealthier countries in the continent. All of this follows trends and makes sense given the cost of cable for many.
What you can generally surmise from these statistics is that while the United States and some western countries have plateaued in terms of growth, you can still expect developments around the world as other countries catch up to the level of technological advancement and proliferation offered by leading countries. Whether those countries follow a similar trend to the United States or a different path entirely thanks to other digital technologies remains to be seen.
In other cases still, smaller countries with a smaller native language base might not get as much of a focus that they would otherwise have, and as such we might be seeing unpredictable starts and stops in growth as networks figure out and trial how to best expand.
Cable TV is changing alongside our watching habits, but by no means is cable on the decline or dying. On the contrary, we are getting more programming than ever, and people can enjoy what they want, when they want due to DVR and on-demand services provided by cable companies. As such. It will be interesting to see how the new decade treats cable and its viewers in conjunction with the rise of online services. There is much more that could be said, but we hope the information above has piqued your interest.