There are a number of trends affecting the cable TV industry that all add up to an industry that is going to be seeing big changes over the next decade. These are what I see as the biggest trends affecting the industry:
- Cord Cutters. The number of people who are completely dropping cable is growing and the speed of that drop is accelerating. I have seen several different recent estimate that 5 million households will have completely dropped all cable service by the end of 2013. And only the cable providers know how many other million households that have cut back on the size of the package they buy rather than drop service totally. I anecdotally know many people, myself included, who have gone from the big cable packages to something less – in my case I now have only the basic package of about 20 channels.
- Higher Programming Costs. Programming costs have been rising steadily for the last decade and until the last few years were climbing between 6% and 7% per year. Costs have climbed even faster in recent years due to the high fees being demanded by local network channels in each market (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox). Local network programming was free for cable companies until a few years ago, but now they paying as much as $1 per month per customer for each major network channel. Many contracts between cable providers and programmers are for multiple years and those contracts show the price increases are going to continue to come.
- Even Higher Rate Increases. The large cable companies have increased rates around 7% per year for many years. The programmers have usually blamed the size of the increases on increased programming costs, but until the recent increases in local network programming the increases were generally about twice what was needed to cover programming cost increases. If the rate increases continue at that level, then a $70 package today will cost $129 in ten years. Prices are already at a point that are forcing households off the network.
- Very Solid Cable Modem Business. To a large degree the cable companies have won the war with DSL. However, they have stiff competition from Verizon and FiOS on fiber. There is limited competition outside the Verizon footprint, but with Google building fiber in Kansas City and having announced Austin and Provo there is going to be more competition for the residential business.
What do these trends add up to? I see them resulting in the following:
- Ever decreasing cable customer base. The most dire trend for the industry is that young people are not interested in traditional cable, and as that demographic ages the percentage of households wanting cable is going to drop faster and faster. Add to this the households dropping due to never-ending price increases and most experts see cable subscribership going down the same path as landline telephones. Subscribers are dropping somewhat slowly now, but every prediction I have seen believes the rate of disconnects will accelerate over time.
- Cable Providers Become Data Companies. As cable penetration decreases the cable companies will become more and more reliant on selling data. This is going to lead them over time to maximize their networks for providing bandwidth for data rather than cable TV. And I predict it also means that they will start raising data prices over time, something that we just started seeing in the last year. There is not much profit in selling cable packages and the cable companies could be more profitable selling data eventually (assuming they are in markets where they don’t have stiff competition).
- Winnowing of Cable Networks. As the industry loses subscribers and as people downgrade from larger packages to smaller ones, the demand for some of the networks is going to diminish. One way for cable companies to control costs is going to be to whittle away at their line-up, and that is not that hard to do with 300+ channels on many cable systems. So some of the marginal networks are going to either die or greatly reduce the fees they charge if they want to stay in business.
There is one change that might affect the industry that could upset these trends, and that is a la carte programming. There are a lot of barriers to make that happen, but cable companies might get new life if they are able to sell only those channels that people want to watch. It’s certainly possible that they could sell a package of 20 channels to a family at an affordable price and make more profit than they do today with the large expensive packages. But this is going to require a major change in an industry that is currently controlled by the programmers and not by the cable companies.