Nielsen recently published some statistics about the way that we watch video that shows a continuing trend of migration from traditional video to watching video online.
One of the most striking statistics is the total volume of online video. December 2021 saw an aggregate of 183 billion minutes of online video viewing. And even that number is likely small since there are many uses of video on the web that are not likely counted in the total. The prior largest months for video volumes was 178 billion minutes in November 2021 and 160 billion minutes in March 2020, the first month of the pandemic.
Here is a comparison of the video usage by category. Cable means video delivered by a wired cable provider or from a satellite service like DirecTV. Streaming is all sources of online content like Netflix. Broadcast is watching video using an antenna. Other is an all-inclusive category that includes things like gaming, DVDs, and video on demand.
Nielsen has been tracking these numbers for many years. There has been a steady migration from traditional cable viewing to both streaming and broadcast viewing as millions of homes are dropping traditional cable each year. The other category has also been growing, fueled by the explosive growth of online gaming.
Nielsen also reported on the market share of each of the major online video services. The following percentages represent the share that each service has of all online video content. It’s impressive to see that 6.4% of all video content is delivered by Netflix. It’s also impressive to see Disney+ grow so large after having just launched at the end of 2019.
The reason I’m writing about this topic is a reminder of how many minutes of video usage are still carried by traditional cable TV and by broadband TV. In December there were 242 billion minutes of content delivered by traditional cable TV and another 170 billion minutes delivered by broadcast using antennas. Over time, more and more of these minutes are going to migrate online and is one of the primary driving factors behind the continued explosive growth where broadband networks have been seeing a doubling of overall bandwidth used about every three years. The trends identified by Nielsen mean that ISPs can’t expect any break in that growth for the foreseeable future, likely well into the next decade.
One of the best sources for understanding trends in media consumption is Nielsen. Their recently released Total Audience Report for the second quarter of 2018 supplies detailed statistics on how Americans consume media including live TV, radio, Internet Browsing, gaming and smart phones. They are the only ones I know who pull this all together and who also trend media usage over time.
Media in general is a major factor in the life of US adults. In the second quarter of this year the average adult spent an average of 10 hours and 45 minutes per day using some form of media. That usage varies by age with adults aged 50-64 at the highest with an average of 11 hours and 49 minutes per day. What might surprise many is that adults aged 18-34 were the lowest demographic at just over 8 hours of media use per day.
The time spent on various types of media is intriguing. Live and time-shifted TV is still king and the average adult watches TV for 4 hours and 21 minutes per day. Next is using apps on smart phones at 2 hours 19 minutes per day. Radio usage is third with an average of 1 hour 49 minutes per day. Smaller categories include game consoles at 44 minutes per day, using tablets at 43 minutes per day and browsing the Internet on a computer at 32 minutes per day.
As we’ve known from the long-time tracking from Nielsen, the hours watching TV varies widely by age group. Adults over 65 watch TV almost 7 hours per day. But a statistic that scares the whole television industry is that adults aged 18-34 are only watching an average of 2 hours per day. There have been several studies over the last few years that concluded that television viewing habits adopted when we are young carry forward for life. Those over 65 are from the generation stretching back to the birth of TV and it’s still an important part of their life, while younger people have chosen other ways to consume media. This doesn’t bode well for the future of TV.
Some other categories of usage have become common for everybody. All adults under 65 now spend between 2 and 3 hours per day using apps on a smartphone. Those over 65 are at about half that usage. Also, average usage of tablets is about 46 minutes per day for everybody over 34, and at 33 minutes per day for those under 34.
Another interesting statistic is how we use media throughout the day. We’re all familiar with the fact that TV usage peaks in the evenings with viewing at prime time double the TV viewing for the rest of the day. But interestingly, the use of combined digital media – smartphones, computers and tablets – is consistent from 8 AM through bedtime.
Another interesting statistic is what Nielsen calls reach – what percentage of adults are touched by a given media during the week. The leader in this category is radio that reaches 92% of adults at least once during a week. Next is live and time-shifted TV that reaches 87% of us. Smart phone apps reach 78% of adults during a week, and Internet on a computer reaches 54% of people each week.
There are some other interesting statistics in the report. 24% of households now have a smart speaker device like the Amazon Echo. That’s pretty amazing for a technology that didn’t exist just three years ago. 19% of adults listen to a podcast each week. 15% of us now listen to satellite radio. I would guess that many people would think that social media has overtaken our lives, but the average adult spends 44 minutes per day on a social media platform.
Another interesting statistic is how we watch TV. Almost 83% of adults watch TV in some manner. 81% of them still watch traditional cable TV; 13% watch TV using an antenna and 6% watch TV on the Internet. It’s easy for us in the Industry to think that Internet TV has taken over the industry, but most households are still watching TV the traditional way. This statistic should scare network planners because it highlights the huge amount of video that could transition to online in the future.
Of course, none of us are average and I doubt that anybody that reads this matches the overall statistics. Like other baby boomers I grew up in a time when the only media available was TV and radio and it’s always interesting to pause and consider the huge number of options we have today. These options mean we all use media in our own individual way. It’s still interesting, though, to see how our individual use of media aggregates into a national average – which is what drives the telecom industry we work in.
According to New Street Research (NSR), up to 14% of homes in the US could go all-wireless for broadband. They estimate that there are 17 million homes which are small enough users of bandwidth to justify satisfying their broadband needs strictly using a cellular connection. NSR says that only about 6.6 million homes have elected to go all-wireless today, meaning there is a sizable gap of around 10 million more homes for which wireless might be a reasonable alternative.
The number of households that are going wireless-only has been growing. Surveys by Nielsen and others have shown that the trend to go wireless-only is driven mostly by economics, helped by the ability of many people to satisfy their broadband demands using WiFi at work, school or other public places.
NSR also predicts that the number of homes that can benefit by going wireless-only will continue to shrink. They estimate that only 14 million homes will benefit by going all-wireless within five years – with the decrease due to the growing demand of households for more broadband.
There are factors that make going wireless an attractive alternative for those that don’t use much broadband. Cellular data speeds have been getting faster as cellular carriers continue to implement full 4G technology. The first fully compliant 4G cell site was activated in 2017 and full 4G is now being deployed in many urban locations. As speeds get faster it becomes easier to justify using a cellphone for broadband.
Of course, cellular data speeds need to be put into context. A good 4G connection might be in the range of 15 Mbps. That speed feels glacial when compared to the latest speeds offered by cable companies. Both Comcast and Charter are in the process of increasing data speeds for their basic product to between 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps depending upon the market. Cellphones also tend to have sluggish operating systems that are tailored for video and that can make regular web viewing feel slow and clunky.
Cellular data speeds will continue to improve as we see the slow introduction of 5G into the cellular network. The 5G specification calls for cellular data speeds of 100 Mbps download when 5G is fully implemented. That transition is likely to take another decade, and even when implemented isn’t going to mean fast cellular speeds everywhere. The only way to achieve 100 Mbps speeds is by combining multiple spectrum paths to a given cellphone user, probably from multiple cell sites. Most of the country, including most urban and suburban neighborhoods are not going to be saturated with multiple small cell sites – the cellular companies are going to deploy faster cellular speeds in areas that justify the expenditure. The major cellular providers have all said that they will be relying on 4G LTE cellular for a long time to come.
One of the factors that is making it easier to go wireless-only is that people have access throughout the day to WiFi, which is powered from landline broadband. Most teenagers would claim that they use their cellphones for data, but most of them have access to WiFi at home and school and at other places they frequent.
The number one factor that drives people to go all-wireless for data is price. Home broadband is expensive by the time you add up all of the fees from a cable company. Since most people in the country already has a cellphone then dropping the home broadband connection is a good way for the budget-conscious to control their expenses.
The wireless carriers are also making it easier to go all wireless by including some level of video programming with some cellular plans. These are known as zero-rating plans that let a customer watch some video for free outside of their data usage plan. T-Mobile has had these plans for a few years and they are now becoming widely available on many cellular plans throughout the industry.
The monthly data caps on most wireless plans are getting larger. For the careful shopper who lives in an urban area there are usually a handful of truly unlimited data plans. Users have learned, though, that many such plans heavily restrict tethering to laptops and other devices. But data caps have creeped higher across-the-board in the industry compared to a few years ago. Users who are willing to pay more for data can now buy the supposedly unlimited data plans from the major carriers that are actually capped between 20 – 25 GB per month.
There are always other factors to consider like cellular coverage. I happen to live in a hilly wooded town where coverage for all of the carriers varies block by block. There are so many dead spots in my town that it’s challenging to use cellular even for voice calls. I happen to ride Uber a lot and it’s frustrating to see Uber drivers get close to my neighborhood and get lost when they lose their Verizon signal. This city would be a hard place to rely only on a cellphone. Rural America has the same problem and regardless of the coverage maps published by the cellular companies there are still huge areas where rural cellular coverage is spotty or non-existent.
Another factor that makes it harder to go all-wireless is working from home. Cellphones are not always adequate when trying to log onto corporate WANs or for downloading and working on documents, spreadsheets and PowerPoints. While tethering to a computer can solve this problem, it doesn’t take a lot of working from home to surpass the data caps on most cellular plans.
I’ve seen a number of articles in the last few years talking claiming that the future is wireless and that we eventually won’t need landline broadband. This claim ignores the fact that the amount of data demanded by the average household is doubling every three years. The average home uses ten times or more data on their landline connection today than on their cellphones. It’s hard to foresee the cellphone networks able to close that gap when the amount of landline data use keeps growing so rapidly.
I’ve read a lot recently in various trade articles talking about the percentage of Millennials that are watching (or not watching) traditional TV content. The various polls and studies show that Millennials are far less interested in watching linear TV than older generations. They are far less likely to buy a traditional cable TV subscription.
Millennials are starting to have a huge impact on our society. They now make up 32% of all adults in the US. They are more educated than earlier generations and 40% of Millennials between the ages of 25 and 29 have completed a bachelor’s degree compared to 32% for Generation X and smaller numbers for Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation.
But I have rarely read anything that describes what Millennials are doing in place of watching traditional TV. We now know from a study by Nielsen that part of the answer lies in the fact that Millennials read a lot more digital content than older generations. Digital content is content generated by online sites. Nielsen says digital content is now the primary source of news, sport, fashion trends and general knowledge for this generation – to a far greater extent than older generations.
Nielsen has begun tracking digital content and has begun to rate it much like they do for television viewing. Since advertising is shifting towards the web this tracking is of great value to potential advertisers. Historically we’ve been ranking websites by the number of ‘hits’ on their website. But the Nielsen digital tracking goes much deeper and measures time spent at each web site – which is what advertisers want to know. Advertisers have been able to get this kind of information from huge sites like Facebook, but never for everything else on the web.
Here are just a few of the things that Nielsen found about Millennials and digital media:
In terms of volume, the leading website used by Millennials is BuzzFeed. This site reaches 83% of US Millennials each month. The content on BuzzFeed is aimed at Millennials and the average BuzzFeed viewer sees an astronomical 38 videos on the site per month. Users don’t have to go to BuzzFeed to see the content, which is widely distributed through the various social media platforms. The platform carries news, the many videos, quizzes and the popular Millennial food site Tasty.
Just behind BuzzFeed is Group Nine Media. This company has four web brands including NowThis, The Dodo, Seeker and Thrillist. The companies content is aimed at younger audiences and now reaches 81% of Americans in their 20s. The platform has grown quickly to 1 million minutes per month of streamed content.
Another popular digital content site is MIC. This site offers news aimed at younger viewers and reaches over 25% of people between 21 and 34 years old each month. They are now attracting over 40 million unique viewers per month. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the site to advertisers is that 56% of their viewers are female.
Refinery29 is a site aimed at young women. It’s a mix of fashion, beauty, entertainment and money news. The platform is a mix of text articles and videos and reaches 62% of women between 18 and 34 each month, but a huge 88% of women between 21 and 24. In 2017 Adweek reported that the site reached 500 million viewers worldwide.
Another web site that caters to Millennials has an interesting distribution network. Rather than maintain a web site, VIX distributes content on social medial sites like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. The site carries video content on lifestyle tips, entertainment, food and life hacks. 62% of VIX viewers are female and VIX reaches 40% of US women between 18 and 49 each month.
All of this is bad news for companies that advertise on TV. Statistics show that linear TV audiences are aging quickly as younger viewers abandon watching real-time TV and its associated ads. Anything that is bad for TV advertisers is ultimately bad for the TV product and anybody that sells it. But the reality is that younger generations are abandoning the programming made for and watched by older generations. This is almost inevitable and is a market reality that the whole industry needs to come to grips with.
Nielsen recently published their first quarter Total Audience Report for Q1 2017. It’s the best evidence that I’ve seen yet that there is a huge difference between generations when it comes to video viewing habits. Compared to most surveys that look at a few thousand people, these statistics are based on almost 300,000 households.
The report examined in detail the viewing habits of the different US generations – Generation Z (ages 2 – 20), Millennials (ages 21 – 37), Generation X (ages 38 – 52), Baby Boomers (ages 53 – 70) and the Greatest Generation (ages 71+). What might surprise a lot of people is that Generation Z and the Millennials together now make up 48% of the US population – and that means their viewing habits are rapidly growing in importance to the cable TV industry.
The report outlines how the various generations own or use various devices or services. But note that these responses represent the entire household. So, for example, when Nielsen sought answers from somebody in generation Z it’s likely that the answers represent what is owned by their parents who are likely a millennial or in generation X. Here are a few interesting statistics:
The broadband penetration rate between generations is about the same, ranging from 82% to 85% of households. It wasn’t too many years ago when the baby boomer households lagged in broadband adoption.
There is a significant difference in the use of OTT services like Netflix. 73% of homes representing generation Z subscribe to an OTT service, but only 51% of baby boomer only households.
Baby boomers also lag in smartphone adoption at 86% with the younger generations all between 95% and 97% adoption.
Baby boomers also lag in the adoption of an enabled smart TV (meaning it’s connected to the web). 28% of baby boomers have an enabled smart TV while younger households are at about 39%.
The biggest difference highlighted in the report is the daily time spent using various entertainment media that includes such things as TV, radio, game consoles, and surfing the Internet.
The big concern to the cable industry is the time spent watching cable content. For example, the average monthly TV viewing for those over 65 is 231 hours of live TV and 34 hours of time-sifted TV. But for people aged 12-17 that is only 60 hours live and 10 hours time-shifted. For ages 18-24 it’s 72 hours live and 12 hours time-shifted. For ages 25-34 it’s 101 hours live and 19 hours time-shifted. This is probably the best proof I’ve seen of how much less younger generations are invested in traditional TV.
This drastic difference for TV stands out because for other kinds of media there is not such a stark difference. For example, those over 65 spend about 67 hours per month using apps on smartphones while those 18-24 use 77 hours and those 25-34 use 76 hours.
There even wasn’t a drastic difference in the number of hours spent monthly watching video on a smartphone with those over 65 watching 2 hours per month compared to 7 hours for those 18-24 and 6 hours for those 25-34.
The only other media with a stark difference is video game consoles with those over 65 using 13 hours per month while those 18-24 use 49 hours per month. Other things like listening to the radio or using a multimedia device (like Roku or Apple TV) are similar across generations.
The drastic difference in TV viewing has serious repercussions for the industry. For example, TV is no longer a medium to be used to reach those aged 18-24 since they watch TV over 180 hours less per month than those over 65. We’re seeing a big shift in advertising dollars and during the last year the amount spent on web advertising surpassed TV advertising for the first time. When you trend this forward a decade it spells bad news for the broadcasting and cable industries. For many years there was a big hope that as people get older that they would revert to the usage patterns of their parents. But the evidence shows that the opposite seems to be true – that kids keep their viewing habits as they grow older.
When you compare this report to earlier ones it’s obvious that the difference between generations is widening. Just comparing to 2016 those over 65 are watching more TV each month while the youngest generations are cutting back on TV over time – Generation Z watched 15 minutes less TV per day just since 2016.
Nielsen has now been publishing quarterly reports on TV viewing habits since 2011. Comparing the latest report for the 4th quarter of 2016 to the original 2011 report shows a major decrease in the hours spent by younger Americans in watching traditional television – which is defined as the combination of both live viewing and time-delayed viewing of network television content.
The changes differ by age group and don’t paint a pretty picture for the traditional TV market:
Teens (12-17) watched almost 14 hours per week of television, but that’s down almost 11% from 2015 and down 38% from five years.
Younger Millennials (18-24) watched 15.5 hours per week of TV, and that’s down 39%, or 1.5 hours per day over 5 years.
Older Millennials (25-34) watched 22 hours per week, and which is down 26.5% over five years.
Gen-Xers (35-49) watched almost 40 hours per week and have seen a 10% drop over five years.
Baby Boomers (50-64) watched 43 hours per week and have had a slight increase over five years of 1.6% in viewing time.
65+ viewers watched 52 hours per week which is up 0.6% over 2015 and is up 8.4% over five years.
So what are the younger people doing other than watching traditional TV? The numbers for 19-24 year old users is interesting.
They spend 15.5 hours per week watching traditional television (including time-shifting).
They spend 20.8 hours watching subscription-based OTT content like Netflix or Amazon.
They spend another 17 hours watching something else, which includes things like DVRs, video on social media, or free web content like YouTube.
That’s an average of 53 hours per week, about the same amount of screen time as those over 65 watching traditional TV.
This same group also uses a variety of different screens. That includes an average of 9.2 hours per week watching video on a PC or laptop, 1.5 hours per week watching on a tablet and 1 hour per week watching on a smartphone. The rest still use a television screen, even if the content is not a traditional TV feed.
The good news for the whole industry is that young people are not tuning out from watching video content – they are just watching a lot less traditional television. And that means less of the major networks, less sports, and less of all of the various networks found on cable systems. They have decided, as a group that other content is of more interest.
It’s soon going to be harder for Nielsen and others to quantify the specific types of content viewing because the lines are starting to blur between the various categories. If somebody watches a live feed of a basketball game or a traditional network show on Sling TV that is basically the same as watching traditional TV. But on that same platform you can also watch streaming movies in the same manner as Netflix. And traditional broadcasters are doing something similar. For example, CBS All-access not only includes traditional CBS programming, but there is new content like the new Star Trek series that is only going to be available on-line.
We’ve known for a long time that younger viewers are not watching television in the same way as older generations, but these numbers really highlight the differences. Those over 65 years old are watching four times more traditional television than teens. And viewing hours for younger viewers are steadily dropping while older viewers are watching as much or more TV than five years ago. You only have to trend this forward for a decade to foresee continued dramatic drops in total TV viewership.
For years there has been hope in the industry that as kids age and get families and buy homes that they will return to the traditional pay-TV packages. But numerous surveys have shown that this is not happening. It seems that the viewing habits of youth influences viewing habits for life. And that creates a real challenge for the advertising-supported pay TV model. TV advertisers are only reliably reaching older viewers, and yet most advertisers still believe that TV advertising is one of their most effective tools. But each year TV advertising is going to reach fewer and fewer younger viewers, and at some point the advertisers are going to be forced to look elsewhere.
Nielsen recently took a look at how we use cellphone data. They installed apps on people’s phones that tracked data usage on both cellular networks and WiFi. The data comes from a massive study on the usage of 45,000 Android users in August. Nielsen also continues to study the usage of 30,000 cellular customers every month using the same app.
What Nielsen found wasn’t surprising in that they found that younger people use cellular data the most. They also found that Hispanics are the largest data users among various ethnic groups.
Here are the average monthly usage by age:
‘ Cell DataWiFi Data
18 – 24 3.2 GB 14.1 GB
25 – 34 3.6 GB 11.2 GB
35 – 44 2.9 GB 9.3 GB
45 – 54 2.1 GB 7.5 GB
55 – 64 1.4 GB 6.4 GB
65+ 0.9 GB 4.8 GB
This study quantifies a lot of things that we already knew about cellular usage. We know, for example, that younger people use their cellphones to watch video more than older people. I have anecdotal evidence of that by watching my 17-year old. If she’s representative of her age group then they are using cellular data even more than the 18-24 year olds. They communicate with pictures and videos where older generations use email, chat, and text messaging.
These numbers also show that most people are not yet using their cellphones as a substitute for landline data usage. Certainly there are many individuals for whom the cellphone is their only source for data, but these numbers show average cellphone data usage far below average landline usage. I have a number of clients that track landline customer data usage and most of them are reporting average monthly downloads somewhere between 100 GB and 150 GB per household. Comcast recently reported that their 6-month rolling median data usage is 75 GB – meaning half of their customers use less than that, and half use more. All of the numbers in the above charts, while representing individuals and not families, are still far below those numbers.
Nielsen also tracked data usage by ethnicity, as follows:
‘ Cell DataWiFi Data
Hispanic 3.8 GB 10.1 GB
Native American 3.5 GB 7.3 GB
African-American 3.3 GB 9.1 GB
Asian 2.3 GB 9.9 GB
White 2.2 GB 8.6 GB
This shows that Hispanics, on average, are the largest users of data, both cellular and WiFi. Whites are at the bottom of the average usage chart.
Nielsen also was able to look into usage by geography. They didn’t publish all of the results, but did provide some interesting statistics. For example, they have some strong evidence now that cities with widespread WiFi networks can save customers money on their cellphone plans. For example, New York City has a lot of public WiFi and users in the city use WiFi 14% more than the national average while using cellular data 12% less. Contrast this with a city like Los Angeles with little public WiFi, and citizens there use WiFi 9% less than the national average and use cellular data 13% more. This kind of study can provide the basis for a city to quantify the benefits to the public for building a public WiFi network.
I’ve been writing periodically about ESPN because they seem to be the poster child for what is happening to cable TV and to programmers in the country. It’s been obvious over the last year or two that ESPN is bleeding customers, and the many articles about them concentrate on that issue.
ESPN is a good bellwether for the industry because they are carried by practically every cable TV provider, and because their contracts require that the channel be carried in the expanded basic tier – the tier that generally has between 50 and 75 channels. Only a few tiny rural cable systems don’t carry ESPN since they carry only a small number of channels.
When ESPN loses customers it can only come from one of two reasons – people that cut the cord and drop cable altogether or from cord shavers who downsize to the smallest basic cable package. Basic cable is the small package of 10 – 15 channels that includes the local network affiliates, government channels and a few cheap throw-ins like shopping channels.
But it’s not easy to figure out the real number of cord cutters and cord shavers. The largest cable companies report total subscriber numbers each quarter but they don’t report on the packages that customers buy. Various analysts estimate the number of cord cutters each quarter, but they differ on these estimates – and I haven’t seen anybody try to estimate the number of cord shavers.
Nielsen tracks the number of customers of each cable network and that tells us how the various cable TV networks are faring. The latest article on ESPN comes from Sports TV Ratings, a website that tracks subscribers to the various sports networks. That site shows that ESPN lost 621,000 subscribers just last month (October 2016). That is an astounding number since ESPN has roughly 89 million customers – it’s a drop of 7/10’s of a percent, which annualized would be over 8% of ESPN customers.
But that number may not be a huge aberration. FierceCable reported earlier this year that ESPN had lost 2.2 million customers between February and August of this year, which is a clip of 440,000 lost customers per month. And the network has lost more than 11 million customers since its peak in 2013 when it had almost 100 million customers.
Trying to count cord shavings gets even more complicated because of OTT content. The cited drop of 610,000 ESPN customers is from the Nielsen numbers for carriage on cable systems. This doesn’t include online content which includes ESPN. For instance, the basic package on Sling TV includes ESPN and Goldman Sachs estimated that Sling TV will have almost 2 million customers by the end of this year. There are a number of new OTT offerings just hitting the market that will include the network, but for now Sling TV has most of the online ESPN subscribers.
ESPN has an advantage over many other networks in that it probably can add back customers by selling to people directly on the web. And so perhaps the network can find an equilibrium number of customers at some lower threshold than today. But this is not going to be true for a lot of other content. As an example, in October the Golf Channel lost 600,000 subscribers and The Major League Baseball Channel lost 515,000 customers – and those kinds of networks have very limited appeal on a standalone basis. That is the real story behind the losses at ESPN – the vast majority of cable networks are bleeding customers right now.
Some of the content providers are not too worried about the drop of US cable customers since they are picking up far greater numbers of new customers worldwide right now. But networks that are US-centric – sports, news, weather – are in for a rough ride over the next few years as the industry settles out to a new and lower norm. I think we can expect to see a transformation of sports programming as the numerous sports networks bleed customers. This probably means more emphasis on live programming and fewer sports networks.
I’ve read several things lately that make me wonder about the need to include cable TV in the bundle. I saw an article that blamed part of Google Fiber’s performance on the fact that Google’s cable TV is more expensive than the competition.
The first place to look for this answer is with nationwide surveys. There have been major surveys for the past five years that report that somewhere between 15% and 20% of homes say they are considering dropping cable in the next year. Yet they don’t do it. That demonstrates a lot of dissatisfaction among customers, but something about the cable product keeps people connected even though they are unhappy. We are probably on track to see about 1.5 million people drop cable this year. That may sound like a lot, but with the total number of cable homes just under 100 million, true cord-cutting is still a relatively minor phenomenon.
We also see clues that tell us that people are downgrading cable packages when they can. It’s been reported that ESPN has lost millions of customers more in the last few years than can be attributed to cord-cutting. The only way for that to happen is for a lot of households to be downgrading to packages that don’t include ESPN. And since ESPN is in the expanded basic package for most cable companies, that means that households must be downgrading to the smallest possible basic packages – that that have 20 channels or less. But cable companies don’t report these numbers, so we can only guess the extent of cord shaving.
There is also the issue of affordability. Certainly there are many homes that can no longer afford expensive cable TV packages. Affordability probably accounts for a significant portion of the 30% of households that don’t have a cable package. But since cable rates continue to increase faster than the rate of inflation there must be more homes each year that find they can no longer afford cable. We now know that affordability is the major factor that is capping broadband subscriptions nationwide in markets where broadband is available.
And my guess is that broadband is growing to become more valuable than cable to many households. There is enough entertainment available online that a household dropping cable is not isolated from video like they were just a few years ago. We certainly see a lot of homes subscribing to on-line video. A Nielsen survey from the first quarter of this year reported that more than half of all households are buying at least one online video service. Nielsen estimated that by June of this year that over 45 million homes will pay for Netflix. Hulu had over 12 million subscribers by the end of May of this year. We don’t know how many people watch Amazon Prime video, but the Prime shipping service has over 54 million customers.
Over the last year I know a half dozen smaller telcos that have dropped the cable product altogether and have directed their customers to one of the satellite services. Small companies all tell me that they are losing money on cable TV, and the numbers behind their decision are compelling. Larger companies can gain some economy of scale with cable TV, but only the largest dozen cable companies are actually making money with the product.
We know that when Google Fiber first launched service without a cable product they stumbled. They seem to have done a lot better after adding cable. But part of their problem also has to be the $70 gigabit product that a lot of homes can’t afford. I’m guessing that they’ll do better in Atlanta where they now offer a 100 Mbps product for a flat $50.
But still, even with those many trends acting against the cable product, somewhere around 70% of all homes in the country still buy cable from one of the cable providers – landline or satellite. It seems really hard to ignore a product that 70% of households are willing to buy. As a consultant I still have a difficult time telling companies to not offer cable TV in new markets.
One thing that is making it a bit easier is that the cable product is starting to finally move to the cloud. For example, Skitter TV now offers a cable product that can save a company from investing in a headend. And perhaps that is the long-term solution – for most cable providers to offer programming from the cloud to avoid the costs and issues of trying to go it alone.
YouTube recently caused a big stir in the broadcast world by announcing that it now reaches more Millennials (individuals between 16 and 36) than any broadcast or cable network. Of course, since massive advertising dollars are at stake, the cable networks all pushed back on the claim. And the fact is, nobody knows the real numbers because YouTube is not measured by Nielsen ratings in the same way as broadcast and cable networks.
But one thing is clear – that Millennials are abandoning traditional TV in droves. Just this last TV season there was a huge fall-off in Millennial viewers almost across the board, as measured by Nielsen. This not only has a big impact on advertising and on content providers, but it has to be of great concern to anybody that offers a traditional cable TV product.
Nielsen reports that during the 2014-15 TV season that there were 19 shows broadcast in primetime that drew 1 million or more Millennials. In this past season that dropped to 12 shows. And the drop is almost across the board. ABC Millennial viewers were down almost 19%. The CW that has programming for younger viewers was down 16%. NBC dropped 10%, Fox dropped over 7% and CBS was down 3%.
Some individual shows lost a lot of support from Millennials. For example, How to Get Away with Murder and Family Guy each lost an average of 700,000 live weekly viewers. Scandal and Once Upon a Time each lost 500,000 live viewers. The trend isn’t just one of Millennials abandoning live viewing. Nielsen tracks viewing also on video-on-demand. In 2014-15 the show How to Get Away with Murder had 2.7 million viewers aged 18 – 34 in live-plus-three and 2.8 million in live-plus-seven viewing. Those numbers dropped in one year to 1.7 million and 1.9 million, a drop of 37%.
This trend is one of the primary drivers that is moving advertising away from traditional TV to web-TV like YouTube’s Google Preferred. eMarketer reports that 2017 will be the year where Web advertising passes TV advertising. They are predicting $77.4 billion for web advertising compared to $72 billion for TV. And they predict after that web advertising will skyrocket while TV advertising will remain flat. They also predict that by 2020 that mobile advertising will eclipse TV advertising.
None of these statistics are good signs for traditional TV networks and for cable TV operators. An entire generation of viewers is tuning out, and the expectation is that generation Z behind them will have almost no affinity for television. Recent studies suggest that peoples’ TV viewing habits are largely set by their experience with the medium as children, and the children of Millennials are going online far more than watching traditional TV.
This doesn’t mean that watching video content is down. The average hours for individuals to watch some kind of video content has grown slightly over the last decade. But that viewing time is now being spent watching YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime and other non-TV sources of video. And the viewing is rapidly shifting away from the TV screens to other devices.
Millennials are an interesting generation. They are old enough to remember the time just before the explosion of technology, but they are young enough to have adopted new technologies as they came along. They are the generation that has experienced the biggest change during the shortest period of time for digital technologies. But it seems that as they are getting older that they are becoming more like their kids and are abandoning older technologies like sitting in front of a TV.
I’m not sure that cable companies really are going to have any product to attract the attention of this generation and certainly not for their children in generation Z. Cable companies are hoping that things like TV Everywhere and skinny bundles will slow people from dropping TV entirely, but even that might not be enough. Broadcast TV is now largely something that is being produced for – and watched by – Baby Boomers. And they aren’t going to be around forever.