If you were hoping the cord-cutting movement was slowing down, it isn't. The United States' biggest cable television service providers collectively lost at least one million subscribers during the first quarter. And assuming DirecTV didn't reverse its long streak of customer attrition (the company no longer discloses its subscriber metrics), the actual number of subscriber losses for the industry is even greater.
Counting DirecTV's likely attrition as well as all the smaller, regional cable television service providers, Leichtman Research Group estimates just under two million households in the U.S. cut the cord last quarter. Compared to Liechtman's estimate that 4.7 million U.S. consumers cancelled their cable TV service last year, the trend is not only still going strong but accelerating.
These people aren't giving up on television altogether. They're simply changing what they watch and how they watch it. Unsurprisingly, self-bundled streaming services are filling the void, and they're doing so at a pace that might surprise you in light of how rapidly the streaming on-demand market has already grown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Spoiler alert: While streaming's growth is technically slowing down, there's plenty more room for the industry to keep expanding here and abroad, chipping away at traditional cable in the process.
Coming and going
As of the latest count, the country's six biggest cable TV providers, including Comcast's (CMCSA 0.72%) Xfinity, Charter's (CHTR 0.56%) Spectrum, and Altice USA (ATUS 1.44%) -- which account for about 95% of the market -- are serving 65.2 million households. That's down more than 20 million customers as of the same quarter of 2018, and down on the order of 40 million from 2013, according to estimates from eMarketer.
For perspective, the U.S. Census Bureau reports there are 122 million total households within the U.S. Only half of them still subscribe to cable, down from a little over 80% less than 10 years back.
If you think the remaining half is too addicted to pricey cable plans to cut the cord though, think again. Standard & Poor's research arm, Kagan, believes the U.S. cable television industry's total annual revenue will shrink from last year's $91.1 billion to only $64.7 billion in 2025, closely mirroring Digital TV Research's expected $23 billion contraction for the industry between 2019 and 2025.
The money consumers are saving by cutting the cord is going to streaming services like Netflix and Disney+, as well as less mainstream streaming services like Discovery+ and documentary-focused CuriosityStream. The world's most prolific streaming services collectively added 26.5 million subscribers last quarter alone.
It's not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, to be fair. The cord-cutting data above only measures the U.S. cable industry's meltdown, whereas the streaming industry's subscriber growth is a mostly global measure.
Still, the U.S. is the world's biggest and most important streaming market. The global data is a great proxy for what's happening within the country, and to the country's cable business.
Room to keep growing
Granted, streaming may be encountering its own challenges. Hub Research reports the average U.S. household now gets television content from a whopping 7.4 different sources, while J.D. Power says the typical household is spending on the order of $50 per month on streaming subscriptions. That's in addition to the cost of the high-speed internet needed to make these services work. Even after removing cable service from their monthly bill, consumers only have so much time and money to devote to alternatives like Netflix or Paramount+.
There's still plenty of room left, however, for streaming uptake that continues to chip away at traditional linear cable.
Hub Research's figure of 7.4 television content sources per household? That includes cable television and free, ad-supported services such as Peacock or Tubi (owned by Fox). Adding more content to this already sizable mix of offerings that makes cable unnecessary wouldn't even add to a consumer's monthly bill.
Even within the premium, ad-free world, there's room for the major names to grow. Hub Research's recently published report also notes that only half of the U.S. subscribes to all of the so-called "Big Five" streaming platforms, which are Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, and Hulu. The other half could still add at least one -- if not more than one -- of the biggest five providers without really breaking a sweat. In fact, when polled by Hub, only 23% of consumers said they'd cancel one paid streaming service to add another. The other 77% reported they'd simply add the new one without getting rid of one they already subscribe to.
The point is, the key driving forces behind the domestic cord-cutting seen thus far are still fully intact.
Still a must-watch matter for investors
It's not necessarily disastrous for cable companies. Take Comcast for instance -- its Xfinity banner has been shedding cable subscribers for years, but it's a broadband service provider as well. It's also the name behind ad-supported streaming service Peacock, which after a slow start now serves 13 million paying subscribers. When counting free users, that number rises to 28 million monthly users. Simply moving customers from one service to another, however, isn't exactly a recipe for growth.
Whatever the future holds, this much is certain: Cord-cutting is still well underway, and largely because streaming is still growing.