The cord-cutting trend remains intact. Cable TV industry stalwarts like Comcast's (CMCSA -0.37%) Xfinity and Charter Communications (CHTR 0.76%) lost over a million customers last quarter alone, brining cable television's U.S. headcount down to a little over 71 million subscribers, according to numbers from Leichtman Research Group. That's well below over 100 million paying cable customers as recently as 2014.

There's a curious development within the cord-cutting movement, though. Alternative cable services such as fuboTV (FUBO -1.67%) and Dish Network's (DISH) SlingTV not only continue to add subscribers, but are adding them almost as quickly as the more traditional cable companies are losing them.

It's obviously good news for cable channels. It's also terrible news for the likes of Charter, Comcast, and Altice (ATUS -5.83%), since it's evidence people are finally embracing these lower-cost alternatives in a big way. Mostly, though, it's great news for the cable platforms now garnering new paying customers.

And the paradigm shift is only apt to expand from here.

Now, more migration than attrition

The graphic below tells the tale. Looking at just the top names in the business -- Verizon Communications (VZ -0.28%), DirecTV, Dish Network, Comcast, Charter, and Altice -- the U.S.'s conventional cable companies shed another 1.5 million subscribers during the third quarter of the year. That's in line with the previous quarter's attrition, and it extends a long-established streak of decline.

Chart showing customer loss at six major U.S. cable companies since 2018.

Data source: Each respective company's quarterly reports, with the exception of DirecTV's figures, which are estimates from Leichtman Research Group. Chart by author. All figures are in thousands.

These cord-cutters aren't exactly canceling cable service altogether, however. Certainly some of them are saying goodbye to cable forever. But many are signing up for broadband-delivered cable service from names like fuboTV and Walt Disney (DIS -0.12%), which offers cable service through its Hulu brand. All told, these digital cable platforms added a little over 900,000 paying subscribers to their services during Q3. This growth also extends a long (albeit uneven) trend.

Chart showing the customer counts of several major vMVDP services rising since 2018.

Data source: Each company's quarterly reports; YouTube's most recent update is from Q2 of this year. Chart by author. All figures are in thousands.

It's not tough to figure out what's driving this shift. Virtual multichannel video distributions platforms (or vMVDPs) cost less than traditional cable does, even when older cable players deliver their cable content via a high-speed internet connection. Dish's SlingTV provides a very robust cable-like selection of content for a modest $40 per month, only omitting local broadcasts that can often be viewed directly from a local network affiliate's feed or by using an antenna.

Even at $70 per month, though, Hulu+Live, YouTubeTV, and fuboTV are still generally cheaper than comparable cable plans that often tack on annoying fees and surcharges. reports the current average cost of cable television service stands at $86.62 per month, assuming it's not part of the type of cable/internet bundle fewer users want.

Helping drive this growth is the slow and steady cadence of price increases from streaming services that started the cord-cutting trend in the first place. Netflix (NFLX 2.47%) and Disney+ both recently announced price increases, for instance, While an ad-supported version of Disney+ will soon join the ad-supported version of Netflix that launched earlier this month, the move makes both platforms look and feel like cable television. That is, users are paying for -- or at least subsidizing -- the privilege of being part of a marketing medium.

If you're already wary of rising streaming costs while still missing out on a fair amount of live programming, it makes sense to jump back into the cable fray with a slightly more cost-effective offering.

The best way to play

For investors, the takeaway is clear: Old-school cable companies are still on the defensive, while the newer digital cable platforms that aren't limited to particular geographic markets are finding traction.

Of the four primary vMVDP services, only two could be considered primary plays, and only one of them can be seen as a truly pure play. Those are Dish Network and fuboTV, respectively. While YouTubeTV and Hulu+Live are doing well enough in their own right, both are part of conglomerates managing much bigger profit centers. Success on this front will mean less for their parent companies' top and bottom lines.

Not so for Dish Network. While its satellite cable TV business is bleeding customers like most other traditional cable providers, it's still the owner of a growing SlingTV. The company also believes it's inching toward an eventual merger with fellow satellite cable brand DirecTV. While the combined companies would still need to push back against the broad cord-cutting headwind, they're better positioned to do so as a team than separately.

Dish also owns a great deal of spectrum that could be used to build a 5G connectivity service. Although this spectrum has no direct effect on its cable television business, it could be leveraged all the same.

But perhaps the best way of plugging into this sweeping shift within the cable TV realm is fuboTV. It's even eyeing profits in the foreseeable future. CEO David Gandler commented during the company's Q3 earnings call earlier this month: "Our initiatives ... position us well to achieve our goal of generating positive free cash flow in 2025 via sustained and profitable growth."

Given the bigger trends clearly in place, this goal doesn't seem out of reach. fuboTV stock could start to perform even before those profits take shape, though, on mere progress toward that goal.