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On August 15, Leichtman Research Group of Durham, NH released its quarterly revenue and subscription numbers for U.S. cable TV providers. And there was a surprise to be found in the calculations.

For the first time ever, the number of broadband service subscribers for major cable TV service providers exceeded (barely) the number of cable TV channel subscribers. This happened during the 2nd quarter of 2014 and represents a milestone for pay TV services. (And yours truly predicted it would happen a year earlier, in a DD posted a few years back. Oh well, close enough for government work…)

The actual differential favoring broadband subscriptions was small, amounting to about 5,000 more broadband customers. The actual totals for cable TV systems (not including Wide Open West, an overbuilder) were 49,915,000 for broadband, and 49,910,000 for cable channel service. What’s more interesting is that thirteen largest pay TV providers in the US (about 95% of the market) lost about 300,000 net video subscribers in 2Q 2014, compared to a loss of about 350,000 video subscribers in 2Q 2013.

To offset that decline, the 17 largest pay TV providers added about 385,000 broadband customers during the same time period. Cable TV companies control the lion’s share of broadband service revenue and have a 59% market share vs. AT&T’s U-Verse and Verizon’s FiOS services. The latter companies stayed essentially flat in new subscribers as an almost equal number of customers dropped DSL service (627,000) compared to those who signed up for faster broadband (636,000).

For all cable and telcos that Leichtman surveyed, the total number of broadband subscribers was about 85 million. Of that total, industry giant Comcast claimed 21.27 million and #2 service provider Time Warner Cable accounted for 11.97 million. Among cable TV companies, those numbers represent 42% and 23% market shares, respectively. (Keep that in mind as you ponder the consequences of a potential Comcast – Time Warner merger.)

Now for some additional perspective: Netflix recently broke the 50 million worldwide subscriber mark, with 36 million of those subscribers located in the United States. That’s larger than any cable TV or telco subscriber base. In fact, it’s more than Comcast and Time Warner combined, and is indicative of the meteoric growth Netflix has experienced since it commenced a streaming service in 2007.

Combined with the shift toward consumption of digital media online vs. renting or buying optical discs (as outlined in my last Display Daily), it’s clear that broadband is becoming the more desirable service for many households. I’d also venture an educated guess that customers who subscribe only to broadband services tend to skew much younger (Millennials) while traditional cable TV channel subscribers skew older (Baby Boomers).

While AT&T and Verizon have a smaller share of the pie, it’s still a large enough slice to motivate Comcast, Time warner et al to keep increasing their broadband speeds and not lose any competitive edge. I am a Comcast subscriber and while writing this article, checked my download speeds using CNET’s Internet Speed Test. The result? 20 Mb/s downstream at 5 PM, which is a considerable boost from what I had three years ago. Could the fact that Verizon ran optical fiber through my front yard a few years ago have anything to do with it?

What does all of this mean, long term? First off, the preference for faster broadband vs. a pile of pay TV channels that most people never watch will continue to re-shape the business model for cable TV companies. (The median number of channels watched in pay TV households currently stands at 17.) Continued price increases and increasing reliance on wireless (and not wired) phone service will prompt more customers to drop so-called “triple play” offerings and just go with broadband (and probably use services like Ooma for VoIP calling).

Secondly, the sheer size of Netflix and its expanding category of both rental movies and original series provide even more impetus for disgruntled pay TV subscribers to dump costly channel packages and stream everything from the Big Red Father. Both House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black are wildly popular – there’s no reason to assume Netflix won’t hit a few more home runs. (And their success is prompting HBO to finally discuss publicly a subscription streaming service independent of cable TV delivery.)

Finally; it may take more time than I prognosticated several years ago, but cable TV companies and telcos will slowly and inevitably morph into something that looks more like your local electric company, providing metered high-speed broadband connections and letting customers decide what they want to watch, and when. The DVR may even pay the ultimate price and fall by the wayside in favor of streaming from cloud servers as this comes to pass.

Even the biggest fires start with a tiny spark, and most people don’t even notice trends until they are well under way. Ignore them at your peril…

Posted by Pete Putman, September 4, 2014 9:57 AM

About Pete Putman

Peter Putman is the president of ROAM Consulting L.L.C. His company provides training, marketing communications, and product testing/development services to manufacturers, dealers, and end-users of displays, display interfaces, and related products.

Pete edits and publishes HDTVexpert.com, a Web blog focused on digital TV, HDTV, and display technologies. He is also a columnist for Pro AV magazine, the leading trade publication for commercial AV systems integrators.