“Cord-cutting” is a fast-growing trend among US residents. It involves “cutting the cord” on high-cost pay-TV options, including cable TV and satellite TV. Cord cutters aren’t ditching TV altogether. Instead, they’re shifting to lower-cost online streaming options, like on-demand giant Netflix and Google’s YouTube TV for live streaming access to cable TV and broadcast networks. Although cord-cutting is still in its infancy compared to traditional methods for viewing content, its rapid and expanding growth in the past several years means there are plenty of cord-cutting stats and trends available in 2021. Here are the most startling and most interesting cord-cutting facts for the current year and beyond.
1. Major Cable Providers Collectively Lost Around 7 Million Pay-TV Subscribers in 2020
Cord-cutting is responsible for leading cable TV providers losing millions of customers they can’t seem to win back. In fact, traditional pay-TV providers lost nearly 7 million subscribers in 2020 alone (some other estimates put it at just over 5 million). Notably, the pandemic-driven 2020 subscriber bleed was boosted, in part, by disgruntled sports fans dropping cable due to a lack of sports, as well as negative economic impacts forcing many families and individuals to cut costs.
In total, major US cable TV and satellite TV have lost over 30 million subscribers since 2012. Most cord-cutters are not just ditching live TV for all on-demand, however. The majority are instead moving to all-digital live TV streaming services, such as Sling TV, YouTube TV, fuboTV, and Hulu + Live TV.
The largest traditional cable TV providers experiencing subscriber losses include:
- Comcast: This company had 22.3 million video customers by year-end 2017. At the end of 2018, that number was down to 21.9 million. By the end of 2020, the company’s pay-tv subscriber numbers dipped below 19 million. In fact, the company lost over 200,000 subscribers in Q4 2020 alone.
- Verizon: Subscriber numbers for this company have decreased every quarter since Q4 2016. The company lost nearly 280,000 cable TV subscribers in 2020.
- Charter: This organization is now losing tens of thousands of video customers each year. Its CEO blames higher carriage fees imposed by programmers as a key trigger for customers who are moving on to cord-cutting services. Still, Charter was a bit of an oddball in 2020. It managed to add over 100,000 cable TV subscribers in Q2 2020, and 67,000 in Q3 2020. It lost about 66,000 pay-TV customers in Q4 2020.
- DirecTV (satellite): This AT&T-owned company lost over 2.3 million satellite TV subscribers between 2017 and 2019. And then 2020 happened, which saw over 3 million DirecTV subscribers walk away.
- Dish Network: The second-largest cable TV provider in the US also saw its customer share dip in 2020. Dish Network lost 408,000 satellite customers in 2020. Interestingly, the company’s Sling TV service, which was one of the first cord-cutting live TV services on the market, also last over 100,000 subscribers.
This bloodletting is expected to continue unabated for the time being. Even Comcast—which has experienced unquestionably the largest loss of cable TV subscribers of the bunch—is not optimistic about its pay-TV prospects. The company predicts it will see even more of its customers dropping its traditional cable TV packages this year.
Many Americans still maintain both traditional TV and cord-cutting services, however. As of 2019, 43% of Americans had both pay-TV and streaming video-on-demand (SVOD) subscriptions.
2. The average monthly cable TV bill is now over $200 per month
According to the FCC’s 2018 Report on Cable Industry Pricing (the latest as of this time of writing), the average cost of expanded basic cable services was just over $73.08. That number, however, does not include the cost to purchase or rent equipment from cable TV providers, nor does it include the cost of taxes and fees. The FCC releases this report every two years, so new values for 2020 data should be coming sometime in 2021.
If a 2018 Consumer Reports study is any indication, the FCC’s numbers are way off. Consumer Reports found that the average monthly cable TV bill was over $217, which included the average package cost (over $156), government fees and taxes, company-imposed fees, and the cost of premium serves added to the package.
Many cord cutters instead opt for a live TV streaming service, such as YouTube TV, Hulu with Live TV, or Sling TV, which cost a fraction of that and don’t come with the added fees.
3. Traditional cable TV price increases are slowing down
Our analysis of FCC expanded basic cable pricing data (up to 2016, the most recent data available from the FCC), indicates that traditional cable companies are still increasing prices each year, but doing so with smaller percentages than in the earlier just a decade ago.
After 2012, traditional cable TV providers dramatically slowed down their pace of price increases. And with the exception of 2012, year-over-year price increases have been going down.
4. 2009 was the absolute worst year for traditional cable TV subscribers
A combination of price increases and decreasing wages led to 2009 being the worst year in the 2000s for cable TV subscribers.
Riding on the downwind of the housing market crash, there was a 7 percentage point gap between wage increases (negative 1.5%) and expanded basic cable price increases (5.5%). It wasn’t the only year with a huge gap (2002 saw a 6.9 percentage point gap, for example), but it was the only year where that gap was highlighted by wage decreases, versus just smaller percentages of wage growth.
As expected, we witnessed similar issues with inflation. There was a 6.9 percentage point spread between price increases and inflation in 2009 (and a 6.3 percentage point spread in 2002).
Wages and price increase percentages tend to be much closer together year-over-year. However, there is a promising trend we’ve seen happening with inflation, wages, and expanded basic cable price increases: the gap is tightening up each year.
Again, this is expected given wages and inflation are tied, but there are two takeaways as well, one negative, one positive.
Negative: Inflation and US wages always fall well behind traditional price increases. As such, Americans putting an ever-increasing share of their wages toward traditional cable TV. As of 2016 (the most recent year for FCC data on average cable prices), that was nearly 2%.
Positive: The gap between inflation/wages and price increases is decreasing overall. Outliers like 2009 exist, but the overall average spread is declining. If trends continue, the average gap between price increases and wage/inflation increases could be around 0.6%.
5. Over 65% of cord-cutters want free or reduced-cost ad-supported services
Traditional pay-TV has always been driven by ads, but with more options, ad-hating cord-cutters are starting to see themselves out. A large majority (70 percent) of consumers believe 20 minutes of ads for a program one hour in length is too many. A further 82 percent very much dislike seeing the same ads over and over again. Overall, 8 minutes of ads appear to be enough to keep pay-TV subscribers from ditching solely on ads, while 16 minutes of ads is a breaking point for many.
However, that’s not the whole story. In its COVID-era “Digital media trends survey, 14th edition”, Deloitte also discovered a bit of a new trend emerging. It seems that cord-cutters also like and want services that are free with ads. In fact, 43% of cord-cutters would use a service that’s ad-only (no subscription fee), while 22% would use a service that’s reduced cost ($6/month) and carries some ads.
6. Live TV services are quickly adding subscribers
As subscribers abandon their traditional pay-TV providers, they’re now going into the open arms of live TV streaming services. Whether you call them “IPTV” (though that term is more regularly applied to illegal live TV streaming options) or Virtual Multichannel Video Providers (vMVPDs), there are now a handful of internet-based services on the market designed to replace cable and satellite TV.
Subscriber counts for the most-used cable TV replacers include:
- YouTube TV: Over 2 million subscribers as of 2020
- Hulu with Live TV: Over 3 million(pdf) subscribers as of 2020
- Sling TV: Over 2.6 million subscribers as of 2020
- FuboTV: Over 250,000 subscribers as of 2019 (limited data available)
- Philo: Over 50,000 subscribers as of 2018 (limited data available)
- AT&T TV Now: Around 900,000 subscribers as of early 2020. Notably, the company lost over 700,000 subscribers in 2019 alone and is the only service of its kind still on the market to lose market share since launching. (The now-discontinued PlayStation Vue also saw its subscriber counts decline.)
PlayStation Vue would have made that list as well. However, Sony officially dissolved the service at the end of January 2020. PS Vue had around 500,000 subscribers when it shuttered its digital doors.
Other services exist in this space, although their subscriber numbers are difficult to come by. These most notably include AT&T WatchTV and the newer service Vidgo. AT&T excludes WatchTV from its published subscriber counts for over-the-top (OTT) TV services, while Vidgo, which launched in late Q4 2019, has offered no data on how it’s doing thus far.
7. Live TV services are raising their prices
Even as cord cutting options for live TV slowly make their way to market, their prices have gone up remarkably in the past few years. Almost every live TV streaming service that’s been on the market for more than a year has experienced at least one price increase. Most have imposed multiple price increases since launching.
Almost every live TV streaming service increased prices in 2019.
- AT&T TV Now: This service increased prices by $15 per month on its “Max” and “Plus” packages in 2019, taking those packages from $50 to $65 and $70 to $85 per month, respectively.
- YouTube TV: Google increased the price of its single live TV streaming package from $40 to $49.99 per month in 2019.
- Philo: Although Philo technically didn’t raise prices in 2019, it did drop its $16 per month plan, leaving just its higher-priced $20 plan.
- FuboTV: Every package available through fuboTV received a $10 per month increase, starting with its “Fubo” package which jumped from $44.99 per month to $54.99 per month.
- Hulu with Live TV: Hulu increased prices on its Live TV service in late 2019 by $10 per month, raising it from $44.99 to $54.99 per month.
- Sling TV: The company delivered its second price increase in its 5-year history in late 2019. Its Orange and Blue packages increased to $30 per month from $25 per month, while its combo package increased from $40 per month to $45 per month
- PlayStation Vue: Although the service expired in January 2020, Sony added an extra $5 per month on every package the service offered in the middle of 2019. The minimum price went from $45 to $50 per month
Almost universally, these price increases were far from insignificant—especially for AT&T TV Now. That service increased its entry-point subscription price in 2019 by 30 percent compared to its price in 2018. Only the now-canceled PlayStation Vue service had more modest price increases across its packages.
Meanwhile, Philo remained the lowest-cost major player despite a pseudo price increase. The company dropped its smaller and cheaper package in favor of a single-package option. (Note: AT&T WatchTV is still the cheapest on the market at $15 per month.)
Price increases for these services are almost always tied to demands from the channel providers. Carriage fees are increasing for cord-cutting services and traditional cable TV services alike as the channel providers they offer (local broadcast networks, in particular) ask for more money.
In fact, local broadcast network fees are up over 600 percent since 2006, while all TV network fees (local, premium, and cable networks) are up around 90 percent since 2009.
8. Despite price increases, live TV streaming services experienced sustained growth through 2019
Aggregated Google Trends data reveals that cord-cutters are increasingly interested in live TV streaming services, with no signs of stopping. In fact, aggregated search interest from 2015 to 2019 for the top seven largest OTT services reveals search interest in these services was the highest it’s ever been in September 2019.
Sling TV was the first major cord-cutting service to launch on the market, offering an “a la carte” live TV model. It was later followed by PlayStation (also 2015). Meanwhile, 2017 was a breakout year for this niche as five out of the seven largest multi-channel streaming TV providers launched that year. The most recent major service launch was AT&T WatchTV, which entered the market in 2018. WatchTV was a direct response to the no-sports Philo.
We did not include the Vidgo live TV streaming service for this stat due to its low profile.
9. Sling TV’s dominance is waning
Sling TV’s place on the market, combined with its successful marketing campaigns, helped it dominate in the OTT space for most of the past five years. However, increased competition is now eating away at its market share. This is evidenced both by Sling TV’s slowing subscriber growth rate, as well as the negative search interest it’s experiencing on search engines.
The real breaking point for Sling TV appears to have been late October/early November 2017, or around six months after YouTube TV officially entered the market. Google soft-launched its YouTube TV service in only a handful of major cities but rapidly expanded the service area by the end of 2017. YouTube TV’s search interest finally reached a sustained dominance over Sling TV in January 2019, the same month Google officially announced that its YouTube TV service was available everywhere in the US.
To be fair to Sling TV, the platform is far from struggling. It’s still the second-most searched for OTT service on the US market when compared to the other four popular OTT services (YouTube TV, Hulu with Live TV, Philo, and FuboTV).
While YouTube TV and Sling TV battle it out for first place in the market, Philo, FuboTV and Hulu with Live TV are all struggling for third place.
Nevertheless, the most important data to go on here are not Trends search interest numbers, but subscriber counts. On that end, Hulu with Live TV is the clear winner with over 3 million subscribers as of 2020.
10. The on-demand streaming market is getting fierce—and overcrowded
Netflix is currently the biggest over-the-top (OTA) on-demand streamer available for cord-cutters. The company was the first to successfully deliver a real on-demand streaming experience to subscribers, giving it an edge over the growing number of competitors. By the end of 2019, Netflix had over 167 million subscribers worldwide.
Now, there are hundreds of on-demand streaming services crowding the market, all competing for a limited number of subscribers. One study found 70 percent of consumers think there are too many choices on the market right now, which is not good news for new entrants.
The most notable new players include:
- Disney+: Launched November 12, 2019, in select countries, with worldwide launches scheduled through 2021
- Apple TV+: Launched November 1, 2019, worldwide
- Peacock (NBC): Launches July 15, 2020
- Discovery/BBC: Launches sometime in 2020
- HBO Max: Launches May 2020
- Quibi: Launches April 6, 2020
Outside of this, cord cutting allows users to choose between over 100 different niche on-demand services. This market saturation has created what some observers are calling a streaming service bubble. When that bubble will burst, however, is difficult to predict.
Currently, most Americans only pay for three streaming services. Providers need to either convince Americans to pay for more services, persuade them to drop a pre-existing service, or develop tricky plans to get TV fans to add more without thinking about it (such as by bundling services with wireless phone plans).
How to watch Disney+ with a VPN
11. Cord cutters are attracted to original content
Companies like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO are in an arms race of sorts over original content. One analysis found that cord cutters are driven primarily by original content when they choose to subscribe to streaming services.
This was confirmed by a 2019 Deloitte survey, which found that 57 percent of US streaming service subscribers are driven by original content. On a more granular level, 71 percent of millennials stated that original content was their primary motivating factor.
12. On-demand streaming services respond by spending big on original content
The number of on-demand services in the market is helping to drive up original content spending budgets. Consumers are hungry for unique and original stories, and providers are trying to win subscribers by providing high-quality content consumers can’t find anywhere else.
The biggest original content spenders include:
- Netflix: The company is predicted to spend over $17 billion on content in 2020, over half of which is going to its original content plans.
- Apple TV+: Apple plans to spend at least $5-6 billion on all-original content in 2020.
- Disney+: The company is pumping $24 billion into original content.
- Peacock: Comcast is spending $2 billion on content for its new service in the first two years.
- Amazon Prime Video: Amazon is spending at least $6 billion on original content.
- Hulu: Disney has allotted around $2.5 billion for Hulu’s original content.
- HBO/HBO Max: AT&T is giving HBO a $1.5 billion content budget in 2020.
As providers deliver bigger budgets to their original content writers, cord-cutters are certainly benefiting even as they hit their breaking point for how many services they want to pay for.
Unsurprisingly, password sharing is increasing as a result. Major services like Netflix and others are now considering cracking down on the practice. One study even puts the cost of password sharing on the streaming industry at $9.1 billion in lost potential revenue.
13. Netflix’s “original” content game is still confusing
Nobody is going to question the dominance Netflix maintains in the cord-cutting market. Still, Netflix continues to confuse the masses into thinking its original content is actually “originally produced” by Netflix.
Among its top-rated shows (those scoring a combined average of 80/100 or more on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb), 25 percent were licensed movies or TV shows. Netflix has a policy that allows it to slap the “original” title onto content that it has exclusive international rights to stream.
That said, original content that the company has developed in-house (or “true” original content) is doing quite well. An impressive 75 percent of its top-rated content is completely original to the service.
Netflix is also producing top-rated original content at a mad clip, helping fuel the ongoing streaming wars. Over half of its top-rated developed content was produced in 2019 and 2018 alone.
Cord cutting predictions for 2020 and beyond
There are some interesting trends to watch going forward. Here are five key predictions on the future of cord cutting statistics:
- At least one more live TV streaming service will shut down in 2020. AT&T TV Now is already on the chopping block, but another service may get discontinued, such as AT&T WatchTV.
- NBC’s ad-supported Peacock will do well, but only among free subscribers to the ad-supported option. NBCUniversal will struggle to get paid subscribers in the first few years.
- Netflix will raise prices on its American subscribers.
- YouTube TV will raise prices above the $50 mark—likely to match Hulu with Live TV at $54.99. To compensate, the service will either add more channels or an additional feature.
- HBO Max will confuse subscribers but may have a surprising level of success.