Cord-Cutting Alert: Americans Watch Just 9% of TV Channels Available to Them

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U.S. television viewers watch average of 17.5 channels, out of 189 in lineup, according to Nielsen

Pay-TV bills continue to climb upward — and channel lineups have ballooned to record highs — but U.S. cable and satellite subscribers still tune to the same relatively small number of networks they have for years.

American TV viewers now watch only 9% of the channels available to them, which is a six-year low, according to a new report from Nielsen.

The report highlights a growing concern for the pay-TV biz: Consumers are paying more for exactly the same content they received before. That consistent trend has led to perceptions that the value of cable, satellite and telco TV is waning, and with expanding Internet video options more Americans may be prompted to cut the cord.

In 2013, the average U.S. TV home in 2013 received 189 TV channels, up from 129 in 2008. But over that time period, consumers have consistently tuned in to an average of just 17-18 channels on a regular basis.

SEE ALSO: TV Subscriptions Down; Will Cord-Cutting Get Worse?

Last year the U.S. pay-TV segment registered the first-ever overall decline in subscriptions, according to research firm SNL Kagan. The aggregate 251,000 net loss among cable, satellite and telco TV providers was very small, representing just 0.02% of 110.2 million total subscribers at year-end, but if that trend accelerates it could fuel a vicious cycle for the industry.

Cable programmers and pay-TV operators have responded by trying to quickly move to adopt “TV Everywhere.” The hypothesis is that the ability to access, say, HBO or ESPN on multiple devices will enhance the value of the traditional pay-TV bundle in consumers’ minds.

But according to industry execs, the TV Everywhere vision has not been fully realized. At the 2014 Cable Show last week, John Skipper, president of ESPN and co-chairman of Disney Media Networks, urged the biz to move faster to adopt multiscreen services to fight back against what he characterized as inferior digital services from Netflix and others.

“We have superior content,” he said. “We need superior delivery systems.” With services like Netflix touting their simplicity and content, “We are allowing them in some ways to set the tone of the conversation,” he said.

But it’s questionable whether more content on more screens will keep subscribers happy, amid the inexorable rise in programming costs — and given the fact that consumers are paying for numerous channels they never watch. Only 21% of pay-TV subscribers use TV Everywhere services from their provider at least once per month, according to new research from NPD Group.

So far, rising pay-TV prices haven’t seriously harmed the industry. But the “affordability problem is unsustainable,” said MoffettNathanson senior analyst Craig Moffett on a panel at the Cable Show last week. If cord-cutting takes hold, “the programmers’ view of a birthright to cost increases” will result in them raising prices even faster as the number of subscribers dwindles.

As Moffett put it: “The industry is in a speeding car headed to a cliff, and we’re pressing harder on the accelerator.”

Also at the Cable Show, Jerry Kent, CEO of midsize operator Suddenlink Communications, warned that the industry could hit a tipping point where customers abandon cable TV because of high prices. MSOs need “flexibility of working with programming to deliver lower-priced tiers” he said — otherwise, the government may step in to mandate a la carte pricing or the operators will have to jettison channels.

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  1. AltafR says:

    All that many retired folks on limited budgets frequently need is a simple way to watch, time-delay and record the local TV programs available in their area. Sadly, ever since the introduction of terrestrial (over-the-air) digital television in the USA in 2009 all those old workhorse VCRs had to be junked, and there are few options left for watching and recording live local commercial TV programming without a costly monthly cable TV subscription.

    In most urban areas a fairly simple antenna plugged into the back of their digital TV can frequently suffice for most local TV watching. Many people in urban areas with Windows 7 PCs or laptops are unaware that they already have the capability of recording over-the-air local HDTV programs by simply plugging in a $40 USB Tuner Stick coupled to an indoor or outdoor antenna into an available USB port and enabling the Media Center Digital TV Recorder feature that is built into most versions of Windows 7. It is certainly worth a try.

  2. This new stat is not surprising to me at all. I work for Winegard, an OTA antenna manufacturer, and we hear customers complain all the time about the dozens of unnecessary channels included in their cable packages. That’s why they’re turning to antennas, Netflix, and other cord-cutting resources. If you also look through the Nielsen weekly top 10 lists for cable and broadcast TV, most of the shows with the most viewership are on live, local stations.

  3. jvonne says:

    My household recently cut the cord and moved to a streaming service, along with an antenna for local channels. The experience has been entirely positive, especially considering how little of our traditional cable service we were using before; now we feel like we have more options, fewer ads and a better overall value. The big cable companies should be worried.

  4. FrankM says:

    TV everywhere is the cable companies misguided attempt to keep/attract customers to their video product. A la carte would be an actual attempt to satisfy subscribers.

    The current, tiered system is broken. The fallacy that it helps smaller channels stay afloat hasn’t been proven. Exactly how is putting smaller, lesser-viewed channels in upper tiers that fewer subscribers receive helpful to the smaller channels? It’s not. If I want The Outdoor Channel, I have to get the highest programming tier, which requires all smaller tiers be purchased too. That benefits broadcast networks and ESPN more than it benefits the Outdoor Channel.

    If providers aren’t going to offer a la carte, they could at least offer smaller, non-tiered packages!

  5. aryedirect says:

    When greedy, dishonest companies like Comcast finally go belly-up, few tears will be shed.

  6. This isn’t particularly shocking news.

  7. I’m guilty of only watching a handful of cable channels….Food Network is at the top of my list. AMC, Bravo, FX, those are at the top too. But, we do have every channel and all the movie channels too lol.

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