Netflix, Hulu, Digital Upstarts Slowing Cable Growth (Study)

House of Cards Season 3

Netflix, Hulu and other over-the-top services are putting pressure on the cable business, but it doesn’t appear that consumers are willing to kick pay TV to the curb in favor of internet video.

The pay-TV business will continue to grow in the U.S. through 2019, according to a new study by PwC, but that’s no thanks to cable. Satellite and telco services will boost the overall pay TV market, with the total number of subscription TV households moving from 100.5 million in 2014 to 105.3 million by 2019. All this competition will put the brakes on growth. Subscriptions will rise at a compound annual growth rate of 1.2% from 2014 to 2019. That’s less than the annual growth rate of 4% to 5% that the sector once enjoyed.

“These are big businesses,” said Joe Atkinson, PwC’s U.S. advisory entertainment, media & communications leader. “They have scale and staying power even though there’s been a ton of technology disruption.”

Comcast and Cablevision may be mighty, but all this innovation continues to upend traditional business models. Cable subscriptions will continue to fall, with consumers seeking cheaper options, which will take a chunk out of the overall market share of many top pay-TV operators, the study’s authors write. As a defensive move, companies like Time Warner Cable and Charter will continue to hook up, leading to more mega-mergers and consolidation in the space.

The PwC study describes cord-cutting, the idea that some people are canceling cable in favor of digital services, as something that is having “a limited impact on the market,” but it does acknowledge that consumers could begin to downgrade their packages. Most households still view over-the-top alternatives such as Netflix and Hulu Plus as complimentary forms of entertainment, not as alternatives to cable bundles. An earlier 2014 PwC survey found that 73% of cable subscribing households also shelled out for over-the-top services.

But the pressure on cable providers could intensify as companies such as HBO and Showtime begin to offer digital standalone services, and Netflix and Amazon continue to invest in high-quality, exclusive programming such as “House of Cards” and “Transparent.” As these services improve, it’s possible that consumers will opt out of premium channels in favor of some of these alternative programming options. Moreover, a younger generation has become increasingly comfortable with the idea of not having a cable box in the home. Call them “cord nevers.”

All of these digital alternatives are siphoning off ad dollars. PwC has revised its TV ad spending projections downwards. The research firm projects that ad spending will grow 4% annually through 2019, not the 5.5% annually over the next five years it predicted in a 2014 report. The good news is that by 2019 advertising spending will hit a massive $81.1 billion, and the small screen business is in for a financial windfall in 2016 when the combination of a presidential election and the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro will boost total ad spending by 5.7%.

Getting bigger isn’t the only way that cable companies are hoping to stave off internet era behemoths. In particular, cable companies are pinning hopes on “TV everywhere,” which would allow people to access cable channels on iPads, smart phones and other devices.

“Cable companies are trying to engage customers across multiple screens as a way of retaining those subscribers,” Atkinson said.

One macro-economic trend that could put a crimp in profits is if there is another financial downturn. Already, the high cost of smartphones, cable packages and other entertainment options is testing the limits of consumers’ discretionary spending. If the U.S. economy stats to sputter, being able to stream “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” on a tablet might not be a luxury a lot of people can afford.

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