TV Isn't Dying—Subscriptions Are Changing From Cable to Broadband Instead

Virtual MVPD users are expected to grow to over 25 million by 2022

It’s become an article of faith among people who write about the television industry from a distance that a massive wave of cord cutting is upending television as we know it and the entire ecosystem is in its death throes.

This is perplexing (to put it mildly) for those of us who actually work in the industry, as nothing could be further from the truth. Pay TV is a mature industry without a lot of room for growth, but from quarter to quarter, the number of people actually abandoning pay TV has rarely, if ever, exceeded 1 percent of the total user base.

So where does this “TV is dead!” narrative come from, and how did it start?

There are two issues: numbers and definitions. We’ll start with the former.

Pay TV in the U.S. has a penetration rate in excess of 80 percent–85 percent. That’s because we’re a very large country with bad over the air reception, and so somewhere in the range of 100 million households have pay TV subscriptions. When 600,000 of those households decide they no longer want pay TV, it certainly sounds like a hefty number. But in reality, it’s only 0.6 percent of the pay-TV population. In most industries, 0.6 percent of all users would be a rounding error, but given the number of clicks a good “TV is dead” headline can get, you’ll often see headlines that trumpet “Cable companies lose over half a million subscribers this quarter alone!” And since numbers of that size can certainly create the impression that people are fleeing en masse, they’ll get a whole lot of clicks.

The other issue is around the definition of cord cutting. The industry defines a cord cutter as someone who completely abandons any sort of pay TV subscription in favor of on-demand only services like Netflix and/or old school over the air broadcasts.

The problem is that the people creating the “TV is dead” narrative don’t differentiate between cord cutting and a more common behavior known as cord shifting.

From quarter to quarter, the number of people actually abandoning pay TV has rarely, if ever, exceeded 1 percent of the total user base.

A cord shifter is someone who has given up linear pay TV delivered via a set-top box for linear pay TV delivered via the open internet. So rather than Comcast or Verizon or Dish, they’re getting their linear TV from services like Hulu, YouTube TV, DirecTV Now, Sling TV, FuboTV, PlayStation Vue and the like.

You may have heard these services (the industry term is vMVPD, or virtual MVPD) referred to as “skinny bundles,” but the truth is they’re more like mesomorph bundles these days—80 to 100 channels for around $40 to $50/month, with cloud DVR and the ability to add on HBO and Showtime.

A recent study by the Wall Street analyst firm MoffettNathanson revealed that around 70 percent of those giving up their traditional pay-TV subscriptions are actually switching to these vMVPDs. And if you’re paying AT&T $60/month to watch 80 channels worth of live network TV on DirecTV Now, that’s not really cutting the cord—it’s shifting it from cable or satellite to broadband.

The vMVPDs are widely predicted to grow like kudzu over the next few years—I postulate that vMVPD subscriptions will exceed 25 million by 2022. (They are currently at close to 6 million.)

From a consumer POV, these virtual services are actually a better experience than traditional cable, regardless of price. They provide a true TV Everywhere experience, with the same line-up and interface available across devices and the ability to start watching on one device and then finish watching on another, days later. That functionality has been available from the likes of Netflix for years now, but for various legal and UX reasons, it has not been available through the MVPDs.

They generally have well-designed interfaces (Hulu Live TV’s library-based interface is actually quite revolutionary), which solves one of the industry’s bigger problems, something we call “paying Nordstrom prices for Kmart service”—the disconnect between paying over $100 each month for a service with an interface that hasn’t been updated since the 1990s. That’s a disconnect that screams, “We don’t care about our customers” and creates a whole lot of dissatisfaction with the industry.

The other reason vMVPDs are so popular is that they’re easy. There’s one bill. One app. One overriding interface that allows you to manage most of your television viewing. The app-based ecosystem has none of that, and many users quickly become frustrated with the hassle of cobbling together a solution as they try and manage a dozen different apps. vMVPDs also have sports—not just ESPN, but the regional sports networks that fans like. The ones that carry, say, every single Red Sox game and can be the tipping point as to whether someone signs up with Hulu Live TV or Sling TV.

The growth of cord shifting comes with its own set of major changes: the prices, and thus the profit margins, are lower, there are fewer channels and the industry still isn’t quite sure how to handle either measurement or commercial load on them, especially when it comes to time-shifted viewing.

But those are challenges, not death knells, and for now, the TV industry isn’t going anywhere. It’s changing and adapting and reinventing, but the one thing it isn’t doing is dying. No matter how many clicks those sorts of headlines can accrue.