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Only Four Networks Are Propping Up the Entire Cable TV Industry

By Dustin Rowles | TV | August 16, 2023 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | August 16, 2023 |


Nielsen reported a first for television: In July, the percentage of people watching linear television (cable and broadcast networks) fell below 50 percent for the first time. I feel like I see a version of this statistic every summer—mostly because linear television (broadcast networks and cable television) bottoms out during this season when there are very few scripted network television series. This year, it’s not likely to improve in the fall because of the strikes. This summer, however, is particularly brutal because the cable industry is essentially losing out to Suits, a cable series watched for 18 billion hours on Netflix in July.

Here’s the Nielsen infographic:

There are a couple of interesting things to note in that infographic: Netflix and YouTube are the most popular streamers, the FAST service Tubi is doing better than Paramount+, Peacock, and is tied with Max, and cable accounted for nearly 30 percent of linear television viewing in July.

47 million households are now cord cutters, and by the end of the year, 54 percent of Americans will no longer pay for cable TV. I will be among them. For the last several years, I have subscribed to streaming cable (YouTube TV or Hulu Live) from September until February for one reason only: to watch NFL, and mostly the Red Zone. I essentially paid $70 a month for streaming cable, plus $15 a month for the Red Zone because it was the only way.

Thankfully, that ends this year, because NFL+ is now offering the Red Zone channel for $80 for the entire season. That’s a huge savings. Plus, with Peacock, I can watch NBC Sunday Night Football, with Paramount, I can watch CBS NFL games, and with Amazon, I can watch Thursday night football. That leaves only ESPN’s Monday Night Football, and I am not going to pay an extra $400 a year to listen to Joe Buck and Troy Aikman.

If others come around to my way of thinking, the cable industry may soon collapse—here’s a fascinating statistic: I looked up the top 400 cable television shows for a random week in July, and of those 400, 301 come from only four networks: ESPN, Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC.

In other words, cable is being propped up by ESPN and cable news. That’s about it, particularly when one considers that most of the programming that makes up the other 99 series (wrestling and NASCAR on USA, Bravo reality series, and home and food shows on TLC, HGTV, and the Food Network) is already available on streaming platforms.

This, presumably, is why Peacock has not been in a hurry to air MSNBC programming live, or Max to do the same for CNN programming. They’re still making good money on those cable carriage fees, but eventually, they’ll need to relent. And why not? There’s no ad-free version of live programming, so they won’t lose advertisers. Meanwhile, ESPN+ will probably eventually become the stand-alone home for Monday Night Football and the rest of the network’s sports programming, which will eventually leave only one major news network without a live news home: Fox News. That is, unless the Fox Corporation starts streaming live Fox News on Tubi.

It’s a big deal that linear television viewership has fallen below the 50 percent mark. Television viewers have been slowly cutting the cord for years now, but we’re about to hit the death spiral. I suspect that 2024 will be the last year that viewers follow presidential campaigns on cable news instead of streaming news. Indeed, January 2025 would be a good time for Peacock and Max to flip the switch on MSNBC and CNN, respectively, and for ESPN to go standalone, leaving Fox News and the rest of the cable industry to float into the ether.