Cable TV Is the New Landline

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.

People have been predicting the death of cable TV for a long time, but this really might be it.

As recently as a decade ago, nearly all Americans — more than 85 percent of U.S. households — paid for packages of TV channels from cable or satellite companies. That started to decline haltingly at first and then far more quickly in the past few years.

Now, the share of American homes that pay for conventional TV service is closing in on 50 percent, according to recent assessments from the investment analyst Craig Moffett and S&P Global Market Intelligence’s Kagan research group.

For comparison, cellphones were around for decades before the percentage of Americans who didn’t have a landline telephone at home reached 50 percent, around 2017. (In the most recent government figures, about one-third of American adults have a landline.)

Maybe it seems inevitable and predictable that cable TV would go the way of the landline. I promise you that it was not necessarily obvious, even once Netflix started to take off. Old habits die hard. Old industries that make a lot of people rich die even harder.

And don’t forget that some new technology habits catch on fast but don’t stick. Remember Myspace? Or predictions that electric scooters or Segways would become go-to forms of transportation for urbanites?

What may be a terminal decline of America’s cable TV industrial complex is a big deal. It shows that technology can change entrenched ways of doing things slowly, and then suddenly, with profound ripple effects.

Ian Olgeirson, a research director at Kagan who has been following America’s TV market for about 20 years, told me that he was caught off guard by how quickly the monthly cable bill went from being standard to obsolete for many Americans. (Protocol had more on this in a recent newsletter.)

Olgeirson and other TV experts I’ve been speaking to didn’t single out one tipping point in cable TV’s big shrink. They said the downward trend was more like a series of creeping changes that piled up.

Netflix offered us sofa sitters a happy alternative to paying for 500 TV channels that we mostly didn’t watch. In the TV industry, there was also a slow realization that clinging to the old ways might be fatal. Cable TV companies stopped fighting so hard to keep people from defecting and were happy to instead sell you zippy internet service for streaming binges.

Once the cable TV edifice started to crumble, entertainment companies like Disney decided that they couldn’t go-all out to prop up the system that had sustained them for decades. They’d prefer to become their own Netflix.

Old TV still has some life left. For now, Americans spend a majority of their TV time watching conventional television rather than streaming video. Streaming is also a tough business. And including the quasi-cable-TV services from online companies like YouTube and Hulu, about two-thirds of U.S. households pay for some old-school TV channels. An optimist would say that it’s stunning that cable TV has stayed this resilient.

But it’s clear that the cable TV system that for decades brought joy and headaches to tens of millions of Americans is petering out. The wild card, as Moffett, the investment analyst, wrote in a private report to his clients this week, is whether Americans keep turning away from cable and satellite TV relatively slowly, or whether it will “abruptly collapse, like a Jenga tower.”

And the ripple effects may only have just started. For example, major sports leagues like the National Football League have thrived on the money in the cable TV system. If the cable model topples, it could torpedo sports as we know them.

I have always loved TV. I felt like a real grown-up when I first started to pay a mammoth TV bill, partly to watch my favorite football team. I had scaled back my cable TV package, but then a few months ago I was notified that my bill was going to increase by about $10 a month. That was it. I’m a no-cable household now, too.

Tip of the Week

Brian X. Chen, the consumer technology columnist for The New York Times, brings his tech noggin to the hunt for an at-home Covid test.

I’m sure some of you were in the same position that I was over the holidays: I wanted to get tested for Covid-19 before visiting a family member. For me, it was my 1-year-old niece. Local stores were wiped out of at-home tests, and I had no luck on the websites for CVS and Walgreens.

So I used the same approach that I took to buy the PlayStation 5 video game console and outsourced the hunt to computers.

After a quick web search, I found that the product tracking site NowInStock had an entire section devoted to Covid test kits. My colleagues and I have recommended this website before to track down popular electronics, including video game gear and laptops.

NowInStock automatically scans retailers’ websites for various brands of home tests, and shows a comprehensive chart of where kits are available. I was looking at the site late at night when Walgreens lit up with some test kits available. I quickly ordered a few for me and my brother-in-law, and the shipment arrived in about two days.

NowInStock used to let people set up email alerts when new stock became available, but the site was overwhelmed. It now offers alerts only via the Telegram app. But I found that manually checking the website for Covid tests was fine for my needs.

This is not a suggestion to snatch up a superfluous number of Covid tests. But there are times when we will need rapid tests. Unfortunately in this era of scarcity, methods like this are how we can buy what we need efficiently. Good luck and stay safe!

  • One year since the Capitol riot: Online chatter about celebrations and rallies for the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol has been relatively muted and appears “unlikely to translate into sizable real-world efforts,” my colleagues Sheera Frenkel and Ryan Mac report. They write that it shows a fracturing of far-right groups online in the past year and a focus on local rather than national political engagement.

  • How crypto fever led to a political fight: People who “mine” virtual currencies, including Bitcoin, have gravitated to a city in Paraguay where electricity is cheap. Laurence Blair, a contributor to Rest of World, writes that the crypto boom is now part of a battle between Brazil and Paraguay over one of the world’s most powerful hydroelectric dams.

  • Precious distractions: My colleagues recommend their favorite video games, including one that takes players into the minutiae of high school life, and the latest version of Halo.

Enjoy this giraffe stooping to take a drink. (My colleague Melissa Kirsch shared this in the At Home and Away newsletter.)

We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you’d like us to explore. You can reach us at [email protected].

If you don’t already get this newsletter in your inbox, please sign up here. You can also read past On Tech columns.