News and live sports have kept cable alive. For how much longer?
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News and live sports have kept cable alive. For how much longer?

Jul 03, 2023

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Ever since cord-cutting became a thing and millions of Americans flocked to streaming services, two kinds of programming have been helping cable TV companies hang on to their subscribers: news and live sports.

​But it’s looking more and more like those are headed online too.

​The parent company of CNN said this week that it plans to start streaming the news channel’s top shows in real time on Max, the streaming service formerly known as HBO Max. Plus, Amazon is reportedly in talks with Disney to stream ESPN. So are cable’s days numbered?

There’s a simple reason media companies have kept news and sports channels on cable: It’s profitable, per Tim Hanlon, CEO of the media advisory firm Vertere Group.

“Consumers pay a subscription fee for the channel as well as endure advertising on that channel,” he said.

So that’s two sources of revenue — unlike streaming, which, until recently, has mostly relied just on subscriptions.

But cable viewership is in decline. This summer, for the first time, linear TV — that’s cable and broadcast — accounted for less than half of TV use, according to ratings company Nielsen. And subscribers aren’t the only thing falling away, said Michael Smith, a professor at Carnegie Mellon.

“As the cable audience ages, that’s going to impact the sort of people who are willing to put ads up on cable content,” he said.

Plus, the star anchors and personalities that have traditionally drawn viewers to cable news don’t necessarily need networks anymore, Smith added. Take Tucker Carlson, for example, whom Fox News fired this year. He now streams on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

“People like Tucker Carlson now have a credible argument that ‘Either you give me the money I want or I’m gonna go independent third party, and I can make enough independent third party that I don’t need you anymore,'” Smith said.

But as the number of platforms grows, streamers are starting to offer options that look kind of like cable 2.0, noted Charlotte Howell, an associate professor of film and television at Boston University.

“They’re moving towards more bundling and cross access, even across corporations,” she said.

Howell added that she’s still a cable subscriber because she likes to channel surf.

“Because that feeling of landing on ‘Speed’ just as Keanu Reeves is running for the bus,” she said, “and getting that just moment of like, ‘I didn’t know that I wanted to watch this movie, but this is just what I needed right now'” — that’s something the Netflix or Max algorithm just can’t give you.

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