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Sunday, September 24, 2023
Sept. 24, 2023

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As streaming gets more expensive, cord-cutters are cutting back. But they aren’t going back to cable


Donna Lynne Amareld has “cut the cord” twice, most recently about a year ago, when her cable and internet bill ballooned to $220 a month, she said.

This month, as YouTube TV hikes its rate from $64.99 to $72.99, her monthly costs for streaming services and internet will increase to more than $170, she said. She misses the Lifetime channel, which was one of her favorites during the decades she had cable, but she doesn’t want to pay for another service that carries it.

Does she think she’ll ever give cable another try?

Her total streaming bill “would have to get pretty high,” the 51-year-old Levittown, Pennsylvania, woman said, probably around $250 or more a month.

Cable and satellite providers have been dramatically losing subscribers for years as people switch to streaming services.

In July, streaming overtook broadcast and cable in the monthly Nielsen ratings for the first time. And only 56% of U.S. adults said they watched TV via cable or satellite, according to a 2021 Pew survey. Some industry forecasts predict that less than half of households will have a traditional cable or satellite subscription by the end of this year.

Most 18-to-29-year-olds have never had cable or satellite TV, according to Pew, but even those 30-and-older have been increasingly turning to streaming in recent years as services like Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV and HBO Max have offered can’t-miss, zeitgeist-y shows like “Succession,” “Love is Blind,” “Only Murders in the Building” and “Ted Lasso.”

At the same time, it has become more expensive and more complicated to rely on streaming, particularly for households in which people watch multiple shows that cannot be viewed on the same platform or want to keep up with local sports.

Monet Reilly, 33, of Havertown, Pennsylvania, for example, favors Hulu, where she watches ABC and NBC shows. She got HBO Max for the popular “Game of Thrones” prequel “House of the Dragon,” and Apple TV for “Servant,” the M. Night Shyamalan series on which she was an extra.

With many other parts of a monthly budget also costing more than they used to, the price increases of streaming are causing some subscribers to take pause. In 2022, the number of canceled streaming subscriptions increased 49% compared to the prior year, according to the subscription analytics firm Antenna.

Some, like Amareld, aren’t yet making a change, but they may if the costs continue to rise. Others are streaming more strategically.

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“Instead of going to cable, they’re trying to be smarter about the services they subscribe to,” said James Wilcox, senior electronics editor for Consumer Reports. “They’re not going to subscribe for a year. They’re going to subscribe for a month or two,” binge watch a few shows, and then switch to another service.

Reilly has adopted that strategy since cutting cable in 2020. She consistently watches shows on Hulu and Disney Plus. Since “House of the Dragon” ended, she doesn’t watch any shows on HBO Max anymore.

“HBO Max is a bit pricey, so that’ll have to go,” she said. Apple TV will be on the chopping block next — after “Ted Lasso” ends.

As for live programs, she cut cable in 2020, unable to justify the $180 monthly bill for TV and internet. A year later, she realized she’d be unable to watch the summer Olympics, so she bought an antenna on Amazon for $25 (with no monthly fees).

Maximizing free trial periods

In Upper Merion, Pennsylvania, Andrew Hall, 46, canceled his cable contract four years ago. He was frustrated by additional fees that were going to bring his internet and TV bill above $200 a month. The University of Pittsburgh alumnus was bummed, too, that he couldn’t get the ACC Network to watch Pitt football games.

He switched to Hulu + Live TV, which is around $80 a month, and never looked back. With the money he’s saved, his family invested in a higher-quality mesh WiFi system, which has made for fewer dropped Zoom calls and no buffering issues when streaming.

“The hardest part about all this was getting out of my comfort zone to switch to do that free trial to see if I liked Hulu,” especially for live sports, said Hall, an avid basketball, baseball and football fan.

The family has other streaming services, But mostly they take advantage of free trials, watch the shows they want to watch, and then cancel the subscription before they’re charged.

“We don’t keep the services for a long period of time,” he said.

As users hop between streaming services and exhaust free trials — and as some companies crack down on account sharing — Wilcox expects more people to turn to the burgeoning world of free streaming services.

These platforms, such as Pluto and Freevee, will take some getting used to. They are entirely supported by ads, so shows are interrupted by what are essentially TV commercials.

Other people may opt for — or downgrade existing subscriptions — to new lower-level options of Hulu, Netflix, and other streaming services, which are also supported by ads.

“We don’t see people returning en masse to cable or satellite TV,” Wilcox said. But “consumers have hit a ceiling” in terms of how much they’re willing to pay for streaming.

‘A post-COVID reaction’

The “cut the cord” trend took off around 2015, when Sling TV launched as a live streaming service for $20 a month, Wilcox said.

By 2020, traditional cable and satellite TV had lost 12 million subscribers over four years. By the time the year was over, they’d lose another 5 million.

This trend continued even as the pandemic caused people to hunker down in their homes and pad their savings accounts with stimulus checks.

People had more discretionary income, but fewer places where they could spend it. They weren’t eating out at restaurants, attending birthday parties, or traveling. Instead, weekends were consumed by takeout and binge-watching. At the time, adding one or two more $10-a-month streaming services didn’t seem frivolous.

In many households, the justification went something like this, Wilcox said: “We aren’t taking a vacation. That’s fine. We’ll subscribe to 10 (streaming) services. Most of the entertainment we’ll have is at home.”

Three years later, however, pandemic restrictions are gone, and inflation has impacted just about every part of people’s monthly budgets. Consumers still have to buy groceries and pay their utility bills. After the isolation experienced at the height of the pandemic, they may not want to stop going out to dinner or cancel their gym membership. But they are asking themselves whether all their streaming subscriptions are necessary, especially as the costs of these services keep rising.

These price increases aren’t new, Wilcox said, but people are paying attention now that their budgets are tighter.

“This is a post-COVID reaction to something that was happening before COVID,” he said.