Has Live TV Streaming Peaked?

With rising prices and falling subscriptions, live TV streaming services are heading for a fall.

Meet the new boss, they’re just like the old one. Once, we thought live TV streaming services like YouTube TV would be the affordable replacement for cable. But the reality is TV streamers are just as expensive — and the subscriber numbers are starting to show it.

In this issue:

  • Streaming TV subscriptions have stalled

  • Prices are as bad as cable

  • Good thing there’s a free option

Streaming TV subscriptions have stalled

The collapse of traditional pay TV is accelerating. By the end of 2022, the industry was down nearly 5.9 million subscribers after a 4.7 million subscriber loss the previous year. In the first two quarters of this year, cable companies have already lost almost 5 million subscribers.

Although you might think the mainstream has discovered cord-cutting and jumped to streaming cable alternatives like Sling TV, Fubo, DirecTV Stream, YouTube TV, and Hulu + Live TV, that isn’t happening.

Live TV streaming services —Virtual Multichannel Video Programming Distributors (vMVPDs) in the industry’s term — aren’t seeing as much of an uptick as they did during the pandemic.

Market analysts say that subscriber numbers in Q2 continued the decline in Q1. The top vMVPDs lost over 600,000 subscribers in the first half of 2023.

YouTube TV doesn’t report its numbers, but everyone expects the launch of NFL Sunday Ticket to help the service buck the trend.

Hulu + Live TV may also see a reprieve. Its subscriber count reached 4.3 million last year and stalled. Then Disney and Charter got into a fight over carriage fees. When Disney pulled ESPN from the cable company’s lineup, Hulu + Live TV saw a 60% spike in subscriptions. That may be short-lived. Disney and Charter made peace, so returning Charter customers may drop Hulu.

Prices are as bad as cable

Streaming prices are looking more like cable every day. The median streaming TV subscriptions increased 27% to $70 in less than three years. Combine that with the median $75 cost of standalone broadband internet, and households pay about as much as they do for cable.

To be fair, vMVPDs are stuck in the same weak negotiating position as the cable companies. Local stations, premium cable channels, and sports networks keep raising their carriage fees. The only thing TV providers can do is pass those costs onto their subscribers — and take the blame.

Here’s what’s happened to US streaming TV prices this year:

January: Fubo raised the prices of its two plans to $76 and $85 — and it added an $11-$14 regional sports network fee.

February: After raising its rates in late 2022, Sling TV issued another rate hike in markets where it streams local ABC stations. The combination plan of Sling Orange & Blue now costs $55 or $60 per month, depending on where you live.

March: YouTube TV raised its subscriptions by $8 to $73.

October: Hulu + Live TV just increased its prices. Depending on whether or not you get ads with on-demand content, you’ll pay $77 or $90.

November: DirecTV Stream bumped its rates $5 in early 2023 and plans for another $5-$10 increase next month. Prices for its various channel packages will range from $80 to $165.

Good thing there’s a free option

If former cable subscribers aren’t flocking to cable replacement services, then where are they going? One destination is the growing number of free, ad-supported TV (FAST) services. In previous issues of the Stream Report, we discussed how the collapse of exclusivity has opened the floodgates of FAST channels and may bring back the days of syndicated TV.

But the numbers are still surprising. Roku Channel, Pluto TV, and Tubi alone account for 3.3% of US TV viewing — only the top two cable providers do better.

And FAST viewership is growing fast (sorry, not sorry), while subscriber rates at other linear TV options are stagnant or declining. Amazon’s Freevee is up 11%, Pluto 7%, Tubi 6% and Roku Channel 5%.

Our takeaway: Why pay to zone out?

Constant price increases and hidden fees sparked the cord-cutting revolution. For a while, streaming live TV seemed to be the future. But the vMVPDs are caught in the same carriage fee trap.

The studios demand more money and the streamers’ only option is to raise rates. So why bother? The numbers show that more people can’t answer that question and are walking away.

One lesson from FAST’s rise is the benefits of “live” TV aren’t that important to most people. Fans of live sports and local news are in the minority. Most people seem happy to turn on their TV and stream… Cheers, Friends, The Office, Suits… whatever. It doesn’t matter that they’ve seen it before. When you want to tune out in front of the TV, FAST services deliver.

The Watchlist

Showrunner Mike Flanagan is back with another Netflix horror series. The Fall of the House of Usher is available to stream now.

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Frasier returns in an all-new reboot of the series, streaming on Paramount+ now.

Brie Larson stars as a chemist turned TV chef, empowering women all over 1950s America with her recipes. Lessons in Chemistry streams on Apple TV+, Friday, October 13th.

In The Burial, A funeral home owner hires a suave attorney to help save his family business. The film starring Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones comes to Amazon Prime Video, Friday, October 13th.

Rick and Morty returns with no obvious changes for season 7, streaming on Max, Sunday, October 15th.

Who says you can’t find life after death? Upload season 3 arrives on Amazon Prime Video, Friday, October 20th.

Fear of the Walking Dead returns from hiatus on Sunday, October 22nd. Watch the rest of season 8 on AMC and AMC+.

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