Streaming Is Finally More Popular Than Cable

Don’t count cable TV out just yet, though

  • In July, streaming overtook cable for the first time.
  • Broadcast TV still accounts for 22% of what we watch. 
  • Sports is the last big thing keeping cable on top
Cathode ray tube TV on a workbench with other older electronics.

Diego González / Unsplash

Streaming became the most popular way to watch TV and movies last month, ahead of broadcast and cable. 

Prime Video, Hulu, Netflix and YouTube all reached highs during July, according to figures from Nielsen, thanks to shows like Stranger Things and The Terminal List. Not all of this is “new media” though. We also stream a lot via apps from cable companies like Comcast. Streaming accounted for 34.8% of viewing against 34.4% for cable and 21.6% for broadcast. But it’s that still-healthy broadcast number that might predict the future of streaming. That is, cable and over-the-air delivery will be around for a long time to come. 

“Live sports and older people are the only things that are keeping cable television alive, and the reason for both is convenience,” Andrew Selepak, a social media professor at the University of Florida, told Lifewire via email. 


Stack of older TVs showing test patterns

Tiridifilm / Getty Images

Streaming TV is certainly convenient in one way—you can watch anything you like, whenever you want to. But it can also be a pain. Streaming apps are deliberately designed to make the most basic features hard to use and often you’ll find yourself trying to remember whether it was Prime Video or Apple TV+ that had that show based on that comic book you like. 

Cable and broadcast offer another kind of ease—simplicity. 

“Cable television is about convenience, you simply turn on the TV and switch to a news channel, a network, a sports channel, the weather channel, or any other niche channel provided by your cable provider,” says Selepak. “Cord cutters have to keep going back and forth between apps for news, weather, sports, or entertainment, and rarely do you find live broadcasts whether it is sports or news.”

But this is changing. Apple recently bought rights to show Major League Baseball games on Friday nights, and the NFL may be next. Meanwhile, the role of cable for real-time news has been supplanted for many younger people by Twitter and YouTube. And cable may have trouble holding on to its sports deals now that streaming is pulling ahead in terms of viewer numbers. After all, MLB, NFL, and the football (soccer) rights holders around the world are interested in selling to the outlets with the most money, which equates to the most viewers. 

Same Old

Tube TV in front of a house on a suburban street

Frank Okay / Unsplash

TV is different things for different people. You might launch the Netflix app on your iPad, watch a show, and that’s it. Perhaps you don’t even have a TV set in the house. Other folks just leave the TV on all day, a kind of background presence that fills the silence and keeps them company, like we used to do with radio before. 

“For the average Joe Schmo, not a whole lot will change. Those shows which were staples of cable have been and are slowly moving to streaming, and within a decade the shows will either cease to exist with the end of cable, or have been consumed by one of the many streaming services,” filmmaker Austin Lugo told Lifewire via email. 

You can already leave a streaming service running, just like regular TV, and Netflix even has an audio-only option do you can do it without wasting all that video bandwidth while you’re not in the room. Lugo thinks that many people will just use streaming like they use cable. 

Within a decade the shows will either cease to exist with the end of cable, or have been consumed by one of the many streaming services.

“The end of cable is near, but AVOD [ad-based video on demand] streaming services will take its place. So, in many ways, cable will stay. Its form will adjust, and it will technically be streaming, but for the public, the difference will be little to none,” said Lugo. 

In the end, it might just be about price and convenience. As cable companies move their own TV shows to streaming apps, and pretty much every TV sold today has streaming features built in, the delivery method is not going to make much difference to the viewer. 

And as many of us have internet service from our cable companies, the lines get even blurrier. If you’re watching. A TV show, on your TV, and you’re paying your cable company to get it, what difference does it make, exactly?

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