What’s Next For Cable?

The word is grim: Credit Suisse revised its forecasts, and instead of expecting cable television subscriptions to increase by 250,000 next year, they’re now predicting that the number of subscribers will fall by 200,000. And it’s not just that families are cutting the cord because it’s expensive. The number will go down because of a larger cultural shift, younger consumers who have decided that cable isn’t worth the money at all and are declining to subscribe in the first place, so they won’t replace older ones who are exiting the subscriber universe. That should be a much scarier proposition for the cable industry, but it’s an intriguing one for networks.

I remain pretty convinced that even if it takes a very long time to unbundle cable, and even if a bunch of networks die in the process, a move towards a more flexible (if not entirely a la carte) multi-platform system is inevitable. The idea that choice is paying for precisely what you want, rather than getting an enormous number of things — some of which you want and some of which you’d gladly see die in a fire — for your money seems pretty well-entrenched in the music industry now, and has always been the case for books. If I were HBO, I’d be pondering a subscription option for HBO GO only: I’m pretty sure I’d pay the $9-odd dollars I pay for my HBO package now for HBO GO only if I didn’t have cable.

For networks that don’t have the same premium branding as HBO or Showtime baked into their business model, and thus would have more difficulty attracting a core of subscribers used to paying for them separately, it’ll be interesting to see what happens. I can see something like Bravo making the jump to premium-lite status not because the content is astonishingly good but because the brand is so clearly defined. And I wonder if other networks will retrench their content offerings to try to keep the subscribers they have, or innovate to try to bring resistent cord-nevers into the fold. It’d be easier to do the former, but for the survival of the industry, much more important to innovate with everything to do the latter.