Hub Research: Online TV Services Have Passed Traditional Cable as Default TV Viewing Source

More than half of TV viewers in a survey said their TV default was an online streaming service — i.e., a subscription-based streaming service such as Netflix, a free streaming service with ads such as Pluto TV, or a live-TV streaming service such as YouTube TV.

That’s according to Hub’s annual “Decoding the Default” study, which since 2015 has tracked the TV source that consumers turn on first when they’re ready to watch.

Online services were 16 points more likely than a traditional cable, satellite or telco service to be consumers’ TV default — an advantage that’s twice as large as it was just a year ago.

In the survey, 55% said an online service is the first source they turn on, up five points from 2020, while 39% said they turn first to a traditional pay-TV service set-top (including live viewing, DVR, or VOD), down three points from last year. The remaining percentages each year default to viewing over-the-air, from an antenna.

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Meanwhile, Netflix has lost momentum as viewers’ default source over the past year. Until 2018, Netflix was on track to surpass traditional pay-TV single handedly as viewers’ first stop for TV viewing. But since then, the proportion defaulting to Netflix has leveled off, and it has actually lost three points since 2020. Although no single other streaming TV service comes close to Netflix as a default for TV, the four other most popular streamers (Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, and HBO Max) collectively gained four points in just the past year.

TV default differs dramatically by age. Young consumers were by far the least likely to turn first to live TV channels when they were ready to watch — and the proportions have continued to drop over time. In the survey, barely more than 1 in 10 18- to 34-year-olds defaulted to live channels. But notably, the proportion defaulting to live TV was lower than it was in 2019 in every age group.

Netflix’s overall drop as a default source since last year is especially pronounced among younger viewers. Instead, that group embraced the other streaming services as their top TV destination, with 31% of 18- to 34-year-olds making Netflix their TV home base, down eight points since last year.

Instead, 24% of young viewers turned first to one of the other top five streamers, up an equal eight points since 2020.

“Like most other phenomena in the new TV landscape, the TV sources that viewers’ treat as their TV home base seem to be in a state of constant flux,” Peter Fondulas, principal at Hub and co-author of the study, said in a statement. “Just when it looked like Netflix was set to become the center of consumers’ TV universe, other streamers have stepped up their game to change the narrative.

“What has remained constant, however, is the critical importance of being consumers’ home base for TV in the first place. If and when we reach the point where a critical mass of consumers decides they’ve hit their TV service maximum, the last service to go when viewers begin to scale back is the one service they turn on first.”

Hub’s “Decoding the Default” study was conducted in August 2021 among 1,616 U.S. consumers with broadband, age 16-74, who watched at least one hour of TV per week.

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