The State of Television, Worldwide

Tom Butts

As we witness the evolution of what we still call “television” in the United States, it’s always useful to put it in the context of how the rest of the world views this medium. The rate of adoption varies from country to country but the digital revolution passed a milestone recently that was highlighted in a report from the ITU.

That milestone involved the adoption of digital TV. For the first time, more than half of the world’s population with TV sets are now within reach of a digital TV signal. The figure stands at approximately 55 percent as of 2012, compared to just 30 percent in 2008, according to ITU’s annual “Measuring the Information Society 2013.” The adoption rates vary from an estimated 81 percent of the total number of households in first world countries to 42 percent in the developing world.

More people worldwide now pay for their TV than get it over-the-air. At the end of last year, there were a total of 728 million pay-TV subscriptions. The adoption rate increased 32 percent between 2008 and 2012 and now stands at 53 percent, surpassing free over-the-air TV in 2011. Use of analog cable continues to decline, with digital cable subscriptions more than doubling over the last five years.

Not surprisingly, the report notes that pay-TV providers are facing continued pressure from over-the-top content, from services such as YouTube, Netflix and China’s PPLive service. IPTV has the highest growth rate of adoption, increasing more than fourfold from 2008 to 2012, however, it still represents a small fraction of total TV households, standing at just 5 percent at the end of 2012.

Globally, more than 1.4 billion households now own at least one TV set, representing 79 percent of total households; the report notes that “virtually all” households in the developed world now own a TV set while 69 percent own at least one set in developing countries. In Africa in particular, fewer than a third of the households own a TV set; one of the main reasons for the low rate is the limited access to electricity.

For retailers worldwide, many of them will be heading to CES next month with low expectations. Despite the hype around UHDTV, shipments of TV sets worldwide continue to decline. According to research firm IHS, 2013 will mark the second straight year of lower shipments in every category, from traditional cathode ray to LCDs. Shipments this year are forecast to fall by 5 percent (2012 saw a 7 percent decline).

IHS attributes the decline in shipments to a “wide range of factors” including a weak global economy to market saturation of flat-panel TV in developed countries and plunging CRT sales in developing countries. The researcher though, is optimistic that the rate of television shipments worldwide will increase 1 percent in 2014.

When considering how to evaluate all these statistics, we have to remember that the actual definition of television is rapidly changing, especially in the developed world. Will the rapid growth of smartphones and tablets mean continued softness in TV set sales, particularly among the youth? And how will increasing pressure on spectrum allocation affect over-the-air broadcast? How countries handle the television marketplace vary widely, from countries like the United States and Brazil where commercial television dominates the landscape to other areas where government controls the market. These factors cannot be ignored when considering such changes.

One thing is certain though. For the foreseeable future, television will continue to dominate how the world’s population gets its information and entertainment, whether it be by over-the-air, cable, satellite or IP. And for some, desperation just to access television can be a matter of life or death—just ask the people of North Korea, where a number of citizens were reportedly executed recently just for owning forbidden western television content.

Its importance cannot be understated.

Tom Butts

Tom has covered the broadcast technology market for the past 25 years, including three years handling member communications for the National Association of Broadcasters followed by a year as editor of Video Technology News and DTV Business executive newsletters for Phillips Publishing. In 1999 he launched for internet B2B portal Verticalnet. He is also a charter member of the CTA's Academy of Digital TV Pioneers. Since 2001, he has been editor-in-chief of TV Tech (, the leading source of news and information on broadcast and related media technology and is a frequent contributor and moderator to the brand’s Tech Leadership events.