Cable TV gains popularity as broadcast declines

It’s the best of times for cable television. As cable prices continue to rise, viewership has increased as well. And it is all at the expense of broadcast television.

The traditional September to May broadcast season ended with a whimper. In the 18- to 49-year-old demographic highly favored by advertisers, ABC, CBS and NBC each recorded double-digit declines, while Fox showed a slight upturn of 2 percent over last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. During the same time frame, however, ad-supported cable channels showed a 9 percent audience gain.

While cable networks do not measure seasons from September to May, ad-supported cable is on track for another record year. So far this season, ESPN, TBS and Spike are each attracting 250,000 more viewers in prime time.

At least 10 other networks with more than a million prime time viewers are also posting gains, from the History Channel (up 15 percent) and Fox News (12 percent) to AMC (9 percent) and USA (7 percent).

Cable channels have been eroding broadcast viewership for years, and comparisons between them are inexact. This television season, however, the shifts were especially sharp.

At the same time, cable television prices have risen 77 percent since 1996, roughly double the rate of inflation, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this month.

On average, cable customers, who typically pay at least $60 a month, watch only a fraction of what they pay for — 13 percent of the 118 channels available to them. Yet, the number of subscribers keeps growing.

The resiliency of cable is all the more remarkable because the Internet was supposed to change all things digital, the “New York Times” reported. Technology has generally led to more choices and lower prices. Yet cable television is a rare instance where the Silicon Valley has failed to break a traditional media juggernaut.