Cable television has earned a reputation for breaking ground - both literally and figuratively - to bring TV programming to the masses since it was developed in the late 1940's.
"Cable has had a history of being disruptive in a good way in terms of cable's origination and bringing broadcast television to people in rural communities," says Brian Dietz, spokesman for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), an industry trade group based in Washington, D.C.
In fact, an average of 24.3 million viewers watch cable programs on a daily basis, according to NCTA statistics. This is a far cry from 1950, when cable systems operated in only 70 communities and served a mere 14,000 homes, reports the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
And despite all the talk about consumers cutting the cord on cable, there are new trends that point to a bright horizon for cable subscribers.
"The more, the merrier" might be the appropriate way to describe the viewing choices offered by cable TV providers. According to NCTA data, there were 800 national cable programming networks and 1,100 cable operating companies in 2012.
But that number of offerings could grow in the near future, says Richard Bennett, a senior research fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a think tank based in Washington, D.C. He credits innovations with video compression for giving viewers the large number of programming choices they have now - and potentially more down the road.
"The cable system basically has 130 channel slots, but in the old days, there was only one program per slot," Bennett says. "But the reason we have 800 (cable) TV channels is video compression, because (programmers) can put four or five programs into those channel slots."
More specifically, Bennett says, the innovations in video compression can be attributed to what's known as MPEG-4. He describes MPEG-4 as a video and audio compression technique that enables more programs to squeeze into available programming slots.
"MPEG-4 expands the capability of cable. Essentially, the cable company has more and more capacity every year," says Bennett.
And the more capacity, the merrier for cable TV subscribers. Down the road cable subscribers could see the number of available cable networks grow well beyond the current 800, according to Bennett.
Free Wi-Fi Hotspots
In an effort to increase subscriber access to cable TV, the industry is heating up in the area of free Wi-Fi hotspots.
In fact, there are about 120,000 free Wi-Fi hotspots across the country in which authorized cable TV subscribers can access their favorite programming, according to the NCTA's official blog, Cabletechtalk.
Industry expert Bruce Leichtman, says it should not come as a surprise that cable TV programmers are riding the wave of wireless technology.
"We are still in the early innings of the Wi-Fi rollout, but the cable industry has done well on the Internet side," says Leichtman, who is president and principal analyst of Leichtman Research Group, which specializes in research and consulting on the broadband, media, and entertainment industries. "It's all about adding value to the cable industry's broadband services."
Depending on where you live, individual cable providers are providing free Wi-Fi hotspots to enhance their bundled packages of Internet, TV, and phone services, says Leichtman.
"Basically, the way the industry works, one provider services an area to provide these hotspots," Leichtman says. "It adds value to their product for the subscribers, but it also perpetuates cable TV as being a part of that community."
The portability of mobile devices has strongly influenced the cable TV industry's efforts to make programming available to subscribers no matter where they go. One such initiative attempting to take advantage of fast-developing mobile technology is called TV Everywhere.
According to Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications Inc., a research and consulting firm specializing in interactive applications and services in telecommunications and media, TV Everywhere is aiming to become the next wave of innovation that could allow cable companies to provide programming to subscribers no matter where they live.
"Cable companies are starting to provide apps or services via computer, iPad, and phone so that you can watch cable programming whether you are at home or not," says Arlen, whose firm is based in Bethesda, Maryland. "If you can authenticate that you are a subscriber, you will be able to watch cable TV programming outside of your home on many devices."
But Arlen says the TV Everywhere movement, which began some four years ago, has yet to roll out as fast as cable TV companies would like.
"It's been very slow to be implemented," Arlen says. "When you are a cable subscriber, you subscribe to a package. But the programming is owned by networks or producers of shows, and in their own cases, they have their own way of getting programming to you through their own services. Some content providers have not agreed to let their programming be distributed through the TV Everywhere service."
For networks that have not yet caught on to the TV Everywhere trend, it's likely only a matter of time.
For example, the Disney/ABC Television Group announced in May 2013 that it will launch an app that will give viewers an opportunity to legally stream live local network and affiliate programing on a variety of devices, such as tablets and phones, for the first time.
- cable TV