Americans’ new TV habit: Subscribe. Watch. Cancel. Repeat.


Many more people are jumping from one streaming subscription to another, a behavior that could have big implications for the entertainment industry. — Oscar Nimmo/The New York Times

Early last year, Josh Meisel and his wife wanted to watch a new buzzy Peacock drama, Poker Face, starring Natasha Lyonne.

But Meisel, a scientist who lives outside Boston, did not subscribe to Peacock. He paid for half a dozen other streaming services and was reluctant to sign up for another. So he and his wife made a pact. If they weren’t watching Poker Face anymore after two weeks, they would cancel Peacock.

Sure enough, they lost interest and cancelled. And then he realised: Why stop there?

In the weeks that followed, Meisel, who is 39, cut loose Max, Apple TV+ and Hulu. He eventually resubscribed to Hulu and Apple TV+ when there were shows the couple wanted to watch – Hulu for The Bear, Apple TV+ for Slow Horses – but cancelled both again after they finished watching a new season.

And he is hardly alone.

Americans are getting increasingly impulsive about hitting the cancellation button on their streaming services. More than 29 million – about one-quarter of domestic paying streaming subscribers – have cancelled three or more services over the last two years, according to Antenna, a subscription research firm. And the numbers are rising fast.

The data suggest a sharp shift in consumer behaviour – far from the cable era, when viewers largely stuck with a single provider, as well as the early days of the so-called streaming wars, when people kept adding services without culling or jumping around.

Among these nomadic subscribers, some are taking advantage of how easy it is, with a monthly contract and simple click of a button, to hopscotch from one service to the next. Indeed, these users can be fickle; one-third of them resubscribe to the cancelled service within six months, according to Antenna’s research.

“In three years, this went from a very niche behaviour to an absolute mainstream part of the market,” said Jonathan Carson, the CEO of Antenna.

The change gives consumers far more flexibility, but the implications could be significant for the major media companies, especially if this behaviour becomes even more common.

Traditional media companies like Paramount, Warner Bros. Discovery, NBCUniversal and Disney are trying to navigate the extremely bumpy road from the cable bundle (which was enormously profitable) to streaming (which is not). NBCUniversal’s Peacock, for one, lost US$2.8bil last year.

As a result, the companies slashed investments in shows – the number of scripted shows in the United States in 2023 suffered its steepest decline in at least 15 years – and are raising prices to their streaming services. (Disney+ and Hulu both raised the price of their commercial-free tiers by US$3 a month last year, for instance.)

Less loyal subscribers could introduce a whole new level of complexity to their business. Last year, these “serial churners”, as Antenna calls them, accounted for roughly 40% of all new subscriptions and cancellations, Carson said.

The companies “clearly can’t ignore them because it’s such a big, active part of the market”, he said.

One option for slowing the churn, executives think, is to bring back some element of the cable bundle by selling streaming services together. Executives believe consumers would be less inclined to cancel a package that offered services from multiple companies.

Disney has found success by bundling Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ into one package. It also joined several other companies, including Fox and Warner Bros. Discovery, in announcing a sports streaming service scheduled to start this fall.

The services are also trying to keep subscribers hooked with “coming soon” features prominently displayed in their apps. Disney+ recently advertised a coming documentary series from National Geographic (Secrets Of The Octopus), and Apple TV+ is teasing Dark Matter, a science-fiction series that comes out in May in its app.

This year, when Peacock was days away from showing the first streaming-only NFL playoff game, it promoted a special offer to deter new subscribers from cancelling: Sign up for a full year at US$30, half the normal price. (And according to Antenna’s research, people who signed up for Peacock on the weekend of the game did not cancel en masse the next month; the cancellation rates were close to average.)

Although the nomadic subscribers tend to skew slightly younger and have a slightly lower income, “this is an activity that all types of Americans are engaging in,” Carson said.

Kailyn Castro, a 32-year-old who works at a tech company and lives in New York City, started piling up streaming subscriptions during the pandemic. She had lots of downtime, she said, and kept “hearing about what everybody else was watching, and I wanted to be able to watch those things as well”.

But over the last year or so, as the pandemic faded, Castro found herself back to a busy social and professional life and began cutting most of them.

“I feel like the world was really back last year,” she said. “People were just outside more, interacting with humans more.”

Price sensitivity is a factor. Americans with a streaming subscription are spending an average of US$61 a month for four services, an increase from US$48 a year ago, according to a new study by Deloitte. The increase was due to higher prices, not additional services. Nearly half the people surveyed said they would cancel their favourite streaming service if monthly prices went up another US$5, the study said.

Alicia Bianchi, a 38-year old lawyer in Michigan, said she had been culling streamers over the last year, including Hulu, Paramount and Peacock, and would probably let go of Max once she was finished watching The Regime, the Kate Winslet HBO limited series that premiered last month. She said she was being “very mindful of spending”, more so than she was a few years ago, before inflation rose sharply.

“I’m able to turn them off so easily now, it’s like, why spend the money on something that I’m not using?” she said.

Bianchi, who has two young children, will not cancel Netflix, however. “I don’t ever mess with my Netflix subscription,” she said. Netflix’s cancellation rate is much lower than those of its peers, according to Antenna.

Likewise, Meisel, the scientist who canceled several streaming services after giving up on Poker Face, said the Netflix subscription – as well as Amazon Prime and Disney+ – was off-limits. (He also has two young children.)

He’s otherwise enjoying his newfound flexibility around the other services. After cancelling Peacock, he brought it back for a short period.

Now, with a pared-down streaming subscription list, there’s a weight off his shoulders, Meisel said.

“I don’t like this new system where you have to have a million different subscriptions to watch what you want to watch,” he said. “I’m happy to cancel to punish the companies who are making me do this.” – The New York Times

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