Americans only watch 17 of the hundreds of channels available on cable

Americans have no shortage of options in every aspect of their lives. The proliferation of devices for consuming content has enabled more choices than most can count. But the “problem” of having too many options—including a growing expanse of content—doesn’t seem to be having an impact on our TV viewing preferences.

According to Nielsen’s forthcoming Advertising & Audiences Report, the average U.S. TV home now receives 189 TV channels — a record high and significant jump since 2008, when the average home received 129 channels. Despite this increase, however, consumers have consistently tuned in to an average of just 17 channels.

This data is significant in that it substantiates the notion that more content does not necessarily equate to more channel consumption. And that means quality is imperative—for both content creators and advertisers. So the best way to reach consumers in a world with myriad options is to be the best option.

Nielsen: americans view just 17 channels despite record number to choose from

Source: The Nielsen Company

MacDailyNews Take: Now, there’s an industry that’s ripe for disruption.

If only Apple had someone like Steve Jobs who could get the ink on the contracts. Force of will. Charisma. An unmatched track record. You know, the good stuff!

Unfortunately, we’re just not seeing much out of Eddy Cue beyond a mediocre iTunes Radio, some nascent CarPlay rumblings, slowly improving Maps and Siri, and some time spent at Ferrari board meetings. We really can’t blame Eddy; without a giant like Steve Jobs by your side it must be tough to get the ink. Ah, the post-Steve Apple.

Perhaps Cook should consider bidding for and winning NFL Sunday Ticket away from Direct TV, buying rights to Premiere League and La Liga games, etc. and making them Apple TV exclusives. Go directly to the sports leagues with boatloads of cash. Maybe that’ll grease the wheels. It’ll certainly move a bunch of Apple TV boxes around the world in short order.

Of course, if pure à la carte existed, we’d end up with 17 channels, which is a whopping five (5) channels more than we had before cable television (2-13), so some sort of bundling probably has to exist for the foreseeable future regardless of what Apple manages to do.


  1. I’ll repeat, Apple needs to buy Disney, and get ABC, ESPN, etc.

    BTW, with my FREE antenna I get 27 channels of HD digital TV. When I want a movie or HBO, etc. I use my Apple TV/iTunes.

    1. The TV stations already have a plan for ‘a la carte’ channel selection, which is to spread out the content you want to watch on a whole bunch of channels. So, if you want to watch say, the Heat, you will have to subscribe to 10 different channels to see their games.

      1. My family watches less than 17 channels and we don’t watch any sports channels, international, or music.
        I can’t wait for a la carte, but I am afraid cable companies will use this opportunity to screw it’s customers, just like they did when govt stepped in few years ago.

    1. Exactly… There are millions of books on the market, but I typically read only one at a time. There are hundreds of millions of web sites, but on any given day, I visit less than a dozen.

      If the average viewer actually watches 17 channels consistently, that’s pretty HIGH. I probably watch less that 10. I don’t feel a compelling need to watch the other 179 “to get my money’s worth.” 🙂

    2. Great point.. Personally my Core channels are NBC, CBS, Syfy, Comedy Central and BBC America. I don’t have one sports related channel in my top 100.. 😛

        1. As Bill Maher once said: “I get it — who doesn’t love the spectacle of juiced-up millionaires giving each other brain damage on a giant flat-screen TV… “

    3. Exactly! Back in the ’80s, people watched an average of 5 channels, but everyone favored a different five.

      This industry may be ripe for disruption as MDN says, but keep in mind that each basic channel earns about 10 cents per cable subscriber. If the tiers are fully unbundled (a la carte) then only a fraction the the channels will survive. True, many of them deserve to go away, but the risk is that mostly the ones still standing will feature content appealing to the lowest common denominator.

      1. Right. If you don’t watch sports or reality shows, you aren’t part of the mass audience that is subsidizing the shows that you do watch. Quality programming is almost always a loss-leader. If each episode had to carry its own weight in production and promotion costs plus a reasonable profit, the price to consumers would probably go down for mass-market shows, but up spectacularly for quality shows.

        HBO can carry Game of Thrones because you are paying for hundreds of old movies you never watch. Eliminate that subsidy and you might end up spending as much for 13 episodes of the one show as you currently spend in 3 months for your whole HBO package. Less popular quality programming would disappear entirely. No wrestling and cage-fighting, no SyFy.

  2. Actually, it’s 10 more channels than we used to have. In LA, for example, we had channels 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, and 13 (counting only VHF; UHF adds a few more that were nearly never watched). Broadcasters “skipped” channels to avoid interference. So LA (a big TV market) got 7 channels via VHF.
    Some markets may have had one or two more, most had less.

    Of course, most TV shows I watch these days I do binge viewing via iTunes or Netflix. I hate waiting a week between episodes. I’d rather wait until the season is over and then watch the whole thing on my terms. Indeed, I often wait until the series completes before I even commit to watching a show. Been involved with too many cliff-hanger-cancellations to trust the content providers anymore; my time is too valuable for that.

    1. The audience now is the “control voice” and we no longer have to live by the network rules. Scheduling shows at the networks win;t the job it used to be. Time shifting DVR’s, downloads, etc. changed all that. And thank God or the deity of your choice for that!

    2. Lucky you. I grew up in northeast Ohio, and if you only counted VHF, we got a whopping 3 channels: 3, 5, and 8. Add UHF and you also got the independent 43 and 25 for PBS. Five channels. That’s all I knew growing up. That was TV to me. When channel 61 started operating when I was in high school, I was so excited because of the novelty of a NEW TV channel!

      So out of 180-some channels on my cable, I watch 23. That’s still better than 5.


  3. Cable TV sucks and we have to pay for all of those lame ass channels that would’t survive if the industry had to offer everything individually.

    On another note, I wish to hell I could actually rent all of the movies in my wish list on my AppleTV. Some of the friggin’ things are over two years old and were available at RedBox a long time ago. I don’t want to buy the things Tim Cook; get off your ass and do something about it.

    1. There are some movie distributors that have exclusive deals with Netflix, HBO, etc., so some of those may never come to AppleTV (and vice versa).

      This is the real problem with anyone, even Apple, trying to disrupt and reinvent TV/movies in the home – the content creators/distributors make too much money on their current system that they are very afraid to allow any change. This makes it very difficult for Apple to introduce any new, seriously different viewing experience because it can’t get the content to include. Without content, even the most amazing system is useless.

      1. Well, it sure is getting frustrating when I want to watch a movie. I’m getting to the point where I don’t want to even turn on my AppleTV. And I dread the thought of going back to NetFlix and dealing with defective discs like I use to. Guess I should just say the heck with it and read more.

  4. The channels (to use the term loosely) I watch are:
    Whatever channel has a football game on that looks interesting.
    Amazon prime

    I have no idea what channels most of what I watch is even broadcast on.

    That about covers it.

  5. This is what happens when a cartel controls an industry. You get essentially the same effed up deal from any cable or satellite outfit. It just so happens that the bundles are enforced through contracts by the handful of companies that control the cable/satellite cartel.

    You can have any color you want- as long as it is black. Right?

    Nothing like free market America. If the government did it’s job and busted up and prosecuted the collusion in the biz, we would get better service for a more reasonable cost.

    1. News channels without news.
      Weather channels without weather.
      History channels without history.
      Arts Channels without the arts.
      Music channels without music
      Travel channels without travel.
      Learning channels with nothing educational.

      Shopping channels, Sports channels and rerun channels full of just what they promise. Everything else is canned “reality” bullshit.

      This handful controls just about everything on cable except Jesus TV.

      National Amusements-controls both CBS Corporation and Viacom.
      Disney- ABC/ESPN & interest in A&E Networks
      Comcast-NBC/Universal & interest in A&E Networks.
      21st Century Fox- Murdochvision including Faux Newz & Fox TV.
      Time-Warner-Turner channels and CNN Networks. 1/2 Interest in CW Network with CBS.
      AMC Networks
      Discovery Communications

  6. Sports is the main thing keeping people from cutting the cable.Apple should buy Direct TV if they have to in order to get NFL Sunday Ticket. They should go after every other Professional league and the NCAA for similar offerings. Sports is the only thing in my life that makes cable a requirement. You may not agree. However, there’s probably 100 million Americas who do agree with me.

  7. CBS and others have a monopoly, it will never change unless forced too! They see what Apple did to music for consumers, they will not allow it to happen to the cable industry and loose their precious Monopoly!

  8. You think Apple is going to offer à la carte programming?! How much money do you think there is in selling 17 channels? That’s right — very little.
    Apple doesn’t do what their customers want; Apple does what makes the most money for Apple. Don’t expect to get this from Apple EVER.

  9. I was curious, so I took stock of how many channels I watch regularly. I came up with 23. Not too far off from 17, I guess. But that list doesn’t include a mess of channels that would be on other people’s lists. For example, I don’t watch any of the purely voyeuristic reality shows, so MTV and TLC aren’t on my list, but you know they’d be on the lists of other people.


  10. 17 more than me. Which isn’t to say I don’t watch television at all, just that I’ve found better ways to view it. With few to no ads. You’d be amazed (maybe) how a half hour show has 7-9 minutes of advertising. An hour show has roughly 15-20 minutes. So you can cut out 25-33% of a show by not having advertisements.

  11. I get TV as part of my verizon package of long distance, cable and internet access.

    I can’t remember the last time I watched TV and I mostly use FaceTime instead of long distance call .

    All other phone usage is iPhone based. I need a new service provider whose services match my usage.

  12. 17 channels, because people only watch one or two programs from those channels.

    I don’t have a TV anymore, nor do I have cable. Every program I’ve ever wanted to watch was on YouTube, Hulu+, NetFlix, or iTunes.

    Even with all of those services combined, I’m still 1/5 the cost of what cable would have cost me.

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