2021 Cord Cutting Predictions: More Free Services, The Demise of a Streaming Device & More

2020 brought us new streaming services, upgraded devices, and NextGen TV launching in cities around the country. With the pandemic, cord cutting became even more popular with services announcing record growth and studies showing more time spent streaming shows and movies than ever before.

Now that the first few weeks of 2021 are already in the books, it’s time for us to share our predictions for what this year has in store for cord cutting.

Jess’ Predictions

2021 Will See the Rise of Free Streaming Services

With recent price hikes for both cable and live TV streaming services, expect to see both cord cutters and media companies show more interest in free streaming services. With so much content available on Pluto TV, Tubi, XUMO, Crackle, The Roku Channel, and other free services (along with locals available for free with an antenna) more cord cutters will choose to save even more money by cutting some paid services from their monthly budget.

Cable Will Continue to Shift to Streaming

Over the past few years, cable companies have continuously lost video subscribers to cord cutting, quarter after quarter. Rather than making any efforts to retain those customers with cable packages, we expect to see cable companies continue to look for solutions to get into the streaming game and pull in consumers with new or expanded offerings. Verizon+? Comcast+? AT&T TV (Formerly Now) TV+?

More Content Going Straight to Streaming

With theaters closed due to the pandemic for most of 2020, production companies were forced to make some tough decisions about how to best get their content to consumers while still offering the best possible viewing experience. While many chose to make their content accessible to the widest audience possible by sending movies to streaming services, there were some holdouts (and, understandably, there was some pushback from theaters and actors.) With WarnerMedia making the first major move to send its entire 2021 slate of movies to HBO Max and seeing success from Wonder Woman 1984, I see others following the strategy and meeting consumers where they’re at – on the couch.

Philip’s Predictions

In 2021, NextGen TV (ATSC 3.0) Won’t Be Ready for Prime Time, But It’s Getting Closer

We’re still in the “laying the groundwork” phase of ATSC 3.0, aka NextGen TV and I wouldn’t be shocked if that continues through 2021. We’ll see more and more major markets converted to the new standard this year, but as industry backers pointed out at CES 2021, consumers will need compelling reasons to upgrade. We’ll need to see more OTA examples of 4K broadcasting and/or HDR support to show people what they’re missing out on, plus creative uses of ATSC 3.0’s new capabilities. Those will come in the next few years, but 2021 will still be about getting a majority of stations ready for prime time.

HDMI 2.1 Will Continue to be a Niche, Premium Feature

Speaking of fancy tech that will continue to gradually spread, HDMI 2.1 will likely remain a fairly premium, niche feature this year as well. A lot of the headline-grabbing benefits, like variable refresh rates and high-framerate 4K gaming, benefit higher-end gaming on consoles and PCs specifically, so that somewhat limits the appeal of upgrading to the new standard.

And even though Microsoft’s latest Xbox consoles and Sony’s PS5 take advantage of the new standard, their feature set is a bit uneven at the moment — though that may change via future firmware updates. And both consoles run just fine on non-HDMI 2.1 TVs, lessening the urgency to upgrade now versus later. When I spoke to reps from the HDMI Forum at CES 2021, the emphasis seemed to be on continuing consumer education, like reminding folks they’ll need new cables to take advantage of much of HDMI 2.1’s feature set. For the near-future, at least, HDMI 2.1 will likely remain in the realm of early adopters and upgraders.

Free Streaming Will Continue to Grow, Which Might Make it Worse

The continuing proliferation of streaming services is starting to reach comedic proportions — “Soon, every show will be its own streaming service!” But the reality is consumers will continue to face tricky choices about how much they’re willing to pay to get access to their favorite content. After all, a streaming service that’s $5 per month isn’t too pricey on its own, but if your favorite shows are now spread across four or five such services with similar pricing, those bills add up quickly. So I imagine more and more people will discover, or in some cases rediscover, free streaming services as a cost-effective way to stay entertained.

Some folks might have to get used to seeing more ads again if they’re downgrading from ad-free services and plans, but I imagine that’s a sacrifice many will make to save some money. However, as free streaming services grow in popularity, I also worry companies and the advertisers they work with will try to capitalize on the trend by squeezing in a few more ads here and there, which could lead to a worsening user experience over time. Watch this space, as free streaming services could be very interesting this year.

Luke’s Predictions

Editor’s Note: big thanks to our special guest, Cord Cutters News founder Luke Bouma for joining us in making some predictions for 2021!

2021 Will Be the Year of Streaming Mergers 

There are far too many streaming services for all of them to be profitable. Look for more streaming services to attempt to buy their way to success by purchasing smaller competitors. We have already started to see this happening as FUNimation is making a massive Anime powerhouse streamer by buying Crunchyroll from AT&T.

Look for mergers to become prevalent within the free space as hundreds of small free streaming services struggle. Large investors looking to get into the cord-cutting market will be buying small services to grow them into one large profitable service.

2021 Will Be the Year of Free Streaming

Look for a growing number of services to begin offering more free content. Peacock, a streaming app from Comcast-owned NBCUniversal, is a great example of using free content to push its paid version. Look for this strategy to become more popular as major paid only streaming services may start to offer more free content to help them pull you into a monthly subscription.

Look for many small free streaming services to launch in 2021. They are very cheap for companies to startup and are a low risk to run.

Now, let’s have some fun with a few way-out-there predictions for 2021. 

The Apple TV is at a dead-end…

Don’t get me wrong, the Apple TV programming is not dead, but the hardware has hit a dead end. I think Apple has had enough of being in 5th place behind Roku, Fire TV, smart TVs, and game systems. As a result, Apple seems to be moving away from physical hardware and is turning its focus on making apps for other platforms. We saw this start in 2020 when the Apple TV app became available on many non-Apple devices.

It is doubtful Apple will develop any future Apple TV, hardware models. We know they already built a new Apple TV, but they have not released it yet for reasons unknown. When they do release it, that Apple TV model will likely be the very last physical Apple TV box to be made by Apple.

2021 Will See Many Smaller Cable TV Networks Shutdown

Viewership for smaller cable TV networks is plummeting. We already see networks pulling back from smaller subchannels like MTV2 etc. Look for many of these lesser-known channels to die off. All they do is air reruns; which you can now get any time you want on-demand. Over the next 5 to 10 years, look for a third to a half of all current cable TV networks to shut down, starting with a few in 2021. Some may survive as subchannels free over the air, but most will just go away.