A Message From The Year 2026 About The Future Of Your TV

Image courtesy of (Great Beyond)

Thirty years ago, in 1996, you actually used your TV to watch broadcast or cable signals — live, as things aired. Twenty years ago, in 2006, you probably still had cable, but you probably also had a DVR, freeing you to watch programming at your leisure (much to the chagrin of advertisers). Ten years ago, in 2016, you may or may not have decided to cut the coaxial cord — but even if you had cable, odds were high you complemented it with some kind of streaming service. But by today, Jan. 4, 2026, if you even remember what “cable” was, that’s probably because you only see it at your grandparents’ house.

And yet… what we have now is, in so many ways, the same as TV was ten years ago.

The new year is a great time to pause, think about the months to come, and reflect on how we got to where we are today. In the world of TV, we’ve come so far so fast that it could make your head spin. All the change that brought us to where we sit today, at the dawn of 2026, really began to snowball in a big way in late 2015. So on this new year’s day, this seemed like a good time to do a retrospective about the last ten years, and look at how we got to where we are today.

First, though, it would be remiss not to mention the two big technological developments that set us on this path, even though they happened outside of our ten-year window.

The first was the launch of YouTube just over 20 years ago, way back in 2005 (it was subsequently purchased by Alphabet Inc. — back when the company was called “Google” in 2006). Prior to that, many attempts at “Internet video” had been made but most involved awkward downloads and long-forgotten tech like RealPlayer or QuickTime, all of which had reputations for bogging down users’ computers and frankly just not working right. (Ask your grandparents how it hard was to view trailers or other stuff in the ’90s.) But streaming video became a reality for millions when YouTube went big, and it laid the groundwork for what would come next.

The other major development was the advent of subscription-based, bingeable streaming video. That came three years later, when Netflix — until then primarily a DVD-by-mail movie rental company — opened up video streaming as a bonus for its customers in January, 2008.

2015, though, was the year when the tide really began to turn, which is why it makes a great starting point for our history.

Why 2015 Was The Year of Change

That was the year when Comcast finally had more Internet subscribers than TV ones. That was the year when streaming video became more than 2/3 of all Internet traffic. That was the year when big broadcasters and premium channels alike began to offer streaming-only, over-the-top (OTT) subscription options. And it was even the year when Amazon took its first baby steps into being the “cable” company millions of us use today.

As we sat here ten years ago watching the clock turn over to start 2016, a few of the cable companies were starting to take their own first steps out of cable. Comcast had a little baby streaming service in tests, and a company called Time Warner Cable (then Charter, then purchased in 2021 by Anheuser-Busch InBev Miller Volkswagen Northrop Grumman) with 11 million subscribers was considering dumping the cable box and letting its service start being an app.

The stage was set. Although programming had been delivered in bundles of channels through terrestrial providers for thirty years, the age of the “cord-cutter” was ascendant. Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu had proven that you could not only deliver programming without being a linear (i.e. the opposite of on-demand) network, but succeed at it. Early shows like Transparent and Orange is the New Black paved the way for the online distributors to prove that they were just as much a prestige network as any HBO, and consumers bought it.

The Great Un- and Re-Bundling

By January of 2016 and into 2017, then, basically everything anyone wanted was available over-the-top. A generation of cord-cutters — nearly all the so-called millennials, who by this point were as old as 36 or 37, and in charge of their own households — had broken with cable for good. The TiVo was invented when they were 18! They were the first digital generation! Cable was for dinosaurs and grandparents.

But the marketplace was deeply fragmented, and getting worse. A consumer would pay $100 a year to Amazon, another $10 a month to Netflix and Hulu, and maybe $15 each to a couple of online versions of premium channels to get everything that she wanted to see… plus, for broadcast networks, she either had to cough up another $7 per month or fiddle with a digital antenna and over-the-air access… providing she even lived someplace where she got a good signal.

For between $30 and $100 a month, having to assemble all your own crap, and not even having a single DVR or unified search feature to turn to, seemed like an awful lot of work. Outsourcing that work, consumers would realize, was the value a cable package still added. But prices were constantly on the rise, and so some consumers — especially the younger, primarily mobile-using ones — still preferred to piece things together themselves.

So in 2016 and 2017, it both was and wasn’t surprising to see the traditional cable bundle break up more and more. It was still widespread, though: by the last quarter of 2017, analysts found that there were still over 89 million traditional pay-TV (cable or satellite) subscribers in the US, and even now that number still hasn’t ever dropped below 65 million.

But by 2016, a number of the three-, five-, or eight-year contracts that programmers and distributors had agreed on before the ascendance of broadband TV had finally expired, and new contracts, focused on the digital space, were able to arise. In short: there were new players in town, and some of them would even end up playing against themselves.

Amazon announced its first over-the-top bundle service in late 2016, to launch in early 2017. Its starting lineup included all of the Discovery and AMC networks, along with some but not all Disney properties (no ABC; only highlights from ESPN) and several of the premium channels (Starz, HBO) as add-on options. They smartly offered the bundle at a steep, subsidized discount to their Prime consumers: on top of the regular $119 annual Prime fee, getting “cable” would only cost $100 a year — less than $10 a month. As compared to an average cable company bill of $130 per month, it was a no-brainer for millions of consumers who already enjoyed watching Amazon content. A little over a later, Netflix even added its content to the package for an extra $15 a month, same as HBO.

Comcast, meanwhile, started bringing their cable-free cable bundles online at about the same time, though they began with only a tiny handful of pilot cities and were slow to roll out nationwide. Their Internet-only subscribers were eligible to buy a programming package that included all of the NBCUniversal networks, all of the Discovery networks, all of the AMC networks, and all of the Scripps networks as well as access to EPSN and ABC (but not the Disney channel or any of their kids’ channels), and all the same premium HBO or Starz add-on content, for significantly less than the cost of a standard cable package delivered through a set-top box.

But Comcast could pull one string that Amazon could not: zero-rating.

Comcast, unlike Amazon, was an Internet infrastructure company as well as a pay-TV company. Through the teens, they gradually unrolled data caps across their footprint, and by January 2017, they enforced a 350 GB monthly cap on all users nationwide (with a $40 fee for unlimited data). All of those Amazon TV subscribers, of course, still had to get their Internet from somewhere. A Comcast OTT bundle was exempted from Comcast Internet data caps. An Amazon TV bundle was not.

The other TV/Internet providers weren’t far behind Comcast. Verizon and AT&T launched their comparable packages in late 2017. Charter, which had only finished its merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House in December 2016, took longer; theirs launched at the end of 2018. Smaller providers, meanwhile, had been sticking with the Internet biz but dropping TV altogether since as early as 2014.

For the first half of our decade, competition seemed robust… but there was trouble brewing.

Here Comes The Judge

It took until 2020 for the big lawsuit to land. That was when Amazon sued Comcast, Charter, Verizon, and AT&T in the now-landmark Amazon v Comcast.

The big A-to-Z argued, in summary, that the way in which ISPs over-the-top non-cable cable bundles were being treated preferentially was (1) against the FCC’s Open Internet Rule of 2015, and (2) anticompetitive, and against antitrust law.

It wasn’t a blocking or throttling issue; that was settled once and for all in 2016, when the ISPs failed lawsuit against the FCC over net neutrality got smacked down by the Supreme Court. Rather, the big A-to-Z argued that the infrastructure-owning companies’ preferential treatment of their own video services an anticompetitive measure under antitrust law. (Although they did also contend it was in violation of the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Rule.)

The issue of data caps became pressing more quickly than most consumers had anticipated. The shift to 4K video, the adoption of streaming VR gaming content, and the sheer amount of streaming-only television produced all at once came together to make 300 GB or even 350 look laughably low in a household with three or more members. A significant enough number of households felt constrained by data restrictions that they opted to stick with programming packages distributed by their ISPs instead of by Amazon or one of the other nascent businesses, and so Amazon had a strong case.

The wheels of justice turn slowly, though, and a surprisingly protracted government shutdown in 2021 bumped the proceedings even farther. It was 2022 before a federal court found in favor of Amazon. All of the ISPs, of course, appealed, and it was 2024 before the appeals court found in their favor. And that’s how we came to where we sit now: The Supreme Court heard arguments about Amazon v Comcast this fall, in October 2025, but we won’t know how it’s going to play out for a few months still… and the future of TV as we know it hinges on the outcome.

Charter is no longer a defendant; they came to an agreement with Amazon and have, since 2023, permitted their app to be accessed on all devices and amended their data policy so that most customers are not subject to a cap or limit. Comcast and AT&T, however, have doubled down.

So where will we be sitting another decade from now, on New Year’s Day 2036?

Well, that’s anyone’s guess. There’s only so far into the future our crystal ball can peer.

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