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Average cable bill hits a record $99, but can it last?

Aaron Pressman

The average cable television bill hit a record $99.10 this year, an increase of 39% from 2010. But with more and more viewers opting out of pay TV -- mainly because of the cost -- something's got to give.

According to the latest annual survey by Leichtman Research Group, 83% of U.S. households subscribe to cable, down from 87% in 2010.  The average cable bill is up 39% over the same period, or more than four times the rate of inflation, the telephone survey of 1,222 people found.

Media stocks have been sinking all summer amid plunging ratings and rising fears that cable viewers are opting out, or in the case of millennials, never even signing up in the first place. Shares of Viacom (VIA) are down 32% over the past three months, while CBS (CBS) has dropped 27% and Twenty-First Century Fox (FOXA) 18%, versus a 5% decline in the S&P 500 Index over the same period.

At the same time, Internet video options continue to multiply, with Verizon (VZ) the latest to launch an online alternative to traditional TV. That follows other new options introduced over the past year by CBS, Dish Network (DISH) and HBO. Apple (AAPL) is rumored to be working on its own Internet video service, as well.

Cable providers have argued that the higher prices reflect more and better programming. The average number of channels received per household rose from 151 in 2010 to 189 in 2013, according to the most recent data released by Nielsen. But people actually watched slightly fewer channels -- 17.5 on average in 2013 down from 17.8 in 2010, Nielsen said.

Many Wall Street analysts assume much lower average costs for cable television, which may explain why they have so much trouble understanding the so-called cord cutting phenomenon. Some analysts cite promotional, limited-time offers and few take into account all of the items cable companies add onto bills, such as equipment charges and additional vaguely-explained fees.

About half of those who don't subscribe to cable TV, or 9% of all households, subscribe to at least one subscription Internet video service, such as Netflix (NFLX) or Amazon (AMZN) Prime Video, Leichtman found in its survey. Verizon's new Go90 offering, along with a few others like Hulu's basic service, is free with advertising.

The biggest challenge for the cable industry is younger people who never sign up, Leichtman said in a report accompanying the survey. The total number of pay-TV subscribers held relatively steady over the past five years, but the country added 4.5 million new households.

The cancellation rate also rose slightly. The survey found 2.5% of all households did not subscribe to cable but had subscribed within the past year. That was up from 1.5% in the 2010 survey.