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Television as we know it is imploding and that's great for cord cutters

People fed up with big cable television bills suddenly have more choices than ever before. With Dish Network’s (DISH) new $20-per-month Sling TV service, cord-cutters will even be able to watch live professional football and basketball games.

It’s just the latest surprising development in the accelerating implosion of the television landscape, which hadn’t changed much since the 1990s when cable started to splinter audiences among hundreds of channels. But rising prices, not to mention a rising generation of Internet-savvy viewers, have convinced more consumers to seek cheaper, online offerings. And that’s creating a market too big for the major entertainment companies to ignore.

Live sports channels, like Disney’s (DIS) ESPN, were supposed to be the unbreachable bulwark that would protect cable TV’s expensive bundle, averaging $100 a month, from Internet competition. But, increasingly, cord cutters will be able to watch even top NFL and NBA games.

Sling TV, which Dish unveiled at the Consumer Electronics show on Monday, offers access to 12 popular channels, including ESPN, TNT, CNN and the Food Network. Starting this month, subscribers will be able to watch shows on a big screen TV via common streaming devices like the Amazon (AMZN) Fire TV stick, Roku set top box or Microsoft (MSFT) Xbox One game console.

DirecTV’s service follows last year’s online TV bombshells from CBS (CBS) and Time Warner’s (TWC) HBO. CBS has already begun offering thousands of TV episodes from its library plus local broadcast channels for $6 a month. HBO hasn’t said yet how much it will charge for online access to its vast library but an announcement could be coming in April.

And the new landscape isn’t just cable TV moving online. There are all kinds of new venues for TV fans to catch their favorities. HBO said on Tuesday it would show episodes of its big budget, fantasy drama “Game of Thrones” in IMAX (IMAX) theaters. Earlier, Samsung announced it had signed on the creators of “The Walking Dead” and other mainstream producers to make shows for a virtual reality network to be delivered through its Gear headset. Meanwhile, Netflix (NFLX) and Amazon continue to announce new original content exclusive to their Internet services. Netflix on Monday unveiled a new cartoon for kids based on the sword-fighting cat, Puss in Boots.

But why are cable companies allowing their most popular shows to move online? To some degree, they will be able to profit from the shift, because they are also the largest providers of high-speed Internet service. Subscribers who drop pay TV may end up paying more for their online connections. And cable companies are also squeezing bandwidth-hogging video services like Netflix for more fees.

Cable companies also see little more subscriber growth in their traditional markets. In 2013, for the first time more people dropped cable than signed up, according to SNL Kagan. The trend continued into 2014, the Leichtman Research Group says. The nine biggest cable providers suffered a net loss of 440,000 subscribers at the end of the third quarter compared to a year earlier.

Even those figures dramatically undercount the number of people watching online, since they don’t factor in viewers who have never paid for cable. Almost 11 million households subscribe to fast Internet service but not cable TV, SNL Kagan says.

Technology has made it easier than ever to watch TV shows and movies online. Amazon’s $39 Fire TV stick, announced in November, was just the latest low-priced gadget designed to let viewers watch online video. Google (GOOGL) says it has sold “millions” of its $35 Chromecast dongles, Roku passed the 10 million mark for its Internet-connected set-top box in September, and Apple (AAPL) bragged in April of having sold 20 million Apple TVs.

While consumers spent more on those kinds of gadgets, Hollywood's box-office take has been falling, DVD sales are down and cable looks almost tapped out. With the ranks of cord-cutters growing, maybe it shouldn't be so suprising that television content is following the money.