We return to the topic of “cord-cutting,” thanks to a few recent developments.
Before we start, it’s worth noting that much of the cord-cutting coverage I see online seems to begin with frustration at prices (somehow never compared to the costs of other entertainment options) or by desired flexibility in purchasing options (they just want to get the one network or the one show).
Then, the subsequent reporting or blogging is driven by a fierce conviction that the Internet and the Digital Age is changing the “cable model” – as everything must be changed under the new regime (“Resistance is futile!”) – and that it’s only a matter of time before the whole existing infrastructure comes tumbling down, to be replaced by a Bright New Tomorrow.
I must point out that the Internet offers a technical solution to delivery of content. It does not address the business models involving the production of content.
Everybody’s Dropping Cable and Its Days Are Numbered
“It’s only a matter of time,” critics will say. Pretty soon, a Hulu subscription will “kill your cable.” Or perhaps Google has the answer to “kill your cable bill.” In fact, it’s already happening now! The cord-cutters are taking over!
About a month ago, I fact-checked two major cord-cutting reports from earlier in the year. Now, a new Nielsen report confirms that “cord cutting to date has been limited to very specific demographic segments.” See this finding from the report, as quoted by Connected Planet:
The survey’s key metric: 3.9% of the U.S. population had broadband Internet but no cable TV service in January 2010. That’s the same percentage reported for the same month a year earlier. In January 2008, it sat at 3.2%.
At the same time, the percentage of people with both cable TV service and broadband was 66.3% in January of this year, compared to 61.6% in January 2009 and 54.8% in January 2008.
But maybe there’s another threat to cable.
Drop Cable and Still Get Sports
About a week ago, ESPN and Microsoft accounted a deal that would bring the ESPN3 online service to Xbox 360 customers. There was much rejoicing in certain quarters, with MG Siegler writing at TechCrunch, “Xbox 360 Gets Live Sports In HD From ESPN. Canceling My Cable In 5, 4, 3…” Two days later, Karl Bode noted at DSLReports, “ESPN/Xbox 360 Deal Less Sexy Upon Closer Inspection.” He noticed that ESPN’s streaming video service has a model similar to its multichannel video business. ISPs are affiliates, much as cable operators are. And ESPN3 doesn’t offer all the same content that the television version does. (Also, see this post from the Sonic.net CEO Blog, arguing that “the Internet is ‘à la carte’, and it should remain that way.”)
So, I Should Still Cancel Cable, Right?
People like to complain. They threaten to cancel their service. But if you like to watch the programming, how else are you going to watch it?
CNET’s Rick Broida writes The Cheapskate column about saving money. He posed the question this week, “Is it time to pull the plug on cable TV?” He notes that you can use streaming services or a media center PC.
However, these options will get me only so far. If I want to watch shows like “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men,” I’m sunk: they don’t air anywhere except on AMC. My only option would be to wait for them to come out on DVD. And even then, they won’t be high-def.
I also have kids who would probably require hospitalization without daily doses of “iCarly” and “Phineas and Ferb.” Granted, both are available through Netflix, but not the latest episodes.
And then there’s sports. I don’t watch a ton, but I do like my college basketball. The question is, do I like it enough to justify $70/month (especially when the season lasts only six months or so)? Dunno.
If You Want a Revolution, What’s the Solution?
As I’ve said before (see this post), people like to claim you can replace cable with something else, but the “something else” is often just broadcast programming streamed online.
Broadcast television has been around since the 1940′s and has a business model based on broad distribution; the free online viewing of those shows is just ancillary revenue. Cable has always offered niche content and has a dual revenue stream of advertising and affiliate fees.
Cable and other multichannel video providers are now responding to consumers’ interest in accessing cable content in new ways; that’s why we’ve seen the launch of “TV Everywhere” kinds of services, which allow subscribers to watch online the content they’re already paying for.
All those prognosticators who claimed that the cable model is doomed should try to answer the fundamental questions of how the television business is supposed to transition into this Bright New Tomorrow, while still maintaining the ability to recover production costs and generate revenue.