The Slow Death of Cable

From a photoset of glitchy cable screenshots. Flickr / stallio

NYT’s Media Decoder blog reports that the cord-cutters, people who cancel cable service and switch to watching television exclusively through the internet, continue apace:

In the second quarter of 2010, 216,000 people canceled their cable, satellite or telecommunications subscriptions, according to the firm’s research. Distributors as a whole had never endured a decline.

Then it happened again in the third quarter, when 119,000 people canceled subscriptions.

The numbers sent a chill through the television industry, which depends in large part on the fees that are collected by television distributors.

I haven’t had cable since 2007, when I had a brief fling with Comcast. The service could barely be called cable: It included the channels you’re supposed to get anyway, like local news and networks, and then Food Network, TLC, and the Disney Channel, I think. I paid about $16 a month for this, and when I realized that the only things I was watching were Hannah Montana and Gossip Girl, I canceled my service.

When I gave up cable, and told people, most reacted with surprise. Even my mother, who used to yell at me about watching too much television, seemed shocked that anyone would do that. Lots of people asked how I managed without television. And there were strange looks when everyone was talking about the Real Housewives of New Jersey after I would shrug and say I didn’t have TV. But oddly enough, after canceling my service, my television consumption actually increased. And more importantly, my consumption of things I actively wanted to watch increased. I bought a lot of TV on DVD, got a Netflix subscription, and sought out some, er, extralegal sites to watch television on.

Today, due to the recession and better streaming technology, many people I know don’t have cable, though they keep televisions for DVD-watching and gaming. Not all, though. I watch The Walking Dead at a friend’s house on Sunday nights, and head to her place on Thursdays to watch NBC’s line-up (really, Community and 30 Rock. Someone, please put The Office out of its misery, and I have nothing good to say about Outsourced). I do like live-TV watching as a communal experience, but that’s more because I enjoy the bs-ing we do over beers. I don’t really need to watch things live solo, since most everything I want to watch is somewhere on the internet, usually within a day of airing.

I can understand why the industry doesn’t like this. After all, who expected that people would shift so easily from gathering around the television when a show premieres to watching it on their computer screens at some point later in the week? Like most old media, they seem to have been blind-sided by technology. I imagine that there will always be a segment of the country that wants to watch shows live, and is willing to pay for 400 channels, but more and more people will shift away from that model.

Many cable providers have been raising prices, and right now, they can afford to do so because most subscribers haven’t even considered other options. But as many other industries have discovered, this isn’t sustainable in the long-term. The share of live-TV watchers is going to shrink — and if live HD sports become widely available on the internet, it’s a wrap — and many distributors will find themselves out of a job. I could be wrong, but I just don’t see how they can save themselves.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Slow Death of Cable

  1. Pingback: Yglesias » Telecommunications Convergence

  2. Marley

    I completely agree with everything you said, and will add that I am so much happier that I know watch only what I want, and pay only for what I want to watch, WITHOUT COMMERCIALS.

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