Cord-Cutting Becomes a Trend

My experiment in shutting off cable was five years ago this month. At the time, I warned that cable television was already more expensive than the competition and that the hyped-up energy of commercial television, needed to get viewers to sit through commercial breaks, wasn’t consistent with most people’s objective of relaxing. Less than a year later, I canceled my television subscription, and I have lived virtually television-free ever since.

Now, five years later, canceling television subscriptions has become a trend. For the first time ever, the total number of television subscriptions is declining this year. A CNet columnist is repeating my experiment of unplugging cable for a month. There are new blogs specifically dedicated to the cord-cutting phenomenon.

Yet much of the online discussion misses the point. People are canceling cable not just to save money, as the cable industry would tell you, but also to save time. Cable is not just an overpriced form of entertainment. It is also an obstacle, a barrier that comes between you and the video entertainment you want. Cable television is supposedly easy to use, but a video service that offers 21 minutes of advertising interruptions per hour can hardly be described as a convenience. Bloggers are debating whether cord-cutters will get more programming from Hulu, an online television subscription service, or Netflix, an online movie subscription service. But if my experience is any indication, people who cancel their cable subscriptions will soon find that they don’t need to watch so many shows.

The objective, after all, is not to fill up as many hours as possible. People have trouble making time for television as it is. Many people who have cable subscriptions go for a month at a time without finding the time to watch anything longer than a weather forecast. After they cancel their subscriptions and are paying for shows one at a time, they won’t suddenly start to pay for shows that they didn’t have time to watch before. Instead, people will find reasons to watch fewer shows. Faced with the freedom to postpone shows, they’ll put off many shows long enough to forget to watch them. Other online video sources, not available on television, will become more important. It helps to remember that less than 1 percent of professionally produced video is ever shown on television. With the opportunity to wade into this ocean of video content, you are not likely to arbitrarily limit yourself to the puddle of TV programs, at least not for long.

When I gave up cable, both in my one-month experiment and my service cancellation a few months later, I was surprised how easy it was. After about two weeks, I had pretty much forgotten about it. The time pressure of daily life is greater in 2010 than it was in 2005, and people will find it even easier to give up television now. If you tell people, “You can save $200 a month and 6 hours a week,” there are people who will be asking, “How much does this great new innovation cost?” The answer, of course, is, “Nothing. Just cancel your television subscription.” Of course, some people will say, “Now, wait a minute,” but there will still be some who say, “Wow! What a great idea.”

Several million U.S. TV households cut the cord this year. The number next year is likely to be more than 10 million. And if the television industry responds the way they have so far, by raising subscription fees for their remaining subscriber base, that will prompt still more customers to cancel. In that scenario, the cord-cutting trend could easily spiral out of control, passing a point of no return roughly around 45 percent of households in just two or three years.

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