In broadcast television, cord cutting, cutting the cord, and cord shaving refer to patterns of viewers cancelling subscriptions to subscription television services, dropping expensive pay television channels or reducing the number of hours of subscription TV viewed in response to competition from rival media.
As a market trend, a small but growing number of cord cutters or cord nevers tune out from subscription television in favour of some combination of broadband Internet and IPTV, digital video recorders, digital terrestrial television broadcasts (such as "Freeview" in the UK, Australia and New Zealand) or free-to-air satellite television.
Some cite higher costs due to deregulation of cable television and tied selling practices which force subscribers to pay monthly for a large bundle of unwanted channels to receive a few desired programmes. Others find rival on-line media better fits a specific viewing pattern, such as video on demand or easy access from mobile devices.
In the US, fee-for-carriage arrangements force cable providers to pay for network programming available free-to-air using conventional television antennas; the costs are passed on to viewers, and fee disputes often lead to channel blackouts.
Estimates of the impact of cord-cutting on the market for broadcast television vary; as of 2014[update] there is a small net drop (typically 0.1% per year) in the number of cable TV subscriptions, even as the number of households increases due to the end of the Great Recession. Some, such as the Nielsen ratings agency, downplay this as negligible while others point to the drop in number of hours of subscription television viewed and the number of subscribers planning to cancel service in the future as indicators of a growing trend.
Technology and content
The nuances of the legacy, linear television industry, has an effect on the types of content available to those who do not subscribe to traditional pay television providers. The most common approach to cord-cutting is to use a conventional television antenna to receive digital television over the air for free, then use over-the-top services to view premium content (such as movies) which have been siphoned away from network television by subscription services. Programming is mixed and matched from multiple sources using multiple technologies and services. In some cases, content which is not available from official online sources can sometimes be found through illegitimate means, such as torrents. or streaming websites.
Available content on over-the-top services differ significantly from that of subscription television. Films and television series are available from subscription video-on-demand services like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video; music videos and children's television are also suited to a video on demand model as their content is not time-sensitive. The same is not true of professional sports coverage, which tends to be expensive, broadcast live and not readily available online. This was until the recent launch of Sling TV, which now provide live streaming from several networks, notable ESPN. A proposed $6/month CBS online service is missing the NFL coverage of its free, over-the-air counterpart. Conversely, there has been a growing number of original television-style series produced for subscription video on demand services, such as Netflix's Orange Is the New Black.
Parks Associates estimated that in 2008, about 900,000 American households relied entirely on the Internet for television viewing, and the company expected that number to increase. Leichtman Research Group found that six percent of Americans watched at least one show online each week in 2008, a figure that grew to eight percent in 2009. The number of Americans subscribing to cable service increased two percent in 2008, but the growth had slowed. Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. found that in the fourth quarter of 2008, the increase was seven-tenths of one percent, or 220,000 homes, the lowest ever recorded.
A Centris report showed that due to the sluggish economy, 8% of Americans expected to cancel their pay television service by the third quarter of 2009. About half of Americans tried to get a better deal from a provider other than the one they were subscribed to. Netflix, Amazon.com, iTunes, Hulu and YouTube, as well as BitTorrent, made cancelling service possible for those who would be unable to see their favorite programs over the air. Sports programming was a big reason for not cancelling pay television service, although online options existed for many events. Another problem was the inability to watch many programs live, or at least soon enough in the case of a television series.
2010 was the first year that pay television saw quarterly subscriber declines. In the second quarter of 2012, Sanford Bernstein determined that losses took place in five quarters. Leichtman found that the decrease in pay subscriptions was not happening in large numbers. One reason was that some sports events, as well as other types of television (such as series airing on cable-originated networks), could not be seen online. Sanford Bernstein said the number of pay television subscribers increased by 677,000 during the first quarter of 2010, and a poll conducted by The New York Times and CBS News showed that 88% of people surveyed had such a service, and only 15% had considered going exclusively to web services. People under the age of 45, the survey said, were four times more likely to use the Internet only. To combat the trend, pay television providers were allowing people to stream television programs on desktop, laptop and tablet computers. Craig Moffett of Sanford C. Bernstein still stated that high prices and other methods would eventually drive customers away, calling cord cutting "perhaps the most overhyped and overanticipated phenomenon in tech history."
Comcast reported a loss of 275,000 subscribers in the third quarter of 2010, bringing the total for the calendar year to 625,000. The company said most of these losses were not from people leaving for another service. Moffett said the economy was a big reason for canceling service, pointing out that cable companies needed to offer lower-cost packages, but a survey by Strategy Analytics revealed financial considerations were not the primary reason. People were not satisfied with what they could get, and online sources had a wider array of content. The survey showed that 13% of cable subscribers intended to cancel service in the next year. Slightly more than half were under the age of 40, and nearly all had a high school education. Two-thirds had or planned further schooling, and just over half earned at least $50,000 a year.
In second quarter 2011, Comcast lost 238,000 television customers, compared to 265,000 a year earlier, though the company was making up for these losses with increases in other services such as Internet. Moffett said the slowing rate indicated that online sources were not making people drop cable as quickly. On the other hand, Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications lost more customers in the quarter than in 2010. Time Warner Cable lost 130,000, while Dish Network lost 135,000; by comparison, DirecTV gained 26,000 subscribers, compared to 100,000 the previous year. Nielsen Media Research estimated that the number of households with at least one television set had decreased from 115.9 million to 114.7 million, while also estimating an increase in program viewing by computer, tablets or smartphones. Services such as U-verse were increasing their subscriber numbers by offering special features: U-verse's "My Multiview" option allowed people to watch four channels at once, while Cablevision's "iO TV Quick Views" allowed the display of up to nine channels at once.
A Nielsen report showed that during the fourth quarter of 2011, the number of people paying for television had dropped by 15 million people (a rate of 1.5 percent), and the number of cable subscribers dropped by 2.9 million.
A 2012 Deloitte report said 9% of television households dropped cable service during 2011 and an additional 11% planned to cancel their service. Sanford Bernstein estimates 400,000 dropped pay video services during the second quarter of 2012, up from 340,000 in 2011. One reason for the drop was due to college students returning home for the summer, while the companies made up for the loss in other quarters. However, the number of new homes paying for television service is less than the total number of new homes. Another possible reason is services, such as time shifting and live recording capabilities, that were once exclusive to pay television services are now being offered to cord cutters.
Although the number of subscribers usually increases in the third quarter, in 2012 only 30,000 people added pay television service, according to a study by the International Strategy & Investment Group. Cable lost 340,000 subscribers (with Time Warner Cable accounting for 140,000 of that number) and satellite gained only 50,000; telephone companies added 320 subscribers.
Throughout 2012, pay television added only 46,000 new subscribers, out of 974,000 new households overall, according to SNL Kagan. 84.7 percent of households subscribed, compared to 87.3 percent in early 2010.
Another category of cord-cutters was labeled by Nielsen in March 2013 as "Zero TV". In 2007, two million households had neither subscribed to a pay television service or received television programming via antenna. By 2013, this number had increased to five million. Most people in this category were younger, and did not have children in the household. People could still view shows via online streaming through services such as Netflix. At the 2013 National Association of Broadcasters Show, the solution for broadcasters was stated to be Mobile TV.
A 2013 Leichtman survey showed that the 13 largest MVPD companies, covering 94 percent of the country, experienced their first year-to-year subscriber losses. 80,000 subscribers dropped their service in the year ending March 31, 2013. 1.5 million cable customers dropped their service, with Time Warner Cable losing 553,000 and Comcast losing 359,000 subscribers. AT&T and Verizon added 1.32 million subscribers; DirecTV and Dish added 160,000 subscribers, compared to 439,000 the previous year. Before 2013, only quarter-to-quarter losses had been recorded industrywide. Internet video and switching to receiving television programming by antenna were reasons. Bruce Leichtman described the subscription television industry as "saturated".
A TDG study showed nearly 101 million U.S. households subscribed to television at the industry's peak in 2011, but the number would fall below 95 million in 2017.
In 2013, the number of total subscribers to pay TV services fell by a quarter of a million. This was the first decline from one year to the next.
On October 15, 2014, HBO CEO Richard Plepler announced a service to begin in 2015 that did not require another pay TV susbscription. Also, CBS began offering CBS All Access for $5.99 a month, and CBS head Les Moonves had already said there was a "very strong possibility" Showtime would also offer an over the top service.
On November 28, 2011, a report by Credit Suisse media analyst Stefan Anninger said that young people who grew up accustomed to watching shows online would be less likely to subscribe to pay television services, terming these people as "cord-nevers". Anninger predicted that by the end of 2012, the industry's subscriber count would drop by 200,000 to 100.5 million, blaming the economy; Anninger's report also stated that consumers were not likely to return to paying for television even after the economy recovered. In the case of land-line telephones, people had believed younger people would eventually get them, but now numerous subscribers only have mobile phones. Anninger predicted that the same would hold true for pay television, and that providers would need to offer lower-priced packages with fewer channels in order to reverse the trend.
Also using the term "cord-nevers" was Richard Schneider, whose company Antennas Direct was selling antennas through the Internet. After a decade in business, the company was selling 600,000 antennas a year. However, Schneider said some people only knew of the Internet and services such as Netflix and were not even aware broadcast television even existed. In a speech on November 16, 2012, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes said "cord nevers" did not see anything worth paying for.
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