Various analysts have been trying to define the number of cord cutters and they differ a bit in their estimates. That’s not surprising since there is no easy way to count cord cutters. One statistic that regularly gets reported is the drop-off in traditional cable TV subscriptions. But even that statistic doesn’t tell the whole story. Usually what is reported is the change in cable subscribers from the largest cable companies. That misses the changes in subscribers from the many smaller cable providers. And the analysts rarely account for the fact that there are approximately 250,000 new housing units in the US each quarter. When you consider that, even should the nationwide cable numbers stay identical from one quarter to the next there are actually 250,000 homes that have dropped or elected not to buy cable.
But even with those caveats, most analysts would agree that there is now probably somewhere in the range of 500,000 households leaving traditional pay-TV per quarter, which works out to about 2% of the industry annually. When looked at from that perspective it’s clear that unless something starts driving people away from pay-TV a lot faster that there are going to be huge numbers of cable subscribers around for many years to come. With the major cable companies starting to offer skinny bundles, it’s certainly possible that the losses will slow or even slightly reverse.
One way to understand why there are not more cord cutters is to look at what people watch. Nielsen, Variety and others publish statistics on the most watched shows and programming on TV. For the most recent full 2014-15 season of TV the list of the 50 most-watched shows on TV is striking in that it is still made up almost entirely of shows that are on the major traditional networks. This starts with The Big Bang Theory that averaged 21.3 million weekly viewers down to The Goldbergs that averaged 9.2 million. Also on the list are Sunday-night, Monday-night, and Thursday-night football.
There are only three series on the list that are not from one of the primary networks: The Walking Dead on AMC at #4 and with 19.9 million average viewers, Downtown Abby on PBS at #20 and with 12.9 million viewers, and Game of Thrones on HBO at #45 and with 9.4 million average viewers. That leaves 44 of the top 50 series that were on ABC, CBS, Fox, or NBC. It is worth a note that Netflix does not release the viewers for their own series and some of them might belong on this list.
In addition to various weekly series there are also numerous one-time events on TV. It turns out last year that 34 out of 35 of the most watched one-time events were all NFL football games, with the one exception being the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. But there are lots of other one-time events like the Emmys, the Oscars, or all of the other kinds of sporting events that people regularly watch.
I’ve always wondered why more people don’t drop expensive cable subscriptions since most of the series and the one-time events they love are on network TV. Most people in a metropolitan area can get great reception with a $100 digital antenna and can watch all of the network series and sports carried on those networks. With Hulu you can see the vast majority of the network shows that you might have missed live. And with Sling TV you can get a few of the most popular cable channels plus ESPN.
The cable companies have done a good job at making it easier for people to keep their expensive subscriptions. For example most of them now offer the TV Anywhere app or some proprietary version of it. This lets people who pay the traditional cable bundle watch many shows from any device over the web. But there generally is a delay of a day or more until most shows make it to the TV Anywhere lineup.
A big part of that answer has to be that there is programming within the big cable bundle that people value enough to keep paying the big monthly bill. For instance, parents with smaller children want access to several cable-only channels that cater to the kid demographic. People really like cooking shows or travel shows or reality TV that are on one of the various cable networks. But again, the vast majority of this programming can be watched on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime, albeit on a delayed basis. But I guess that many cable network shows are not individually popular enough to be watched by many people, but yet which each has their loyal followers.
Some of the reason for lack of cord cutting is also probably that people are either not quite yet comfortable enough to take the big leap away from cable or are procrastinating on the eventual decision. We saw this as landlines went down and that many people kept a landline in their home for years after they did all of their communications by cellphone. I’ve noticed that most surveys show a lot more people who say they are going to drop cable than who actually do it. Those are the folks that probably have the cable companies worried, because the cord cutting trickle could turn into a flood if the public decides en masse that the alternatives are good enough.