Linear TV Nostalgia

The other day I saw a fun video where a few teenagers were trying to figure out how to use a rotary dial telephone. They never did quite figure it out, but there’s no reason they should. It’s just another piece of old technology that has faded into history.

I recently wrote a blog about cord cutting and that got me to thinking that there is soon going to be a generation of kids who grow up without routinely experiencing linear TV. Linear TV has been part of most of my life. I remember when my family got our first black and white TV in 1957. It was a huge heavy console with a rounded screen that hummed from the many tubes that made it work.

We could only get three stations – WTOP which was CBS out of Washington DC, WBAL which was NBC out of Baltimore, and WTTG which was an independent station from Washington DC. WTTG was an interesting station – it’s the second oldest station in the country. They ran a lot of older programming and aired a steady diet of old stuff like the Three Stooges, Shirley Temple movies, and the Little Rascals. I didn’t realize until much later in life that other people my age didn’t see nearly as much of this older programming as we did. We were only able to watch ABC by climbing on the roof and fiddling with the antenna – doing so meant we lost the other stations. However, there would occasionally be a World Series game or other important sports event on ABC that would entice my father to climb onto the roof, quietly mumbling expletives.

It’s probably hard for kids today to understand how TV brought families together. There was no other source of live entertainment other than going to the movies, since even by the 50s most of the interesting programming was gone from radio. In our house there were a few evenings where we all watched TV together. With only two network stations available we watched the same shows every week. Sunday was the almost mandatory TV day. In the 1950s Sunday nights brought Lassie, The Jack Benny Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and then GE Theatre and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. By the 60s this became Lassie, Walt Disney, The Ed Sullivan Show, and Bonanza – a lineup that held in our house for many years.

We had a few other TV nights, except in the summertime when kids played outside until dark. I remember in the 50s we regularly watched shows like I Love Lucy, The Danny Thomas Show, The Red Skelton Show (my father’s favorite after Bonanza), and I’ve Got Secret. By the 60s this changed to new shows like The Dick Van Dyke Show, Perry Mason, Mr. Ed, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Rawhide. As you can see by the lineup, there was family compromise, and everybody got to watch their favorite show.

In 1964 we got our first color TV to watch the seventh game of the World Series when Bob Gibson pitched against and beat the Yankees. It took my mother a few years to forgive my father for that impulse purchase. But this sure made a difference for watching shows like Walt Disney and sports. Before then we would occasionally watch football games at my Aunt Helen’s house since she had bought one of the first color TVs in the area (and she always had red velvet cake for halftime).

In 1968 we got a second TV, which went into a basement TV room, mostly to move some of the kid’s programming out of the living room. This new TV also let me watch things the rest of the family wasn’t interested in like the original Star Trek, ACC sports, and NBA basketball.

Somewhere during the 60s the ABC signal got stronger and we could routinely watch three networks. Around 1970 we added the little hoop antenna because two UHF stations became available to us. They mostly reran older series and movies, but it felt liberating to have a few more choices. We still only watched the major networks as a family in the evenings.

Keeping a TV operating was an artform. There was a pile of different-sized tubes in the back of the TV. It was fairly obvious when a tube failed, but a lot harder to spot one that had intermittent problems. The normal way to solve intermittent problems was to yank out all of the tubes and take them to a TV repair shop to be tested. The last resort was to take the whole TV to the shop where it might sit for several long weeks where there’d be no TV in the house.

It’s probably hard for kids today to believe that there was no remote control. Somebody had to get up and manually change the channel. However, with so few available channels we rarely changed the channel since we already knew what we were going to watch. Kids would also be surprised to learn that the networks went off the air after the late news – everybody from the station went home. Like most households, we got the TV Guide in the mail every week that told us what was upcoming. The main advantage of the TV Guide was to make sure not to miss specials – because networks didn’t cross-advertise and it was easy to miss a special TV event without the TV Guide.

Like the rest of America, the TV brought the world into our living room. One of the first big news events I recall clearly was watching Alaska join the US. We watched Walter Cronkite cover big events like the the Cuban misslile crisis, the Kenneday assassination, and the Vietnam War (where we had uncles and cousins fighting). We watched everything about the space race. I was a big fan of the political conventions which were raucous events in those days.

I’ve been a cord cutter now for a decade and I can no longer tolerate linear TV. I love the ability to pause and rewind with delayed TV and I’ve learned to love binge watching. But there was something special about the way that the TV influenced our lives when it was a new medium – something that is gone into history like the rotary dial phone.

How Real is Cord Cutting?

Fatty_watching_himself_on_TVAlmost every article you read these days about cable TV mentions cord cutting. Service provider are looking for products to satisfy cord cutters and analysts seem to be obsessed by it. But how real is it? I thought I’d take a look at the latest statistics since I haven’t done that for a while.

Total paying cable customers decreased by 31,000 customers in the first quarter of 2015 compared to a gain last year in the same quarter of 271,000. This is looking at cumulative customers for the whole industry including cable companies, telcos, and satellite. But within that number, the net losses for satellite for the quarter was 74,000 customers with a loss at Dish Networks of 134,000 customers and a gain for Direct TV of 60,000.

And cable companies as a whole are still losing customers to AT&T and Verizon, who together gained 129,000 new customers for the quarter, although as a group these two sectors had a tiny gain for the quarter.

This brings the overall loss for the year ending 1Q15 to 0.05%. While that doesn’t seem large, it’s the biggest (and the first) loss the industry as a whole has ever seen. And within the numbers is a worse story. Cable has now been shrinking for several years when measured against the growth of new households in the country. For the first quarter customers actually dropped 2.3% compared with the net change in total households, and for 2014 this was even worse with a net decline for the year of 2.8%.

As somebody who watched the telephone industry decline with landlines this is feeling very familiar. The industry first became sluggish for a few years, then had some tiny losses, and eventually began to bleed customers. But the loss of landlines was accompanied by the meteoric rise of cellphones, which gave people a good alternative to the home phone.

It’s impossible to sit and predict the same rapid decline of cable. For that to happen people are going to need to feel that the alternatives to cable are attractive enough for them to drop the traditional cable packages. So how are some of the alternatives to cable doing?

In the fourth quarter of last year Netflix streamed 10 billion hours of video, which represents 6% of all TV viewing. That number has been growing by double digits and is expected to continue to grow at that same fast rate. 6% of the market may not seem like a lot, but analysts say that Netflix contributed to 43% of the decline in ratings that TV experienced in 4Q14. So it’s not just that people are watching Netflix, but they are watching it during prime time.

And this is all very largely age-related. In the fourth quarter of 2014, viewing of linear TV (watching live broadcasts) was down 10.6%, a huge decrease over the year before. Millennials are flocking from traditional TV to either delayed viewing, viewing alternate content like Netflix, or viewing shorter content on their cellphones. Only about a quarter of millennials now watch linear TV while 44% of baby boomers do.

Linear viewing, in terms of hours watched, peaked in 2013 but has seen significant decreases since then. Over time this has to result in fewer people willing to pay the big monthly bill for something they don’t watch.

There have been surveys for years that predict an upcoming surge in cord cutting, but for various reasons none of those polls has held to be true. These polls tell that us that people are thinking about dropping cable subscriptions, but something is stopping them from pulling the trigger – there is a noted difference between intentions and actions.

There was another such survey recently released by TiVo. This poll says that about 1.5 million customers plan to ditch traditional cable in the next year. The survey says that another 38.1 million customers are dissatisfied with their pay-TV service. But that survey also reported that 20% of respondents had increased their TV packages within the last year, meaning there is a solid core of people who really love TV.

The TiVo survey might be right. When you consider that there has been no growth in cable for several years now it’s possible that there are already between 1 and 2 million people per year dropping cable, and that those drops are being masked by new households entering the market. But since most new households are younger and are the ones not buying cable that is probably not the case. The whole industry is scratching their head in the same way that I am, because the actual behavior in the market doesn’t match what surveys are telling them.