Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Waiting for the Cord-Cutting Numbers to Show Up? Keep Waiting.

wall of tvAs long as we’re talking about cord-cutting, or the lack of it, today, here’s a new report that won’t make either the cable guys or Team Kill the Cable Guys happy: Pay TV subscriber ranks grew — but just barely — in 2012.

That also isn’t a surprise, since it fits the no-growth trend we’ve seen from pay TV for several years now.

For the record, SNL Kagan figures that the U.S. pay TV industry — cable, telco and satellite — grew by a teeny-tiny 46,000 subscribers last year.

That’s basically negligible given an installed base of 100 million pay TV households. But it’s not a decline.

And it’s also in line with what we’ve seen from the industry for a while, where subscriptions go up and down each quarter — usually up in Q1 and Q4, and down in Q2 and Q3. And as always, it’s important to note that this is for all the pay TV platforms.

You might read today, for instance, that Kagan says the cable guys — Comcast, Time Warner Cable, etc. — lost 1.66 million customers this year. True! But the telco guys — Verizon and AT&T — and the satellite guys — Dish and DirecTV — added the same number. Hence, no growth.

As always, the real debate is about why there’s no growth. There are three standard answers, which don’t necessarily negate one another:

  • 100 million pay TV customers is the size of the U.S. market, period. It’s just not going to get bigger.
  • The market would be bigger if the economy was better, and more people were buying homes instead of “doubling up.”
  • People are ditching pay TV for the Internet and some combination of Netflix, iTunes, Hulu, etc. And/or the population of “cord-nevers” — college grads who have grown up with Web TV and see no reason to pay for cable — is growing.

The last one is certainly worrisome for the pay TV guys, and the ones who used to boast that they see no evidence of cord-cutting are a lot more muted about it these days.

You’ll occasionally hear a top pay TV executive — like Dish’s Charlie Ergen — talk candidly about the fact that there are lots of kids, like his own, who aren’t paying for TV anymore. But as always, for right now, cord-cutters are like vegans — you may know a lot of them, but the rest of the country still eats a whole lot of Big Macs.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald