Where Did Nine Million Cable Subscribers Go?

Published on January 5, 2012
by Peter Kafka

New year, new chance to talk about cord-cutting/shaving/avoiding. Which is either a big deal that’s going to get bigger, or basically imaginary, depending on who you like to listen to.

If you’re in the big-deal camp, then you’ll like a new survey from Deloitte, which finds that a staggering one in five U.S. residents say they have either cut the cord or are thinking about doing it. The breakdown: Nine percent of survey respondents say they’ve recently cut the cord and are getting their shows from Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, etc. And another 11 percent say they might do it. (Click image to enlarge.)

To repeat: The Deloitte survey is asking people about cutting pay TV — Comcast, Verizon, Dish, etc. Not cutting back on certain channels like HBO (that would be cord-shaving) or simply never signing up in the first place (that would be the “cord-nevers” we’ve started to hear about).

How can that possibly square with the pay-TV industry’s reported results, which show that overall subscription levels remained basically flat last year? Even if you allow for a significant margin of error, things don’t add up: If the pay-TV business had lost a single percentage point of its customers in the last year, it would be a huge deal.

But Deloitte is reporting that approximately nine million people say they’ve recently stopped paying for TV. That’s the entire population of New York, plus another million or so, vanished. Can’t be.

I’ve asked Deloitte if they’ve got any insight on the gap, but haven’t heard back. But my hunch is that — for now, at least — cord-cutters are like vegans: They’re real, and they’re out there. They’re particularly notable in certain places like New York, the Bay Area and college towns. And they over-index at certain Web gathering places, like this one. But McDonald’s sales are still chugging along.

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