Reading a GigaOM article about cord-cutters today, I was struck by how little it resonated with me. Which was weird, because I love television and I am a big advocate of cutting the cable cord. I haven’t had cable (or satellite) since sometime in 2000. And I really think we’re nearing a point when anyone could easily cut their own cord.
But this article seemed to miss an important point about cord-cutters. The article estimates that 500,000 people eliminated their basic cable subscriptions in the third quarter of 2010. To start with, that doesn’t seem like a very big number, and its impact is lessened further by the fact that we don’t know how many of them simply switched to satellite or another provider. The article also troubled me because while discussing a significant cultural trend, it felt to me that it missed an essential component of this trend.
I think there is a considerable generational difference between people who have cable and people who don’t. Many supposed generational differences in technology use can be overblown or exaggerated, but this seems to be one of those differences that actually exists (at least for now). People under 35 are simply not as attached to cable or satellite TV as older people are. This is not to say they don’t watch TV – because they definitely do – but they watch it in less traditional ways. They don’t see $100+ per month cable plans or even physical TV sets as necessities. A week ago, GigaOM posted another study with similar results.
I think this has something to do with college. By the late 1990s, broadband internet was available at most universities and with it, the opportunity to do so much more with the web. Napster was a really big deal when I was in college, and it led to the creation of local file sharing programs where students swapped TV shows, movie and other video with each other. In 1999, most of us didn’t ask – or even consider – “is this legal?” Napster was there, so we used it. Plus, we just didn’t watch a lot of TV in college, so we weren’t particularly attached to a set of shows.
So when I moved from the dorm (where we had free cable) to my own apartment in 2000, I just never got cable TV; neither did many of my friends. We watched sports at a bar or TV shows at a friend’s cable-equipped house or simply convinced that friend to record our favorite shows. And we soon discovered other people – people we’d never met – would share their TV recordings on YouTube and other sites for anyone to watch, so it was easy to find what we wanted, especially before networks caught on and starting removing programs for copyright reasons. Older shows were available on DVD, which we got from Blockbuster, then Netflix. And attaching a pair of $7 rabbit ears to a TV provided a pretty impressive amount of broadcast TV, even an HDTV. I am still amazed at the amount of high-def content available for free over the air.
And then came Hulu, iTunes, Netflix Instant, and the TV networks’ own websites – the newest and most sophisticated additions to the cable-less arsenal. In the early days of those streaming services (I started using Netflix Instant in March 2007, when monthly viewing hours were still capped), we watched a narrow selection of content on our small computer screens. There wasn’t much available to watch and there weren’t many good ways to stream directly to our TV. But we stuck it out, because it was just so cool that this stuff worked at all. And then came the Roku, the device that changed it all for me. In early June 2008, Hayes and I got our first Roku. At first, the Roku connected only to Netflix, which was pretty great in itself, but now it connects to so many more services.
In the ten years I’ve been without cable, things have gotten much, much better (and much more legal). I’ve never personally used BitTorrent, as I now tend to take the if-it’s-not-available-legally-I’ll-just-wait approach. But between Hulu and iTunes, I can watch basically any show I want the day after it airs. I don’t buy many shows on iTunes; I try to limit it to one or two per season. Right now I’m only paying for The Walking Dead, and it was cost $15 for the entire season. I’ll watch other shows when they’re streaming on Netflix or available on DVD.
In some ways, it surprises me that it’s taken this long for others to realize how easy – and cheap – this is. In other ways, I can understand the hesitation. It’s only been recently that getting good content legally was a real option. And there are still shows I can’t watch. Or, at least, that I can’t watch in real time. For example, Conan O’Brien starts his new show on TBS tonight but I won’t be able to watch it until later. And I’ve missed out on a lot of the new Futurama episodes. But when it comes right down to it, it’s still just TV. And no matter how much I love TV – which is a lot – I’ll be okay if I miss a show or two.
Maybe I’m way off on this. But this seems to ring true within my peer group (mostly college-educated, employed, middle class 25-35 year olds). I welcome your thoughts in the comments.