Cutting the cord

John Gushue
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Or watching video rather than TV

According to one news report after another, and I have a series of saved files going back to 2012, consumers are “cutting the cord” — that is, they’re giving up on cable, pay TV, satellite dishes and such, and are opting for online methods of getting video, like Netflix and its cousins.

But wait a second — I read a report just a week or two ago about brand-new research that shows “cord-cutting” is a bit of a media myth. Deloitte Canada, in a study released last month, found that 2.5 million households have more than one paid subscription — that is, pay TV plus an online service like Netflix.

Who, in Deloitte’s view, has decided to stop paying for TV? “Virtually nobody,” said the company’s director of research, Duncan Stewart.

Well, not exactly; I’m sure all of us anecdotally know somebody who has given up cable in favour of watching video through alternate means. I know a bunch, truth be told.

It’s through those anecdotes that stories get generated and trends seem to emerge, and while I’m not so sure that cord-cutting is as widespread a phenomenon as some pundits have suggested, I think there’s something to it.

Actually, what I think should most worry conventional TV companies is not so much cord-cutting, but not getting the cord in the first place. Research shows clearly that young adults are most likely to look to online sources for video entertainment, and are foregoing the cable options that they knew while growing up.

Moreover, there’s plenty of troubling (for the TV industry, anyway) data from the U.S. about shifts in the market.

Here’s a factoid: Time-Warner, the behemoth of the American cable industry, has lost more customers than it’s signed up every month since early 2009. Customer churn in the cable industry is not uncommon, but it has to be worrisome for any company that the base is not at all stable.

But the overall picture is probably not as apocalyptic as a lot of tech articles and blogs have made it out to be. My own informal survey shows that many people have indeed been supplementing their various sources of video entertainment.

And “video,” by the way, is more and more what I think we need to be talking about, not “TV.”

Why? Well, “watching TV” for a lot of people has a specific meaning, namely sitting down to watch live television on a set in front of you.

That’s something I haven’t personally done much since 2001, when a PVR came into our house. We found ourselves recording material and playing them back … and rarely catching things live.

PVRs are now common, as is on-demand video, so much so that I’m almost startled when I can’t find a popular show on demand. (That’s not even including bit torrents, the file-sharing tools for avid downloaders, a.k.a. the original binge-watchers.)

A few of my friends for a while have been boastful (if not a little smug) about the fact that they no longer watch TV. Yet, I notice from Facebook that they’re keeping up with television shows, from Downtown Abbey to Breaking Bad.

What gives? “Oh, we got rid of a television,” one friend told me.

“Well, yeah — but you’re still watching it,” I replied.

Just not, I should have added, on a TV set. Instead, they’re using another kind of screen.

The current issue of the New Yorker has a long article by Ken Auletta, who’s been writing about the TV industry for much of his career, on how Netlfix turned into a power broker in the entertainment biz.

I love the illustration that comes with it. A young boy sits on a “Mad Men”-era TV console, loading the Netflix app on his iPad. (The old saying about film being art and TV being furniture came to mind.)

There’s your demographic challenge. Kids growing up today have rarely, if ever, encountered the mass appeal of television that most adults know, of what it was like to watch a popular show one night and talk about it at school or work the next morning.

Those shows are still being watched, just differently, and in personalized ways.

In other words, if television was a common experience, video is an individual one. A show may be a show, but how we perceive and enjoy it can be quite varied.

As I write this, our family is settling down for the evening, and the discussion is about finding something all of us can enjoy on TV. It looks like it will be — believe it or not — an episode of “Fantasy Island, “the campy show my wife and I described to our incredulous son. It’s on Netflix. There’s also a sitcom waiting on the PVR.

I noticed that it never occurred to our teenage son to even check to see what’s on at the moment.

Why would it? His world is very different from mine, when TV was as much a way of filling time as it was with relaxation.

There’s something to think about as we kick up our feet.

John Gushue is a digital producer with CBC News. Twitter: @johngushue

Organizations: Netflix, New Yorker, CBC News

Geographic location: U.S.

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