Forget Cord-Cutters: Cable Companies Should Worry About Cord-Nevers

Recent cord cutting numbers of about 400,000 last quarter might not prove a threatening trend, but that's not the number that matters.

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Recent cord cutting numbers of about 400,000 last quarter might not prove a threatening trend, but that's not the number that matters. Looking at the various earnings reports of the cable and satellite companies, Reuters' Yinka Adegokes found that around 400,000 people stopped paying for television. Those numbers might sound a little ominous, but actually don't amount to anything scary, as AllThingsD's Peter Kafka points out. He puts the estimated net loss at a higher 425,000 thousand for the quarter. But that evens out with the 422,000 subscribers the industry added last quarter. "They still ended up adding more than 200,000 subscribers by the end of 2011. That’s barely any growth at all — something like 0.2 percent — but it’s better than a loss," he writes. That matches similar trends we found the other day: Flat cable growth. So the cable industry shouldn't worry then, right? Not exactly. These reports don't (and can't) include the people who never had cable in the first place: Call them the cord-nevers.

Cord-never numbers are particularly hard to measure. A cable company, of course, can't report the amount of people who never subscribed to them in the first place, but we can do some piecing together to get an idea of the changing trends. U.S. census data found that 1.8 million new households were formed, but that only 16.9 percent of those signed up for pay-TV services, according to Ad Age's Dan Hirschorn. The TV industry has been flat for years; U.S. households continue to rise. Meanwhile, as cable subscription rates have stayed flat, Internet subscriptions are on the rise. Comcast added 156,000 net broadband subscribers, an 8.4% increase; Time Warner added 59,000 residential high-speed Internet subscribers. While something like 100 million U.S. households subscribe to TV services, the U.S. 2010 census data had 120 million households with Internet -- those numbers have only risen since then, with these companies reporting increased subscriptions. And what do people do on the Internet? Watch things. Though the most popular Internet activity, as of 2010, was social networking, video saw a 12 percent increase, according to a Neilsen report. Though, those numbers include people with cable.

These cord-never numbers matter more than the cable-cutters because the people who tend to not ever sign up for cable are young -- and the youth is the future. Americans ages 12 to 34 are spending less time in front of the TV, found another Neilsen study. As of February 2012, for three quarters in a row, there have been declines in viewing among Americans under 35, The New York Times' Brian Stelter reports. He attributes this decline to a shift to streaming. "Young people are still watching the same shows, but they are streaming them on computers and phones," he writes. Right now the cable industry has maintained stable subscription rates because of an elderly population that's watching television more, adds Stelter. But, those people won't be around to change the future. The broke twenty-somethings who survive off of Hulu, Netflix, bootleg streams of their favorite shows, and stealing each others' HBO Go passwords now, might get used to a life without paying for cable, causing a generational shift in the way Americans consume things. That's what the cable companies should worry about .

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.