Television Ownership on the Decline – Are Americans ‘Cutting the Cord’?

By Steve Lemma, Research Coordinator
On May 3, The New York Times printed an article citing Nielsen’s recent finding that the number of homes in the U.S. with television sets has dropped for the first time in 20 years, from 98.9 percent in 2010 to 96.7 percent in 2011.
The article asserts that poverty and the still-struggling economy are the primary factors for this decrease, but the drop is sure to add some fuel to the “cord-cutting” debate as well. Any way you slice it, Americans are certainly spending more and more time online — but how many of us are really willing to ditch our television sets in favor of Internet substitutes? The Edison Research/Arbitron Internet & Multimedia survey from January 2011, in which we asked a sample of 2,020 Americans age 12+ about the ways they consume media, can perhaps provide us with some insights.
Sixteen percent of our survey’s respondents indicated that they had streamed television (or “watched TV programming over the Internet without downloading”) in the past month. While we didn’t ask about TV set ownership, we do know that compared to the “average American,” these consumers of streaming video are definitely watching less traditional television. While this is a significant difference — over one half hour per day — it should be noted that these “monthly television streamers” are still consuming an awful lot of traditional television at over three hours per day!

Considering the percentage of cable TV/satellite TV subscribers has remained constant for the past three years, and has increased overall since 2007, this may suggest that most people aren’t yet looking for a substitute for television, but rather for a supplement to it.

If “cord-cutters” are having any effect here, it’s an extremely small one. The picture that’s being painted isn’t one of a public that’s ready to sever their ties with television any time soon. As Nielsen’s report theorizes, any short-term changes in viewing habits may wind up being more closely tied to economic factors than to a shift in attitudes.
Unfortunately, imagining such economic pressure isn’t a terribly long stretch. And when forced to make a choice between their smartphones and their televisions, we’d be seeing a lot of televisions in the trash:

We may be having a legitimate cord-cutting debate sooner than some people think — but it’s not quite here yet.

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