Cord Cutters

Dan linked to a great article in today’s Morning Links roundup about ‘digital mooches,’ aka the 20-somethings who may be leaving Mom and Dad’s house in the coming years, yet seem to have no plans to leave their parents’ cell phone contracts or Netflix subscriptions. I read this article with interest; I’d just read another about ‘cord cutters,’ aka the cable-free, and how the content industry is wringing their hands about what to do with these people.

It seems these articles, read together, paint an ominous pattern: The kids aren’t paying because they get it for ‘free’ at home. Then they turn into the young adults who still aren’t paying because they can stay on their parent’s accounts—again, for free. And then they turn into the 30-somethings who, like the Beloved and myself, don’t pay because it just isn’t all that important to us.

So … who is paying? If you’re a content provider, is it officially time to freak out now? In my opinion, no. It’s not time to freak out. It’s time to paradigm-shift.

What’s the Problem?

The problem is that the ‘content industry’ can’t see past the business model they have already. It shouldn’t be about, ‘how can we get today’s young people to keep paying for cable?’ It should be about, ‘how can we determine what content today’s young people value, and in what delivery mechanisms they prefer to receive it, so we can produce it and sell it to them?’

Cord CuttersCable isn’t the issue. Cable is just the mechanism by which content was delivered before people found other ways to deliver it. The end-result shouldn’t be ‘cable’—it should be ‘content.’

We saw this very same pattern with books. When e-books first started to really take off, the publishers were super-concerned with how to get people to continue buying hardcover books, so they tried all sorts of silly strategies, including windowing, in which a publisher tries to withhold the e-book so that people will presumably have no option but to buy the format the ‘industry’ prefers them to buy.

And it didn’t work.

People either got the book elsewhere (the library; a friend; or let’s be honest, a torrent search), or they did without it. And now, the publishers are changing their proverbial tunes. They are realizing that for many customers, in today’s era of digital choices, the choice is not ‘hardback or e-book,’ but rather, ‘book in the format of my choosing, or no book at all.’

They are realizing that their competition isn’t just, ‘my company’s hardback book or a competitor’s hardback book,’ but it’s also Zinio and Hulu and Angry Birds, all of which their customers can access—for peanuts—on the same devices on which they read. And they are happily taking the e-book sales.

Cutting the Cord

When the Beloved and I first cut the cable cord (I had been doing without for two years already; he still had cable when I met him), we went through a transition period where we still watched stuff online, and we had a few shows we continued to follow that way.

Cord CuttersIt was definitely cool that we could watch it all for ‘free,’ without paying for cable. But over time, those few shows fell by the wayside.

And it wasn’t the money that was the issue; it was just that digital shows continued to be bound by the same restrictive paradigm as their cable counterparts. They went up on certain days, and we could never remember which days they were.

We could only watch them on the computer, and we prefer to watch them cuddled up in bed. It didn’t fit with our lifestyle. And none of what we were seeing on offer was good enough that it was worth sacrificing to watch it the way the networks and stations wanted us to.

So now, we do other things. We watch movies on Netflix (and we do pay for that), or very occasionally, we rent them on iTunes (for which, again, we pay). Or we go to see movies in the theatre when we feel like it.

A few times, we’ve even found ourselves staying somewhere that had cable on offer, and we’ve inevitably been horrified by what we’ve seen. It’s all reruns of stuff we watched when were kids, or marathons of horrible reality series.

There was the weekend, for instance, where all we could find was a Toddlers and Tiaras marathon. There was another time when a show was airing about people competing to win a tattoo contest. There was yet another where this guy would go and repossess people’s cars unless they could successfully answer some trivia questions and win the right to keep them. None of this stuff seems worth remembering when and where to watch it, even if the watching could be free. We look at these offerings and we think ‘why bother?’

So … What’s the Answer?

Cord CuttersSo the solution to getting people like him and me to pay is not to lock down the streaming in an effort to trick us into buying cable. It’s to figure out what and how we want to watch in the first place, and to then make those options available to us. It’s to make sure that when we do have a freebie choice, whether it’s a hotel room TV hooked up to cable, or a laptop hooked up to a Web stream, your content impresses us enough that we’d actually care to pay for it.

For us, it started out being about the cost of the cable, and then it turned out it was really a lifestyle thing. We just like watching stuff on our own schedule, and in our own way.

Sometimes, there actually will be a TV series we really want to see, and when that happens, we usually wait for the DVD. We’ll pay for that—instead of watching it online for free, as it turns out—because we value the flexibility of enjoying it on our own terms.

And there is no cable package you could ever put together that could possibly compete with that.


  1. I agree with the basic point that content providers should work hard to provide content people actually want to see. I’m not sure how that addresses the issue that some (many) people will, for example, use their parents’ NetFlix accounts even when they’ve left home. It’s easy to say “provide good content,” (although I’ve never met a producer or editor who attempted to provide “bad content.”) It’s something else to say “don’t bother having doors on your movie theatre because people can just sneak in anyway, just have better movies.”

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