published Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

Cutting the cord: Growing number of U.S. households are going 'zero-TV'

Poll
Do you have television service?

BREAK DOWN

About 5 percent of U.S. homes don't watch video content on a TV. Here's how they do watch:

* 37 percent via computer

* 16 percent via a web browser

* 8 percent on smartphones

* 6 percent on a tablet

Source: Nielsen Fourth-Quarter 2012 Cross-Platform Report

What people are saying

"One more increase in my TV package and I'm cutting the cable. Who would have ever thought we would be paying from $60-$200 a month just to watch TV? It's not worth it. If enough people cut the cable, it will force the greedy programmers and cable providers into cutting their costs back down to where it makes sense." -- Mark Melton

"I have DirecTV for HBO and NFL Sunday Ticket. Plus, [I've] been a member of Netflix since 2007 and have no plans to drop Netflix since they came out with their own TV series, 'House of Cards.' Awesome." -- Tiffany Ann Courter

"I have my Xbox and Netflix and will never get cable or satellite. I watch what I want when I want and no commercials. How awesome is that?" -- Phillip Coppler

"My husband and I don't have cable [but do] have Netflix and Hulu and are very happy. Who needs a $100 cable bill each month? Not us! " -- Jill Hilton-Coffman

"I am paying the equivalent of about $21.50 a month for Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant. There are also so many free streaming options. I could never run out of things to watch." -- Art Sanner

When Brandy Docev's family followed her husband to his posting at Fort Wainright, a U.S. Army base in Fairbanks, Alaska, she discovered that TV was no longer simply a diversion. Living a couple of hundred miles from the Arctic Circle, it had become a necessity.

"I wouldn't have all this TV if I wasn't confined to my home for eight months a year because of the weather," says Docev, who used to live in Cleveland, Tenn., before her move in February 2012. "There's nothing else to do up here because, if you go outside, you'll lose a limb because it's so cold."

Recently, however, she says her viewing habits have changed. Instead of watching shows like "The Office" when they broadcast, she instead has turned to online services such as Netflix, Vudu or Hulu, which host back catalogs of TV shows and movies for a monthly subscription fee as well as new episodes for rent or purchase a day after they air on regular networks.

"There are so many more options other than TV," Docev says. "You can get all of those services and end up paying less than you pay for a regular cable package."

Now, she says she's considering cutting the TV cord entirely.

If Docev decides to drop cable and rely solely on online streaming for her entertainment, she will become one of America's so-called "zero-TV" households which, in the last five years, have more than doubled, from 2 million to 5 million, according to media tracking firm Nielsen.

Zero is growing

Technically, zero-TV -- a term coined in March by Nielsen -- refers to any house that doesn't watch content via cable or an over-the-air antenna. And, though small compared to the 59.4 million who subscribe to the country's 10 largest cable providers, the zero-TV movement has become significant enough to attract the attention of the cable industry, which historically has underplayed the significance of "non-traditional viewers."

In April, though, the subject of adapting to zero-TV was a major topic of discussion at the National Association of Broadcasters annual meeting in Las Vegas. Sessions on NAB's agenda included discussions of how to ensure broadcast content would be available on multiple viewing platforms and ways for the industry to adapt to non-traditional zero-TV households, according to an online event schedule.

According to Time magazine, ABC is trying to make sure its viewers keep their cable hookups, announcing that it will add live streaming video to its iPhone and iPad apps -- but only if you have a cable or satellite-TV subscription.

In its story on techland.time.com, the magazine says ABC also will "withhold its most recent TV episodes from the free versions of Hulu and ABC.com, further limiting access to paying subscribers of cable and satellite providers only."

Currently, Fox is the only major broadcast network to withhold its new episodes from such next-day sites as Hulu or its own website. To get next-day access, you must have a Hulu Plus account or -- in a move echoed by ABC -- have a cable or satellite subscription.

But even as the networks throw up these roadblocks, trends are heading away from regular TV watching. In the first quarter of 2013, Netflix reported that it had added 2 million subscribers in 2012, reaching an all-time high of 29.17 million, just edging out HBO (28.7 million subscribers) for the first time.

Some media analysts have suggested that the growth of Netflix is tied to the debut earlier this year of its original content, including the Kevin Spacey-led political drama "House of Cards" and a new 15-episode season of cult comedy darling "Arrested Development," which debuted on the service Sunday.

"The decision to add original programming to [Netflix's] Internet video service helped add... subscribers during the first quarter of this year," reads an ABC News blog post on April 23. "Its move to original programming is a clear challenge to premium cable channels."

No regrets

Locally, zero-TV adherents express resentment at the limitations and high cost of cable service and say they haven't looked back since cutting the cord.

"I was fighting with the cable company over losing service ... because of storms and all that. I just decided, 'No more of that,' " says Christine Morgan of LaFayette, Ga.

Morgan severed her ties to cable about seven years ago. The combined cost of Netflix and her Internet service now is 60 percent lower than the $100 she used to pay for cable, she says.

Morgan doesn't even own a TV anymore, saying she gave away her last one when she moved in October. Since then, she has watched all of her video content on a laptop.

"I don't really miss cable," she says. "Why pay all that money for something you don't have to when you can just watch on the Internet?"

Bryant, Ala., resident Muriel Gaskell, 29, says she became frustrated with her Comcast service about 2 1/2 years ago while living in Boston. Coming home from late shifts, she says, she would turn on the TV to watch "CSI: Miami," but only reruns were being aired.

"Unless you're at home at the designated time to see it, you're going to see the same [episodes] over and over," she says. "It was kind of pointless to me."

So she dropped cable in favor of streaming content, which she says represented an ideal solution. On Netflix, she can watch what she wants, whenever she wants and, if Netflix didn't carry a program, she could turn to rental services such as Vudu, Amazon or Microsoft's Zune Marketplace.

Changing allegiances

Customer frustration with cable service is reflected nationally -- according to a 2013 study by the American Customer Satisfaction Index, cable TV has the lowest approval rating (68 percent) of paid TV sources -- and the emergence of popular digital alternatives is making a difference. In 2012, the pay TV base dropped for the first time ever by about 80,000 subscribers, according to the index survey.

Studies suggest that people like Morgan and Gaskell will become less of a minority in the future. In a March report, Forbes predicted Netflix's subscriber base could swell by 50 percent in the next several years to 45 million.

The number of people who drop cable could see a similar increase, according to an April survey by market researcher Harris Interactive, which found that about 30 percent of U.S. Internet users would consider replacing their cable subscription with a digital streaming service.

Docev hasn't decided whether to go zero-TV yet, but she says the decision could become much easier if her cable company doesn't stop charging her high rates for a bulk service bogged down with unneeded channels.

"I question myself every month, 'Why am I paying $200 ... to get the things that I want?' " she says. "Here I am paying this astronomical amount just so I can have local channels and the news. All this other crap I don't want is included."

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205.

Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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