It’s really hard to feel sorry for any of the major cable providers. Shout out if you absolutely love your cable company. Anyone? So, when Time Warner Cable announced a significant drop in subscribers and a corresponding decline in their earnings last quarter, you didn’t see a lot of crocodile tears. In fact, anyone who’s spent an hour or five dealing with cable customer service will likely feel at least a bit of glee to hear about TWC’s corporate woes. But what does this say about how we’re all watching TV?
While Time Warner is — bravely — attributing the losses to a bad economy, and thus calling them temporary, it could be that people just prefer to get their entertainment online — watch what you want, when you want it, where you want it. Time Warner Cable’s subscriber base has fallen even as its Internet customer numbers have increased. It lost 128,000 video customers, but gained almost 89,000 high-speed Internet subscribers. If this trend continues, it could spell trouble for all providers, even satellite TV. And for the folks who make the sets, come to think of it.
Just a few years ago, everyone wanted the biggest, thinnest, best TV possible. Now, digital TV is the norm, and HDTV has become ubiquitous. At height of video nirvana, cable subscribers are cutting the cord, and cable providers and TV manufacturers are feeling the pinch. As more people watch TV shows and movies on their computers, phones, and tablets, fewer are watching on home TVs or spending the money to upgrade their screens. If you’re satisfied watching “Dancing with the Stars” on your phone, why would you bother paying a cable company every month or upgrading to a 3D TV? For that once-a-year Superbowl party, you could always crash your neighbor’s digs. Over-the-air broadcasts leave a lot to be desired, but between local broadcasts and online options, who really needs cable?
And unless TV manufacturers really step up the ease with which customers can get online diectly or plug in their computers and iPhones, they’re going down the same slippery slope as the cable companies. Sony is struggling (as Brent Butterworth noted here a few months back) even as it reorganizes to meet the shrinking market, while in the face of staggering losses Panasonic is getting out of the LCD-panel business altogether. Samsung and Vizio are keeping their heads above water for now, but clearly there's a significant realignment in process.
The irony is so thick you can cut it with a knife. High-fidelity audio was killed by the Internet. These days, it doesn’t matter how it sounds, just as long as you can download it and carry it around with you. Just as audio was reaching new heights with DVD-Audio, MP3 came along and crushed it. Now the same scenario is playing out with big TVs. Fewer people are sitting around listening to music on home theaters, and likewise they’re not sitting there watching "TV" either, even though Blu-ray sales are strong. Cable companies and TV manufacturers laughed when the record labels withered, but now they’re sweating bullets.
Let us know what you think: do you spend more time watching TV on your computer than on your home system? Do you care that the quality isn’t as good, or the screen size is small? Or does the portability outweigh the drawbacks? And finally, when was the last time you sent a love letter to your cable company? How much joy will you feel when you decide to cut the cord yourself?
Leslie Shapiro has been an audio engineer for 25 years, with experience in television, film, and the music industry. She is also a member of NARAS, which gives her the coveted privilege of voting for the Grammy Awards.