Indexing Cord Cut-ability – How Much TV Do You Lose Going Online-Only?

There’s been a lot of press about "cord cutters" over the past few months.  Apparently a lot of people who are friends of reporters have stopped subscribing to multichannel TV services in favor of online video – "Caitlin/Cody, 28, a graphics designer/professional tweeter living in SOHO/SOMA/WEHO says she/he has given up her/his cable/satellite/IPTV service. I do all my TV show watching online."  On the other hand, we see metrics on watching TV in the old-fashioned ways actually on the increase.  The recent Nielsen Three Screen report says Q4 08 TV viewing time spent was up 3.6% vs. a year ago.  Multi-channel TV subscriber levels at the major operators increased in Q4 by 335,000 (based on Berstein Research analyst Craig Moffett’s numbers reported by Daisy Whitney in TV Week, I’ve added DISH and Cablevision’s later reports – note that the increase was driven by DIRECTV and the telcos, DISH and the major MSOs saw losses).

My tendency is to agree with Moffett when he told TV Week that cord cutting “remains the province of urban myth.” At least right now.  But, driven by advances in technology plus market demand from consumers, networks and advertisers, cord cutting or some other form of broadband delivered "over the top" looms large (it’s not here yet, but we can see it on the horizon).

To me, this begs the question… today, if you "cut the cord," how much TV can you still see?

I took a look at three sets of programs – typical recent weeks of Top 20 rated broadcast network and cable network shows, plus my personal Top 20 recent DVR’d programs (towards the notion TV viewers will watch a range of shows, from top rated to barely rated, nonetheless all considered "top rated" by that individual).

I then reviewed the online availability of full episodes of those shows, both free ad supported or pay downloads at iTunes or Amazon VOD.  I’ve also included a maximized free/pay mix (and costs).  Finally, I looked at the availability of these shows on Comcast VOD in San Francisco and on my DVR (a rather unfair and obvious 100%).

Here’s the results. See below for details on how the numbers were generated.  One important note up front – I’m only counting content provider authorized free ways of getting shows online – sorry non-authorized P2P.


Top 20 Broadcast Programs – Week ending 2/15/09

Top 20 Cable Programs – Week ending 2/22/09

Top 20 Bill Niemeyer’s DVR Programs

% Available Online – Free Ad Supported




% Available Online – Pay Download




% Available Online – Free and/or Pay




% Available on VOD – Comcast San Francisco




% Available on DVR




Cord Cutting Cost Per Week




Cut the cord #1 – Pay first, then watch free with ads if you must




Cut the cord #2 – Watch free with ads first, then pay if you must




How many shows still missing after cutting the cord?




Costs for comparison (Comcast San Francisco):

  • Weekly cost of a full lineup of ad-supported digital cable (w/o premium channels) + DVR – $26.74/week
  • Weekly broadband cost if you do have cable TV – $10.62/week
  • Weekly broadband cost if you don’t have cable TV – $13.85/week

Some thoughts:

  • Certainly there is a lot of TV content to watch online. Mix free and pay and you can see 80% of the top 20 cable shows (provided you pay $14/week plus sit through some ads).
  • But… given the costs and gaps (only 60% of Top 20 broadcast is available free or pay), is cutting the cord about being willing to watch "what’s on" (a very old-school concept)? Of course, many cord cutters may be light users of TV for whom TV viewing is a time filler, so these gaps are not important.  Or, cord cutters may not be fans of mass market TV network content, preferring niche content you can only get online. And it’s a bit of a red herring to not include non-authorized P2P as a content source as many current cord cutters say they use it (and with it they can get effectively everything).
  • I was surprised the availability of free top 20 cable (45%) was so close to free broadcast (55%) given cable network carriage agreement restrictions.  But, if a cable network can only post a few series online, they’re going to go with their star performers.  Where broadcast and cable do differ is how deep into their rosters they go online.
  • In VOD, its friction for networks and advertisers (lack of ad insertion and acceptable reporting) shows up in the lower shares of top 20 programs available vs. online – 35% vs. 55% for broadcast, 25% vs. 45% for cable. MSOs are seemingly inviting subscribers to go online to engage in top rated program sampling and catch up rather than using VOD.
  • Apparently, I am a top candidate for cord cutting.  80% of my top 20 DVR’d shows are available free and I can add one more for $0.75/week.  Although if I wanted to avoid ads while staying legal, my weekly download bill would be a whopping $30.87, more than my full lineup cable plus DVR bill.
  • But I don’t want to cord cut, even if I can get 85% of my top 20 online. Why?  Brief top of mind thoughts (this could be an article itself) – I want 100% – I’m a huge motorsports fan and I just can’t get Speed Channel shows or races online – I love TCM not only for the movies but their editorial expressed as their schedule – a DVR is such a capable on-demand video delivery platform (Optimized for one specific purpose, easy to use and program, connects to hundreds of channels and delivers high quality video straight to my TV.  Plus flexible and responsive fast forwarding to avoid ads, titles and even boring portions of programs (sorry show runners).)

Of course, I haven’t even touched on the usability issues in today’s cord cutting.  All the hunting/gathering online. Do you watch on your computer screen or do you have the chops to get it onto the TV? And the important "remote in the comfy chair" issue – I’ve had to use a wireless mouse/keyboard to simulate that (not optimal).

For the moment, I (and likely most of Mr. / Ms. North America) will continue to opt for multi-channel service – it’s complete, easy, high quality though more costly than cutting the cord (provided having broadband is a given).  But there are a slew of enterprises and initiatives addressing the technology and business issues for cord cutting/over the top – some under the operator umbrella and some not.  We’ll see how this space plays out.  And how (and if) the cable/IPTV operators choose to accelerate the development of VOD to respond to its "second place status" as an on-demand resource relative to broadband video.

Details on the numbers

Broadcast:  Seeking a "typical" week – used week ending 2/15 – week ending 2/22 included the Academy Awards and week ending 3/1 contained a fair number of repeats – got the ratings here from the excellent

Cable: Used week ending 2/22 – week ending 2/15 included five NBA All-Star game programs and the Obama news conference in the top 20 – week ending 3/1 was up against the broadcast repeats. Ratings are from here.

Cable: These are the top 20 unique show titles for the week (not counting multiple showings during the week of the same series).

Pay Online:  Prices are at single show purchase price of $1.99.  Except where iTunes "multi-passes" on current shows offer a significant discount.

3 Responses to “Indexing Cord Cut-ability – How Much TV Do You Lose Going Online-Only?”

  1. [...] What’s constraining VOD usage? MSDOS-like program guides aren’t helping, but in the main it’s that most of the current top rated ad-supported TV network shows are missing (for a quantized look – see here). [...]

  2. [...] evidence just doesn’t support this.  I cover this in detail in my recent newsletter issue "Indexing Cord Cut-ability – How Much TV Do You Lose Going Online-Only?".  In fact, the evidence supports increasing consumption of [...]

  3. [...] Certainly, technology solutions that provide mass-market consumer friendly, high quality "Internet video to TV" are clearly coming.  But whether or not that leads to widespread "cord cutting" (a terrible term for this) will depend on consumer behavior, content and business practice shifts, not just technology. An example of a current roadblock – you lose access to much of TV programming if you "cord cut" – for a look at this see the newsletter issue "Indexing Cord Cut-ability – How Much TV Do You Lose Going Online-Only?" [...]

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