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Over-the-air TV is on the rise

by David Tice , 08.06.2012

For the past two years, we’ve seen a lot of weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth about cord-cutters – that people were abandoning pay TV for online services; putting the TV model in imminent danger of collapse. The only trouble with these declarations is that there has been very little data to support such conclusions. Much has been based on anecdotes and hearsay – hardly dependable information. Yes, there was some variation in the subscriber base, but nothing that was statistically significant. I have been firm skeptic.

However, just-released data from The Home Technology Monitor™, GfK Media’s syndicated research service that has measured media technology in the home for 32 years, is challenging my skepticism. In 2012, we see homes with broadcast-only reception increase at a statistically significant level (2% or more) for the first time in over five years. We found that 17.8% of TV homes report broadcast-only reception, compared with levels of 14% to 15% going back five years. Projected out, this means that around 21 million homes rely only on over-the-air broadcast rather than pay TV service.

And broadcast-only levels are even higher among minority and lower-income homes, as well as with younger householders; all have seen an increase in broadcast-only reception in the past year.

But I’m not yet a convert to “cord-cutters,” and its usual implication of a migration to online viewing. Our data show that only one third of broadcast-only homes actually did cut the cord – they cancelled pay TV service at their current household - and only one sixth of those broadcast-only homes report some type of online service connected to their TV set. When asked why they cancelled TV service, the overwhelming majority (over 70%) cited cost-cutting; cord-cutting because of online options was cited by less than 20%.

So if people without pay TV aren’t necessarily flocking online, what are they doing? With the completion of the digital TV (DTV) transition, homes now have access to an enhanced digital broadcast signal providing much better video and audio quality. Another benefit of digital broadcasting is that homes also have over-the-air access to numerous digital side channels, offering a variety of additional programming in addition to the main broadcast channels. For instance, in the New York area, we have access to well over 20 total channels via over-the-air (OTA) broadcast signals.

Does online or streaming video play a role? Certainly, there is no denying that it plays an important part. But is it the primary driver of people moving back to broadcast-only reception? Our data doesn’t strongly point to that conclusion.

The real test will be when – or if – the economy picks up; then we’ll see if people maintain their broadcast-only status. That’s when I’ll decide if I’m a convert to classifying homes as “cord-cutters”… or maybe we need some new denominations such as “cost-cutters”, or even “OTA opt-ins.”