Long-time entertainment thinking was that no matter how poor people were they always found a way to own a TV set. No money left for clothes, food, or toiletries? No problem.
This kind of thinking goes back to an even earlier theory, that, in the 1930s, at the height of the depression, people still went to the movies.
New Nielsen data shows some remarkable chinks in this theory: Nielsen says for the first time in 20 years there were fewer U.S. homes with TVs in one year versus the previous year -- 114.7 million (projection for the 2012 TV season) versus 115.9 million in 2011.
You are probably are thinking the obvious -- the dreaded "C-C" words: cord-cutting. And you wouldn't be entirely wrong. Nielsen did attribute the decline to economic conditions. Dating back to 2008, before the start of the big recession, rural and poor citizens, as well as young, just-out-of-college consumers, decided against TV sets and all modern services that are attached to it. Price was a big issue.
Some of those under the poverty line didn't bother to upgrade their analog TV sets to the new digital TV world, despite Federal rebate help. Young college students? Who can afford those big HDTV screens with expensive digital and/or HDTV options from a cable, satellite, or IPTV company? Why not just watch on a laptop in some free broadband coffee shop?
True the decline is only around 1 million homes. But it drives home an important point about why TV executives are so nervous in a fast-changing digital world. It's not just that a growing segment feels TV may be unnecessary. The fear may be that this kind of behavior could be additive: one friend may tell another about his TV-less residence, leading to the thinking of "Hmmm... maybe it isn't necessary. At the moment."
There's a counterargument to all this: TV viewership is at its highest level ever -- and keeps on growing. This means that those who have stuck with TV sets -- now 96.7% of U.S. TV households (projection for the 2012 TV season) versus 98.9% in 2011 -- are watching more TV and making up for those left behind.
Two big questions:
1. How will these habits morph into a world with costlier TV/video devices, pricier cable TV packages, and sure-to-escalate consumer fees from Internet access and premium digital video programming?
2. Better still -- driving more fear for some TV executives -- what new batch of U.S. viewers, however small, might be added to those already opting out of the big consumer entertainment market?