Will the Cord Cutters Come Back?

The pay TV industry in the U.S. has been reeling under a brutal period of subscriber loss. Meanwhile, like sharks smelling chum, rival over-the-top video services continue to pop up. Disney is the latest example of the trend. The entertainment behemoth told investors in August that it will pull its movies from Netflix to start its own streaming video service. It also plans to start an ESPN streaming service, giving cable providers heartburn and cord cutters one of their holy grails: live sports.

In short, it’s never been a better time to be a cord cutter. Yet at the same time, our pay TV options have never been so fragmented. Cord cutters and cord shavers are forced to cobble together multiple apps, and in some cases, free-to-air TV offerings to get the content they want. The dream of a la carte TV is essentially here and, like many of life’s hopes, it’s not quite the liberating vision we’ve been promised: it’s come trailing a laundry list of usernames, passwords, disaggregated content and $10/month apps galore.

Writing in Business Insider, Steve Kovach, an early cord cutter, says he’s had enough and is actually running back into the arms of cable TV.

“To tell the truth, I didn’t need much convincing,” Kovach writes. “Among other benefits, traditional pay TV offers things that can be hard to get via online video services, including live sports, live news, and a reliable DVR. Cord cutting, by contrast, is a headache. Technology is supposed to make everything cheaper and easier, but internet-delivered video can be just as expensive and more confusing than simply signing up for cable.”

The issues cited by Kovach are real and he blames Apple—among others—for failing to wrestle our disparate subscription options into a nice, elegant, inexpensive whole.

Kovach’s cord cutting disillusion is just a single data point, however, and not evidence of a sea-change in consumer behavior. Indeed, as we noted earlier, the number of traditional pay TV services losing customers suggests that if there is any cord cutting fatigue, it’s yet to manifest itself by a migration back to traditional players. For their part, advertisers are smelling blood in the water and are pulling away from TV—a recent study found that TV’s share of ad spending will decline through 2021.

Still, Kovach may be onto something. In a recent survey of 8,000 TV viewers, TiVO found that 50 percent felt it should be easier to find the content they want. New apps, such as Reelgood, are popping up promising to do just that by aggregating a variety of streaming content sources and presenting them in a searchable interface. However, it’s still proven tricky to unify so many disparate content sources into anything resembling the coherent whole presented by traditional pay TV.

What’s more, the demographic of cord cutting trends young. The prevailing wisdom is that cord cutters and young “cord nevers” are fast becoming habituated to life without traditional pay TV and will never be lured back into the fold. But it could also be that the same habits that mark a youthful dalliance without a cord will change as homeownership, children and senescence kick in. Indeed, the story of adulthood is typically the story of becoming enmeshed in a web of obligations. A cable TV bill may still be one strand of that web.