Of course there's cord cutting; the question is who cares?

Jim BartholdIf experience has taught the general public any lesson, it's that it's difficult, if not impossible, to take cable operators at their word.

How do you believe an industry that has, for years, promised that better customer service is just around the corner only to find that the only thing around the corner is a rude, disinterested customer service rep with halitosis and a two-pack-a-day habit? How do you believe an industry--and this is especially true for elected officials--that screams that programmers are Satan's spawn and that programming costs are making it impossible to earn a decent living and then find out they're making money hand-over-fist?

So yeah, it's understandably hard to believe--at least at first glance--that the hundreds of thousands, quickly approaching millions, of video subscribers who are fleeing cable faster than a wedding photographer after the cake's been cut are not going off to greener pastures in Internet la-la land. It is, in fact, easy to scoff, as many did this past week, when cable executive after cable executive promised that cord cutting is real but that subscribers are not cutting the cord for the reasons that the free TV crowd believe they are and that there's no reason to panic.

No reason to panic when millions walk away from the very basic cable service that put wires in their homes? No reason to panic when it's apparent that some of these subscribers are drifting into the fold of the satellite competition and others are continuing, albeit at a slower pace, to join forces with the hated telcos? No reason to panic when Netflix and Google and Apple tell you it's time to start panicking?

It's a tough sell, but those who listened to the nuances of what the cable operators were saying during their recent spate of third quarter earnings calls received a reasoned explanation. While it sounds harsh without some silver-toned palaver applied to it, those customers who left weren't really all that special in the first place. Cable, for better or worse, isn't CATV anymore; it's a broadband experience and cable operators are positioning themselves as broadband, not TV, providers.

Fox, Cablevision and the World Series aside, the days when you needed cable TV to avoid a snowy picture are gone. Today's cable is more than good reception of local channels, it's the wealth of entertainment that Comcast is so eager to buy from General Electric. NBC might be the marquee name in the deal, but USA, Bravo, Syfy and even Oxygen are the true stars. The subscribers who are fleeing aren't interested in that programming lineup and for now that's OK with cable operators. The subscribers who remain are interested and are willing to pay more to see them. And that's better than OK.

Listen more deeply to what cable operators said, how they're positioning their operations, and you hear a group of individuals who have realized that the broadband pipe they own can pump more than raw data to a residence and can carry more than bits and bytes throughout that residence and anywhere the subscriber wants. Subscribers who want cable TV, not Community Antenna TV; they want it everywhere and on every device. That's how the industry sees it and how it's jostling for position.

Sure, it's happening because those same target subscribers probably will leave if someone else offers them a better range of programming and reception choices. And it's happening because the programmers are not necessarily angels, but money-grabbing in-it-for-themselves players in a nasty tussle to get as much money from as many sources as possible. And certainly it's happening because cable operators see a way to link their subscribers through authentication and, better yet, make access so for subscribers that they won't look anywhere else to save a few bucks.

That's the lesson that cable is preaching when it says there's no cord cutting. Of course there's cord cutting; it's just that the cord cutters aren't important to the future of cable television as it reshapes itself into something that is far different than your mother and father's video entertainment company. -- Jim

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