Making sport of cord-cutting numbers is, well, not very sporting

Jim O'Neil

Numbers give weight to arguments. They're great for news stories because they tend to lend more credibility and more depth. The CEO of an online video company who says, "We increased our revenue in the second quarter by 10 percent to $9 million," is going to be a lot more believable than one who says, "No, really, we're bigger this year," or words to that effect. Anyone who reads quarterly earnings reports knows that there are numbers that are meaningless, and there are numbers that are worth their weight in gold.

The same goes for surveys and polls. Political pollsters, for example, know that the best way to find out how a candidate is doing in an election is to conduct exits polls. "Who'd you vote for" is far more accurate than "Who do you plan to vote for." You really want to know what consumers are buying? Check their bags as they come out of the store.

Last week there was a lot of noise made (primarily by pay-TV operators and their supporters) about a survey that posited that live sports, specifically major league baseball and football at the pro and college level, were so valuable to cable customers that the likelihood of them cutting the cord was, well, almost nil. In fact, the survey found that of the households surveyed, some 93.5 percent said they watched pro or college football, and another 68.4 percent said they watched professional baseball.

The researchers said 37 percent of pay-TV subscribers surveyed had considered cutting the cord; but, when asked if they would still cut the cord if it meant they would lose access to live sports, reality shows and cable premium channels, cord-cutters bailed like crazy. In fact, only 8 percent said they'd move forward.

But here's where I have a problem with the survey.

The question asked was: Would You Drop Your TV Service Provider if it Meant You and Others in Your Household Could (1) No Longer Watch Live Sports, (2) Never Got to See Any of Your Favorite Shows Highlighted Earlier, Live or the Same Day they Aired (including results shows such as Dancing with the Stars) and (3) Lost Access to some of your favorite programming until the shows hit DVD 12-Months from Now?

Of course they wouldn't. It's a Doomsday scenario. And the question is asked in such a way that it's intended to elicit a specific response, in this case a resounding "No!" "No longer watch sports" and "Never get to see any of your favorite shows?" Please. Cord cutters don't simply turn to the Internet for their content. They're grabbing digital signals out of the air from their local broadcasters, too.

I watch football. In fact, I watch perhaps too much football. But even in my little west Michigan market, I can get college football from noon until nearly midnight most Saturdays on broadcast TV, and at least two to four pro games on Sunday on the networks. How does cutting the cord give me fewer games? (I didn't even need cable to watch the New York Giants sack Chicago Bears quarterbacks 10 times Sunday night... just priceless.) And baseball? Actually, I'm more inclined to follow my favorite teams on At Bat on my iPad than to watch entire games. It saves me time and I don't have to watch the Tigers. Sorry Detroit. And, how does cutting the cord affect my being able to watch an hour-long Dancing with the Stars results show? It's broadcast. It's over the air. As for premium content from HBO? Well, I guess I can live without it... or wait and buy it on iTunes.

The problem with numbers is they can be used to support virtually any argument, often from either side. In fact, I just lost one with my wife on why a new set of irons could cut my handicap by two strokes. Her argument? Practicing my putting--for free--could save me four. Numbers. Sometimes they're useful. -Jim