Incredibly, almost unthinkably, that number is now falling. According to just-released data from Nielsen, predictions for the next TV season (2012) place the number of homes with working TVs (defined as being able to tune in at least one channel) at 114.7 million, a penetration rate of only 96.7%.
There are a few causes for the decline, says Nielsen. The trend first started in 2009 with the arrival of both the national switch to digital television as well as the bottom of the recession. More people simply didn't have spare money for buying a digital TV, or even a digital converter box.
The third reason, however, is most telling: "Nielsen data demonstrates that consumers are viewing more video content across all platforms—rather than replacing one medium with another. However, a small subset of younger, urban consumers are going without paid TV subscriptions. Long-term effects of this are unclear, as it’s undetermined if this is also an economic issue, with these individuals entering the TV marketplace once they have the means, or the beginning of a larger shift to viewing online and on mobile devices."
Check out this USA Today article, in which Verizon VP Shawn Strickland is quoted as saying, "Our perspective has pretty much done a 180 to a belief now that pay-TV 'cord cutting' ... will happen." Cord cutting is when people, including me, ditch their subscription TV services and get their content elsewhere, namely the Internet or over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts. My family dumped Verizon FiOS TV in 2010 and we've hardly missed it at all. We use Netflix, Redbox, OTA stations, and the public library -- and we save over $50 every month by doing so.
What did we sacrifice? Something about fancy cakes. Something about people from New Jersey with Tourette syndrome. I think there were a couple of shows about how to clean houses that should have been zoned as landfills. Everything else we thought worth watching, from cartoons to National Geographic, has been replaced at little or no cost.
There's no shortage of drivel to consume on the Internet. TVs aren't going to vanish, because we still want big screens to watch in spaces where we gather to relax and be entertained. But I believe it will be easier to find quality programming on the Internet because there's simply so much more of it, and it's all only a Web search away. How can Comcast continue to charge $5 for an on-demand show in the age of unlimited Netflix? Why should we be expected to keep paying 8% more for subscription TV every year when most of what gets added is hundreds of hours of content you have no desire to watch?
Nielsen's study shows that America needs fewer televisions because televisions are increasingly not the optimal content viewing device. We need one big screen for when we're together. Otherwise, it's the small, portable screens that will play the next generation of entertainment. And that content will not be coming from today's bloated service providers.
Quite often, I regret the Internet killing off this or that business model...but not this time.