I might have been ahead of the curve when I canceled cable TV three years ago, but not so far ahead as I might have imagined. A story in TechCrunch pulls together data on TV viewers moving to the Internet, with a headline estimate of 800,000 households canceling cable in 2009. It’s easy to get an exaggerated idea of this — many of the cable cancellations were the result of foreclosures and evictions — yet it is still a 1 percent decline in the cable TV audience, and the estimate is that there may be a 2 percent decline in 2010.
The numbers are still relatively small, and yet not so small that the industry can ignore them. If the rate of households dropping cable goes to 2 percent this year as predicted, and then to 4 percent next year, it will no longer be a curiosity — it will be a hot lifestyle trend, with Hollywood celebrities talking about how they too are canceling their cable subscriptions. And when something gets to be a trend like that, it can be hard to stop. It didn’t take AOL long to go from a 5 percent rate of subscriber decline to a 35 percent rate, and in retrospect, there wasn’t anything AOL could have done to turn that around. It’s hard at this point to imagine that cable subscriptions will follow the same path, yet with subscription fees rising toward $200 a month, you can’t rule that scenario out, either.