Despite expectations, Pay-TV numbers grew in 2011

The Internet is a fine thing, offering us information at the touch of a button, the world at our fingertips and – as so many people tell us – numerous alternatives to television as we know it. But if we really are “cutting the cord” from television in favor of watching our favorite shows online, why did Pay-TV subscriber numbers rise in the first three months of the year?

Despite surveys that suggest that Pay-TV subscriptions fell by at least 1,000,000 last year alone, the actual subscriber data released by carriers and providers like Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Verizon tell a different story. Craig Moffett, a cord-cutting skeptic who’s tabulated data for Q1 2012 as released in reports to shareholders – That is to say, information that stands a much better chance of actually being true than that collected via phone survey – has discovered that the number of subscriptions actually rose in the first three months of 2012, but only just. 422,000 new subscribers signed up in the first quarter of the year, according to Moffett’s numbers, bringing the number of total paid subscribers up a tiny 0.2 percent, which is a rise, if only just.

The news is likely to bring some relief to those who’ve been concerned over the fate of television in an increasingly digital world. As Moffett also demonstrates, Q1 2012 may be the second straight quarter of subscriber growth, but it follows two quarters where the numbers were either static (Q3 2011) or down (Q2 2011). Additionally, growth seems to have stalled under 1 percent since Q2 2010, suggesting that even if Pay TV isn’t facing extinction anytime soon, it’s also likely peaked in terms of audience barring the wholesale collapse of alternative forms of media distribution – Something that, let’s face it, doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon.

Interestingly enough, Moffett’s figures tell a secondary story: Audiences seem to be switching away from cable services. While both satellite and telecom company subscription figures are up overall, cable providers are down both in terms of quarter-on-quarter numbers (Down 0.2 percent) and year-on-year (Down a noticable 2.7 percent), with Time Warner Cable and Charter the two carriers most affected by the fall. Dish Network shouldn’t feel too confident, however; its own numbers fell 0.8 percent when compared with the same period in 2011, with the overall rise in satellite numbers coming from competitor DirecTV’s impressive 2.9 percent increase. The one thing that these three carriers all have in common? High-profile disputes with content providers that threatened (and, in some cases, temporarily removed) viewers’ ability to watch favorite channels.

Put the two threads together, and a picture of what Pay-TV has to do in order to survive – and maybe even thrive – against digital alternatives becomes slightly clearer: It’s all about choice. Not only do TV providers have to continue to offer a greater choice than what’s available legally online, but they have to work to keep that choice safe and available to viewers, who are apparently ready and willing to jump ship if they think their options may be limited by factors outside their control.

Of course, for all we know, the rise is all down to the fact that people were signing up ahead of the April 1 premiere of Game of Thrones season two. Hey, TV providers: Convince HBO to keep making that show, and everything might be okay.

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