TV Ownership Is Down for the First Time in 20 Years

Now cable companies can really start to panic

It turns out that cable companies’ fears of cord cutting have been more than warranted: For the first time in 20 years, the number of homes in the U.S. with television sets has dropped, The New York Times reports. According to findings from Nielsen, 96.7 percent of Americans now own TV sets, a drop from 98.9 percent.

Nielsen said that “the persistently rocky economy” is “the driving factor” in the decline, and has cited two specific reasons behind it. The first is poverty: Some low-income houses can’t afford to own TVs due to the rising costs of digital sets and antennas. “They are people at the bottom of the economic spectrum for whom, if the TV breaks, if the antenna blows off the roof, they have to think long and hard about what to do,” said a Nielsen exec, adding that they often live in rural areas and don’t have Internet access.

The second reason is that some tech-savvy Americans are choosing to live without TV—in part, because of the cord-cutting mind-set that cable providers have been wary of. Many young people aren’t bothering to purchase TVs after graduation, since much of the same programming is available online. However, Nielsen said (in an attempt to assuage its clients' concerns), “The long-term effects of this are still unclear, as it is undetermined if this is also an economic issue that will see these individuals entering the TV marketplace once they have the means, or the beginning of a larger shift to online viewing.”

Now, the Times said, Nielsen is beginning to reconsider its definition of a “television household” to include Internet watchers as well. “That would be a big change for this industry, and we’d be doing it in consultation with clients if we do it,” said the company.