Enlisting The Power Of The Web For A Bit Of Research Help — Taking the MCDowell/Tate Challenge!

I wish my employer, Media Access Project, had sufficient funds to hire me a research assistant. But they don’t. So I’m going to turn to the collective readership for a bit of fast research to help me refute the pack of lies the cable industry is spreading.

As regular readers know, Martin has proposed a slew of much needed cable reform rules. Chief among these is the finding that cable serves 70% of homes in areas served by cable systems of 36 or more activated channels. NCTA, the cable trade association, has denounced the dea that their members serve that many customers as a vicious lie and generally denounced Martin for carrying on a vendetta against his industry (where “vendetta”=”actually enforce existing law and regulate in the public interest“).

Turns out, however, that Martin did not just pull the numbers out of his posterior. They came from the Warren Communications News Television and Cable Factbook, a neutral and respected industry reporter. According to the Warrens data, cable serves over 71.4% of the relevant market — more than enough to trigger the 70/70 threshold and give the FCC authority to reregulate cable to promote diversity.

To my considerable surprise — given how much Warrens depends on their reputation for accuracy to convince customers to pay many thousands of dollars for this research — the cable industry prevailed on the managing editor of The TV and Cable Factbook to declare their own research unreliable. In fairness, they claim the research is unreliable only when used to prove that the cable industry has passed the 70/70 threshold, so I assume all the advertisers and businesses that rely on this data will not be troubled. They also claim tat the data are unreliable due to systemic underreporting by cable which, as my friend and fellow Wetmachine blogger Greg Rose observed, means that the number of households served must be even more than the 71% Warrens initially found.

Such is the power of cable, however, that the industry reporters following this have uncritically lapped up the NCTA party line while failing the elementary school math noted above (ironically, proving the point about how media consolidation is all about serving corporate interests). Martin’s fellow Republicans on the Commission, McDowell and Tate, apparently determined to make sure that everyone knows that they would never pursue a ”vendetta“ against an industry merely because it has demonstrated market power, sent this letter to Warrens asking for more information (and apparently missing the elementary school math that if you underreport cable subscribers that means they serve more than the number reported). The letter takes a rather nasty shot at Martin, as well as inviting explanation for why the other reporters come in so much lower and looking for validation of the numbers.

Of course, as Rose pointed out in his post, the other numbers come in lower because they are estimates where the cable operators provided even less info than they did to Warrens. But it occurred to me that there is a rather simple way to make the point that even incumbent cable operators passed the 70% threshold sometime ago.

Back for the 2005 cable report, NCTA submitted numbers ranging from 62% to 68.9%. Since then, with the exception of the most recent cable quarter, the cable operators enjoyed consistent growth in their basic subscriber numbers. I would like to find out the quarterly basic subscriber statistics for the largest cable operators (Comcast, Time Warner, Cablevision, Cox, and Charter). If the largest operators enjoyed significant growth after NCTA condeded 68.9% as a valid measurement, then we can have reasonable assurance that findings above 70% are accurate. Problem is, I’m a little strapped for time here.

So I’m turning to the distributed power of the web for help meet the McDowell/Tate Challenge of ensuring that the data meet the highest standards of ”trustworthiness, truthfulness, and viability” (which, I have to say, has not exactly been the case with Commission cable reports before Martin took over. Either make a donation to MAP to get me a research assistant, or send me an email with useful cable statistics.

Stay tuned . . . .


  1. Harold,

    Can you post a list of questions that you would like answers to? Would a poll help (I think I can figure out how to put a poll up — although I know it would not be scientific –).

    If we can come up with a short and sweet list of questions, I’ll bet we can get some blogosphere love going to get some answers for you.

  2. I need:
    a) A list of every company that provides video service.

    b) What they say their subscribers are.

    c) An estimate as to the percentage of the country (by population) not served by any cable operator.

  3. NCTA has a list of cable operators with customer bases down to a few thousand <a href=”http://www.ncta.com/Organiz…“>here</a>.

    They don’t think cable penetration is that high, though, even for basic cable. 109M households passed by cable, 65.4M households with basic cable. That’s only 60+%

    Latest info I can find from the Census Bureau has 113,155 households in the US in 2004.

    NCTA’s website claims 112M TV households as of June 2007, 109M of which are passed by cable.


    Well, what do you want? Who’s going to put public info on cable systems online, but a cable industry trade assn?

  4. Is that 70% supposed to be for cable alone, or for all subscription services?

    Because cable penetration has been dropping in favor of satellite. Nielsen substantiates the NCTA’s cable numbers (68.3 million), noting that cable subscriptions have been dropping

    If you count all subscription services, it’s over 90% penetration in the TV market.

    See http://www.tvb.org/rcentral

    It may be too late to have 70% cable penetration now that there are other, similar price/quality, delivery systems.

    Nielsen’s data shows that it was indeed over 70% a year or so ago, just not now.

  5. Harold,
    I haven’t had time to try to compare the widely varying numbers being bandied about regarding the 70% penetration threshold, but one point I’d add that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere is:

    “Homes passed” is often used to calculate subscriber penetration rates. My understanding is that “homes passed” is generally a measure of total “housing units,” not “households” (i.e., “occupied housing units”).

    My understanding is that the FCC’s 70% penetration rule is worded in a way that would apply to “households” rather than “homes passed.”

    If I’m correct, then this means that “penetration” rates calculated against “homes passed” would understate the “penetration of households” by at least a few percentage points.

    For example, if we assume an overall vacancy rate of 5%, a 54% penetration of “homes passed” equates to more than 61% of “households,” while a 68% penetration of “homes passed” equates to more than 71.5% penetration of “households.”

  6. Oops…I meant 58% penetration of homes passed equates to more than 61% of households. 54% equates to nearly 57% of households.

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