A teachable moment in numeracy

A recent Business Day front page in The New York Times featured an enjoyable story headlined “Rabbit Ears Perk Up for Free HDTV,” by Matt Richtel and Jenna Wortham. It reported on young people who have dropped their cable-television susbcriptions and replaced them with “the modern equivalent of the classic rabbit-ear antenna.

“Some viewers,” the story continued, “have decided that they are no longer willing or able to pay for cable or satellite service.” These viewers, “including younger ones, are buying antennas and tuning in to a surprising number of free broadcast channels. These often become part of a video diet that includes the fast-growing menu of options available online.”

“Cord-cutting,” as this phenomenon is known in media circles, has been much discussed in my Journalism 24/7 class, which examines the changing news industry. Good, I thought, here’s a story I can use in class. I turned to read the continuation on page B6, where I learned that from April to September, “cable and satellite companies had a net loss of about 330,000 customers.” Antennas Direct, a St. Louis manufacturer, “expects to  sell 500,000 this year, up from 385,000 in 2009, according to its president.” A young couple in Minnesota and another in Virginia were quoted on their decisions to cut the cord and whether they miss the cable offerings.

So this cord-cutting thing is really happening, I thought as I finished my breakfast and glanced at page B7.

“ESPN Says Study Shows Little Effort To Cut Cable,” said the headline at the top of that page.


My first thoughts were snarky, I’ll confess: Is this evidence of some kind of internecine warfare on the biz desk? Don’t the Times business editors talk to one another? Ah, schadenfreude.

The ESPN story, by Brian Stelter, reported that

cord-cutting … has happened in 0.28 percent of households in the United States in the last three months, ESPN found in a study that it plans to release on Monday. Offsetting those losses, though, 0.17 percent of households that had been broadcast-only signed up for pay TV and broadband.

“So the net amount of cord-cutting for one quarter was just one-tenth of 1 percent,” said Glenn Enoch, the vice president for integrated media research for ESPN.

Wait, what about all those savvy young couples out there who manage with antennas and Netflix? And what about the 221 people who commented on the Web version of the rabbit-ears story, many bragging about their own success in installing antennas and cutting cords? It’s a big thing, right?

Well, no. Stelter noted that there are about 100 million cable and satellite subscriptions nationwide. And it turns out that the cord-cutting number cited in Richtel and Wortham’s story more or less jibed with the figures Stelter reported: 330,000 cord-cutters out of 100 million subscribers is 0.33 percent, just a hair over Stelter’s 0.28 percent His figure was for three months, theirs for six.

When I went back to the rabbit-ears story and looked more carefully, I found it to be full of the fudge words that mark the bogus trend piece: “some people,” “some viewers,” “often.” The worst offender: “Many pay TV customers are making the same decision” to cut the cord (emphasis added).

Richtel and Wortham could have put their story in context easily had they bothered to find an estimate of the number of cable and satellite subscribers and run a simple percentage calculation. But that would have made their story seem less significant. Perhaps it wouldn’t have gotten a spot on the business front if it had noted that fewer than 1 percent of subscribers cut the cord this year.

On the other hand, they could have reframed the story truthfully as representing, perhaps, the start of a trend. Or they could have looked for numbers that showed the percentage of those 100 million cable and satellite subscribers who are under 30 and written accurately about cord-cutting among the young.

I did use their story in class–but not to show that cord-cutting is a trend.

  1. I really like this particular post….but I have to say, I cringe every time I hear the phrase “teachable moment.” (I’m looking at you, President Obama!)

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