"Oh Shit!" Stats: Landlines And Television Sets Losing Importance

(but you prob figured that our without statistics)

According to a new nationwide survey from the Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project, reported by Paul Taylor and Wendy Wang with Lee Rainie and Aaron Smith, only 42% of Americans say they consider the television set to be a necessity. Last year, this figure was 52%, and in 2006, it was 64%.

After occupying center stage in the American household for much of the 20th century, says the report, two of the grand old luminaries of consumer technology, the television set and the landline telephone, are suffering from a sharp decline in public perception that they are necessities of life.

The drop-off has been less severe for the landline telephone. 62% of Americans say it’s a necessity of life, down from 68% last year, but 47% of the public now say that the cell phone is a necessity of life.

What Americans Need (% Rating as Necessity)
Item % Saying Necessity % Change 2009-2010
Car 86% -2%
Landline phone 62 -6
Clothes dryer 59 -7
Home air conditioning 55 +1
Home computer 49 -1
Cell phone 47 -2
Microwave 45 -2
TV set 42 -10
High speed Internet 34 +3
Cable or satellite TV 23 0
Dishwasher 21 0
Flat screen TV 10 +2
Source: PewResearchCenter, August 2010

In the case of the landline phone, the verdict does not come just from the survey, but also from the marketplace. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of government data, just 74% of U.S. households now have a landline phone, down from a peak of 97% in 2001. During this same time period, use of cell phones has skyrocketed. Fully 82% of adults now use cell phones, up from 53% in 2000. There are now more cell phones in the U.S. than landline phones.

From 1996 through 2006 a rising share of Americans saw more items on the list as necessities rather than luxuries. Since 2006, says the report, as the housing bubble burst, and consumer spending throttled down, the trend has moved the opposite way. A rising share now sees more everyday items as luxuries than necessities.

The report concludes that the dichotomy posed by the question “luxury or necessity” may be a relic. A more appropriate question in 2010 may be whether consumers consider these venerable appliances to be “necessary” or “superfluous.”

The economy isn’t the only factor driving these numbers, says the report. For several items on the list, the television set and the landline phone for instance, innovations in technology also seem to be playing a role.

Even as fewer Americans say they consider the TV set to be a necessity of life, more Americans than ever are stocking up on them. In 2009, the average American home had more television sets than people, 2.86, according to a Nielsen report. In 2000, this figure was 2.43; in 1990, it was 2.0; and in 1975, it was 1.57.

The disconnect between attitudes and behaviors, opines the report, may be that the TV set hasn’t had to deal with competition from new technology that can fully replace all of its functions. If a person wants real-time access to the wide spectrum of entertainment, sports and news programming available on television, there’s still nothing (at least not yet) that can compete with the television set itself.

Another twist to the TV story, though, comes from the flat-screen television. According to the latest Pew Research survey, 10% of the public now says that a flat-screen television is a necessity of life, up from 5% who felt that way in 2006. And according to industry reports, American consumers have bought more than 100 million flat-screen television sets since 2005.

For some items dependency increases with age, especially with the very-21st-century attitudes of today’s young adults. Fewer than half of 18- to 29-year-old survey respondents consider the landline phone a necessity of life, while fewer than three-in-ten say the same about the television set.

Approximate % of Group That Considers Item as a Necessity
Age Landline TV Set Cable Service Flat Screen TV
18-29 46% 29% 11% 10%
30-49 62 58 21 8
50-54 64 50 27 10
65+ 77 53 35 17
Source: PewResearchCenter, August 2010

For other items, dependency decreases with age:

·      The cell phone decreases in importance from 59% of the 18-29 group to 29% among the 65+ group

·      Importance of the home computer goes from 53% of the younger group to 35% of the over 65s

·      High speed internet is important to 33% of the younger group, increases to around 40 from 30-64, and falls off to 15% for the 65+ crowd.

The “balance of necessity” between cell phones and landline phones shifts with the age of the respondent. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, more respondents consider a cell phone a necessity than a landline phone. For those in middle age, more consider a landline phone to be a necessity. And for those ages 65 and older, those who say the landline is a necessity outnumber those who say the same about a cell phone by a ratio of more than two-to-one.

Landline Phone vs. Cell Phone (% in Each Age Group)
Age Group Landline a Necessity Cell Phone a Necessity
18-29 46% 59%
30-49 62 51
50-64 64 43
65+ 77 29
Source: PewResearchCenter, August 2010

As a June 2010 Pew Research Center report and other recent surveys of consumer behavior have shown, the deep recession that began in December 2007 has led to a new frugality in Americans’ spending and saving habits, and it appears to have scrambled Americans’ judgments about whether many everyday appliances are necessities or luxuries, says the report.

But one pattern is consistent across items studied. Their necessity rating was at (or very near) its peak four years ago, and has since declined. This suggests that the psyche of the American consumer is in a much different place now than it had been in the heady days before the recession, concludes the report.

About Fallon