Numbers Don’t Lie. Only People.

If I have anything resembling a mantra that I do my best to reinforce every waking moment, it’s the one I often had to remind disbelieving executives with whenever I’d be the bearer of ratings news or testing reports that went against every instinct they had had when they put blood, sweat and tears, and sometimes even their jobs on the line, into a project that didn’t quite match with the populus how popular they thought it should have been in their minds.   Calmly, at least at first, I’d say something to the effect of “Numbers Don’t Lie.  Just The People Who Read Them”.

Among my more regular fans is a onetime executive who I’d sometimes have to attempt to placate.  We were colleagues only briefly; I came aboard after he had had already had an extended run as a successful children’s programmer and creator.  Our paths had crossed before; as it turned out, we both had a huge crush on a lovely research vendor who to the outside world was sweet, studious and rather prim.   I thought at first they were an item; only after the lovely vendor reassured me they were merely friends did I even try to ask her out.  We did share a few nice evenings where I learned she had a wilder side and family history; one of which was the night I found out my mother had passed away.  We drifted apart after that; only years later did I learn on a chance encounter with her then-wife that neither of us really stood a chance in the first place.

Lately, this gentleman has become one of my more devoted online fans; unlike so many who I would wish would be a bit more supportive and forthcoming, he regularly interacts and reacts.  Sometimes, not so complimentary, to be sure, but as I keep trying to remind myself, the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.  At least he HAS an opinion.  And the other day, he threw down a gauntlet to me as an extension of one of his many posts that some might see as a bit reminiscent of the attitude of one Carl Fredericksen:

Several days ago I received a notice of pending regulatory application from At&T. Apparently Ma Bell wants out of landline service in a large part of their service territory in California. My district being one of them. AT&T no longer wants to be the carrier of last resort (COLR). If the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) gives the okay, my landline and those of millions of others will simply end up as a fond memory of bygone days.  Granted my landline only rings for robo calls, or people asking me if I have some time to take dumb surveys, or when I call it from my cell phone late at night just to make the neighbors wonder who would be calling me this late. But it’s like chocolate cake. It’s comfort food if one could eat one’s princess phone.

And this apparently REALLY upsets my friend.  And, oddly enough, I really do get where he’s coming from.  I feel much the same way about box scores and TV listings in newspapers, and, for that matter, print editions of newspapers and magazines themselves.  I still get them, though on a day like this there’s barely enough printed pages to even wrap up one shelf of a kitchen cabinet for a move between all of the ones I get daily.  When I relocated my entire apartment cross-country in the 80s, two Sunday editions of the New York Times and Daily News alone took care of my entire collection of mugs and collectables.

But I see the numbers and I know damn well I’m a dying breed.  I see the comments from friends who question my loyalty, and I know where to look for the numbers to support who might be right or wrong.  Statista is a fantastic resource for quite a bit of those questions.  Their most recent data on daily consumption of physical numbers, from an August 2022 survey, tells the tale conclusively.  Just one in seven adults 45-64 read a daily printed localnewspaper; not even one in five 65 or older do.  In both cases, that’s significantly smaller percentages than who get their news from social media.  Among adults 35-44, the chasm between social and local is 45% to 6%.

So as a courtesy to my friend, I did the same thing for landline phones.  Turns out even Statista isn’t tracking it.  But I did find a telling story from last summer’s WASHINGTON POST where Andrew Van Dam answered at length one of HIS reader’s burning questions:

Do people still have landline telephones? Thus asks reader Sharon Claffey of Williamstown, Mass., echoing a question we’ve heard quite a bit this year.

We’re just as curious about that as you are, Sharon! And the startling answer is that about 73 percent of American adults lived in a household without a landline at the end of last year — a figure that has tripled since 2010.  Until recently, we weren’t sure that data even existed. But it turns out we were looking in the wrong place. Phone usage is tracked in the National Health Interview Survey, of all things, the same source we used in previous columns to measure the use of glasses and hearing aids by our fellow Americans.

That alone should tell you what direction the demographic skew leans toward; my friend is unapolgetically in the older cohort segment.

A heavily annonated but telling graph accompanies this finding.  In mid-2003, when the tracking began, 55 per cent of adults had a landline phone in their homes.  Of that total, 73 per cent, or 40 per cent overall, had a landline phone exclusively.  20 years later, just over 25 per cent had a landline phone at all, and just 4 per cent of them–1 per cent overall–had a landline phone exclusively.  And while indeed more heavily weighted by the habits of adults under retirement age, even among adults 65+ almost half of them at least have a wireless phone.  And that figure has increased nearly tenfold since 2010 alone.

Those are the numbers, old friend.  Like it or not, you’ve lived to see a day where, as you so eloquently put it, (my) landline would go the way of Pluto as a planet, my knees as knees, and my inability at night to find my refrigerator without a dozen night lights on.

I shared these findings with him prior to writing this, and his response was, to be expected:

I worked for Ma Bell and I ain’t going to be treated like some ghostly switchboard. And as The Prisoner shouted out, “Yes I am ten numbers and I am not a free man with all of these lines circling around me like boa constrictors.” Steve, you might look to the future like Captain Kirk, but I’m the Marvel villain called Luddite Man.

Based on the way Marvel is having trouble connecting with Disney+ audiences, I’m not so sure that’s not one of his best ideas for a series in many a year.

I’ve encouraged him to channel his frustrations not in the direction of bitching and complaining but perhaps identifying the potential for a niche player to service this segment.  Discount wireless providers like Consumer Cellular have helped move many older adults, some kicking and screaming, into the wireless age.  Nostalgia TV networks like MeTV, FETV and, for animation fans, Boomerang still have a place in a landscape even as fragmented as the one we exist in.  Perhaps AT&T would be happy to sell those remaining licenses to such an entrepreneur for pennies on the dollar.  And according to Van Dam, one of its few competitors might indeed be intrigued:

(S)ince the breakup of Ma Bell in 1984, approximately one company (and its predecessors) has controlled landline phones in almost every Northeastern state.  That would be Verizon.  Verizon got the jump on phone competitors like AT&T, which was never as successful in adding cable and landline service to its customer bundles. (B)ecause Verizon pushed customers to adopt its Fios fiber-optic internet connections early on, they tended to switch in the mid-2000s when landlines were still de rigueur.

And according to Michael Hodel, research director at Chicago-based independent investment analysis heavyweight Morningstar, there actually might be some real hope for my frustrated Luddite friend:

Someone who’s had Fios broadband and a landline phone from Verizon hasn’t had much reason to switch providers and rethink which services they take,” Hodel told us via email. “I would also bet that Verizon has offered attractive bundle prices to keep customers taking its phone service over the years — the incremental cost of providing the service to a broadband customer is pretty minimal.”  If Verizon is already piping internet and cable into your home, it’s easy to tack on a landline; the extra fee is pretty much gravy.

So maybe lobby Verizon to do right instead of chastising the descendant of Ma Bell?

Incidentally, I tried to put my latest “modern” obsession, DALL-E 3, to the test of creating a “Luddite Man” graphic.  This is the best America’s latest craze could provide along those lines:

You see, old friend?  Never give up hope that technology’s fully ready to take over us all.

Now let’s go read our morning papers.

Until next time…

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