Trends in Traditional TV

Nielsen has now been publishing quarterly reports on TV viewing habits since 2011. Comparing the latest report for the 4th quarter of 2016 to the original 2011 report shows a major decrease in the hours spent by younger Americans in watching traditional television – which is defined as the combination of both live viewing and time-delayed viewing of network television content.

The changes differ by age group and don’t paint a pretty picture for the traditional TV market:

  • Teens (12-17) watched almost 14 hours per week of television, but that’s down almost 11% from 2015 and down 38% from five years.
  • Younger Millennials (18-24) watched 15.5 hours per week of TV, and that’s down 39%, or 1.5 hours per day over 5 years.
  • Older Millennials (25-34) watched 22 hours per week, and which is down 26.5% over five years.
  • Gen-Xers (35-49) watched almost 40 hours per week and have seen a 10% drop over five years.
  • Baby Boomers (50-64) watched 43 hours per week and have had a slight increase over five years of 1.6% in viewing time.
  • 65+ viewers watched 52 hours per week which is up 0.6% over 2015 and is up 8.4% over five years.

So what are the younger people doing other than watching traditional TV?  The numbers for 19-24 year old users is interesting.

  • They spend 15.5 hours per week watching traditional television (including time-shifting).
  • They spend 20.8 hours watching subscription-based OTT content like Netflix or Amazon.
  • They spend another 17 hours watching something else, which includes things like DVRs, video on social media, or free web content like YouTube.
  • That’s an average of 53 hours per week, about the same amount of screen time as those over 65 watching traditional TV.

This same group also uses a variety of different screens. That includes an average of 9.2 hours per week watching video on a PC or laptop, 1.5 hours per week watching on a tablet and 1 hour per week watching on a smartphone. The rest still use a television screen, even if the content is not a traditional TV feed.

The good news for the whole industry is that young people are not tuning out from watching video content – they are just watching a lot less traditional television. And that means less of the major networks, less sports, and less of all of the various networks found on cable systems. They have decided, as a group that other content is of more interest.

It’s soon going to be harder for Nielsen and others to quantify the specific types of content viewing because the lines are starting to blur between the various categories. If somebody watches a live feed of a basketball game or a traditional network show on Sling TV that is basically the same as watching traditional TV. But on that same platform you can also watch streaming movies in the same manner as Netflix. And traditional broadcasters are doing something similar. For example, CBS All-access not only includes traditional CBS programming, but there is new content like the new Star Trek series that is only going to be available on-line.

We’ve known for a long time that younger viewers are not watching television in the same way as older generations, but these numbers really highlight the differences. Those over 65 years old are watching four times more traditional television than teens. And viewing hours for younger viewers are steadily dropping while older viewers are watching as much or more TV than five years ago. You only have to trend this forward for a decade to foresee continued dramatic drops in total TV viewership.

For years there has been hope in the industry that as kids age and get families and buy homes that they will return to the traditional pay-TV packages. But numerous surveys have shown that this is not happening. It seems that the viewing habits of youth influences viewing habits for life. And that creates a real challenge for the advertising-supported pay TV model. TV advertisers are only reliably reaching older viewers, and yet most advertisers still believe that TV advertising is one of their most effective tools. But each year TV advertising is going to reach fewer and fewer younger viewers, and at some point the advertisers are going to be forced to look elsewhere.

Our Shifting Viewing Habits

Old TVNielsen did a huge survey earlier this year where they asked 30,000 viewers worldwide questions about how they view video content. The responses show how quickly people are changing their viewing habits in response to the proliferation of new options.

Even as recently as a little more than a decade ago, options to view video other than at the scheduled broadcast time  time were rare. I was an early adapter to TiVo and got my first set in 2000. At that time almost nobody watched TV on a time-delayed basis. But TiVo let me watch things on my own time schedule and I quickly invested in a CD burner that would let me capture content from the relatively small TiVo hard drive to further expand my options to watch on a time delay.

The cable companies responded to TiVo by introducing video on demand, which provided watch-anytime capabilities to a subset of their programming. I am probably somewhat unusual in that I can’t recall as an adult having ever watched a network TV series by watching at the scheduled time. I just have never been able to structure my life in that manner (or even remember what day of the week it is).

But today we have a huge array of options and this survey shows that people are using them. We can, of course, still watch TV live and sit and surf the channels. But the cable company video on demand offerings are much larger than in the past. The large cable companies and networks have also provided on-line delayed viewing for most of their popular content that is available with a cable subscription. There are the huge libraries of content at Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services. There is some pretty decent content today being produced only for the Web, along with an absolute mountain of content on YouTube. And for those willing to hunt, there are huge piles of older movies, newsreels, and offbeat content all over the web.

Here are a few of the more interesting findings of the Nielsen survey:

  • Only 48% of people now prefer to watch video live. This means that the shift to time-delayed viewing is now the predominant way of viewing video.
  • A gigantic 63% of people say that time-shifted viewing best fits their personal schedules.
  • Only 51% think that the big screen TV is the best device for watching video. This is a pretty amazing shift that says that people not only have gotten used to watching video on computers, tablets, and smartphones, but a lot of them now find those alternatives to be their favorite way to watch video.
  • 37% now finding watching video on their cellphone to be ‘convenient’.
  • Another 37% say that a tablet is as good of an alternative as a television screen or a computer.
  • 58% of people like to catch up on content through binge viewing and watching more than one episode at a time.
  • 21% of people are more likely to watch content that has a social media tie-in.

The survey also shows that the type of content affects which device we use. People still prefer the television when watching live news, documentaries, comedies, and dramas. But less than half of viewers choose the television screen to watch reality TV shows. And almost nobody uses a TV screen to watch short videos under 10 minutes in length.

Probably the most interesting phenomenon is that the choice of multiple screens is killing off the once-powerful social impact of watching television with others. I remember the days when the whole family sat around in the evening watching whatever happened to be on (since we could only get three networks that wasn’t a big choice). But this survey shows that 65% of viewers now watch video alone. I know that my wife and I share almost no common interests among the things we watch, and we routinely watch different things at the same time.

This shift is certainly still not over. I still have many older relatives who only watch traditional TV on the screen as it is broadcast. But just about the opposite is true of young viewers and they have largely abandoned the big TV screen except perhaps as background noise while they are multi-tasking on their phones.

The one place where these shifts ought to soon have a huge impact is TV advertising. With over half of all viewers now watching content on a time-delayed basis the traditional advertising model is quickly dying. Surprisingly, TV advertising spending is only slightly down this year, but it won’t be surprising one coming year to see a huge fall-off in TV advertising spending. It seems a waste to pay to advertise where fewer and fewer of us are viewing.