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.

Local Programming

digital on-demand

digital on-demand (Photo credit: Will Lion)

One way to differentiate your cable system from your competition is to develop local programming. Local programming is just what you imagine it to be. It includes such things as high school sports, little league games, local church services, local government meetings, high school plays, and if you have a local college a wide array of things. And it can include more with content like local news, courts, cooking shows, tourist information, etc.

Why should you get involved with local programming? If local programming is done well, meaning that it has content that people want to watch, then it differentiates your cable programming from the competition and entices people to buy your service rather than the other guy. And of course, if customers buy your cable they are more likely to buy your higher margin products like data and telephone.

The ability to produce local programming has gotten much easier in recent years due to the cost of cameras dropping significantly. I remember in the not-too-distant past helping local service providers get grants to buy video cameras for local organizations that cost more than $15,000 each. Today, studio quality cameras are handheld and cost a fraction of that old cost.

One of the first hurdles you must cross with local programming is figuring out how to get the content listed in the channel guide with everything else. Many, but not all channel guides allow you to insert your own custom programs.

A number of cable systems carry local programming of some sort, so let me talk about how various companies have gotten local programming onto their cable systems.

Create a Local Network. There is always the expensive way to do things, which is to create a traditional local channel on your cable system. This means you would have some sort of studio and you would produce a lot of content to run 24/7. Some companies have done this and think it is successful. Some of the larger cable companies such as Cox have local channels, but there are also smaller companies doing this like Hiawatha Broadband in Winona, Minnesota and several large telephone cooperatives in the West. But the cost of producing content is expensive and very few companies feel they can afford this option. To be successful, it must be done well.

Let Others Create the Content. There is a less expensive option which is to let other create the content for you. There are a number of systems that have given a channel to local government, to local churches or to universities. Sometimes these organizations to a great job and sometimes they don’t. Most viewers don’t hold local programming to the same standards as network TV, but shows must have good sound and decent video if they are to attract viewers. One of the most successful local programs I have ever seen was a company that carried a local court and it seems the DUIs get good ratings. Many communities have done well broadcasting local high school sports.

Video-on-demand. Another way to carry local programming is not to create a channel, but instead to create a library of local content. If your system is capable of video on demand then you can create a library of local content. This way you can not only cover little league or high school sports, but a subscriber can pull up the game where their son hit a home run from last summer to show grandma when she visits.

There are other uses of having this kind of VOD library. For instance, you can create a rotating set of content from the library to show in hotels to tell visitors about area attractions. You could do something like the City of Seattle has done and create an index of past government meetings so that somebody can pull up a specific meeting where a specific topic was discussed. You can also pull the best of the VOD content and create a channel where the content plays continuously. But to do this well you need to always refresh the content.

Web TV channels. Finally there is the newest way to create a channel. There are now some vendors who have made it easy to let you put any web content directly onto your cable system. They let you take any web programming and create a virtual channel. They let you create as many local channels as you like and to put the content into a channel lineup.

This really opens up the world of local content for a service provider. It takes a lot of electronics and eats up system bandwidth to create multiple traditional local channels. But using a web-to-TV interface you can carry almost unlimited channels in one channel slot on your network. Each customer can then just watch what they want out of the lineup because they are getting the content from the web and not broadcast as a ‘channel’ from the hub.

This means that you can give a ‘channel’ to every organization in town that wants one, be that high schools, colleges, churches, governments, non-profits, local businesses, etc. Some of them will do a good job at creating local content and others will not, but the best of them ought to create a great local line-up that your competition won’t have.

This technology also lets you bring in any other content from the web. You can add OTT content like NetFlix and Amazon Prime. You can make channels out of YouTube. Or you can add one of the web services that have already tied this kind of web programming together nicely.

So you can create channels that bring together local content plus the best of the web. One idea that I have mentioned before is to create a package of local programming, OTT web programming and network channels. Such a package could sell for $20 and be more profitable than your larger cable packages. You can also insert local advertising into local programming or sign up with somebody like aioTV who will insert national advertising and share the revenue with you.

Should You Build a Cable TV Headend?

I still meet new businesses all of the time who are just entering the cable TV business for the first time or who are opening up remote markets from their service core. In the past it was a no brainer to build a new headend for a new market as long as that market had enough potential customers to justify the capital outlay. But I find myself hesitating today when I am asked the question of whether one should build a new headend. I don’t think the answer is an automatic yes any longer and there are a number of reasons for this.

Transport. One huge consideration is bandwidth transport. It always makes more sense to use the signal from an existing headend somewhere as long as you can get the signal there for less ongoing cost than building a new headend. The amount of bandwidth needed to transmit a full channel line-up is huge and can easily require at least 100 Mbps. The bandwidth varies a lot depending upon the specific method that is being used to send the TV signal to customers. For example, the bandwidth needed to send a lineup that has both analog and digital tiers will be larger than a lineup that is all IPTV. And the amount of bandwidth is even greater if you want to transmit video on demand.

The price of transport varies widely by location due to the availability of fiber, but overall there has been a big reduction in transport prices. The long-haul transport business has gotten very competitive and there are a host of companies that sell not only bandwidth, but also dark fiber or fiber lamdas. Also, a number of new middle-mile networks were built with federal stimulus grants and those networks, by definition, have to offer reasonably priced bandwidth. In many cases I am seeing transport as a good alternative to building a new headend, whereas a few years ago building a headend almost always looked like a lower-cost alternative.

Aggregators. You also should consider using a network aggregator. One that many of my clients use is Avail Media. Avail has aggregated a channel line-up that comes from the satellite directly in MPEG4 format, meaning that it can be taken directly from the satellite and used in an IPTV distribution network. The advantage of doing this is in the cost savings for the headend. A lot of the capital cost in a traditional headend is spent for equipment that translates TV signals from one format to another. The cost, size and power requirements for a headend drop significantly if the TV signals don’t have to be translated.

Of course, Avail and others aggregators charge a premium for getting the signal to you in the right format and you need to do the math to make sure that there is a net savings in equipment compared to their ongoing transport charges. But many of my clients have found aggregator arrangements that have saved them money.

Headend Sharing. Before I would build a new headend today I would always look around to see if there is an existing headend in the area that I could share. Generally, almost anybody except for the major cable companies would be interested in sharing a headend. Sharing a headend can help a headend owner offset the cost of running their headend while requiring very little ongoing effort after the initial connection.

There are a number of issues to consider when thinking about sharing a headend, but I have dozens of clients who have figured out ways to share. The biggest issue is the signal format. For example, it would make no sense to share an analog headend with somebody who is operating an IPTV system. The cost of translating channels from analog to digital would be almost as costly as building a new headend. There are also contractual issues with some of the programmers who make you jump through extra legal hoops before they will agree to let you transport signal from an existing headend to a different operator in a different market. But headend sharing makes a lot of sense and today, and sharing would almost always be my preference over building a new headend.

Other Issues.  There are always other considerations to consider. For example, if you share a headend or buy content from an aggregator you are still going to have to somehow insert the local must-carry networks onto your system. So you will need to a ‘mini-headend’ of some sort that lets you add your own content to the content that comes from somebody else.

Even if you share somebody else’s headend you might want to consider operating and inserting your own video-on-demand. This will cut down on the transport needed between the locations. If the market is large enough you also might want to consider inserting your own local advertising rather than inflict ads from some distant market upon your customers.