Don't Junk The TV Set Yet

Is there anything more surprising than the continuing lack of surprises in Nielsen’s “Cross-Platform Report”?  This quarterly effort, which compares TV viewing across multiple screens, shows once again that TV habits still aren’t changing all that much.  After all the hype about online viewing, mobile viewing, “cord cutting” and other doomsday scenarios, it seems that most people are still watching television the old fashioned way: on a TV set.

How can this be? I’m as surprised as everyone.  Our house is filled with devices: smartphones, laptops, tablets, an “over the top” Apple TV gizmo and a DVR. We make liberal use of Netflix, VOD, Hulu, and MLB.com.  Except for sports we rarely watch live TV. And we’re hardly the most technologically advanced family in existence.  So my own personal experience tells me that traditional TV viewing is declining.

Yet according to the “Cross-Platform Report,” TV viewing has been holding steady over the past five years.  The average person still watches five hours of live and recorded television per day. Traditional TV still swamps all kinds of other video viewing, with the average person watching 34 hours of TV a week, compared to one hour of online video and 13 minutes of video on a smartphone.

Of course it’s a classic mistake for anyone to extrapolate their own behavior to society as a whole.  And when it comes to TV viewing, there’s probably no audience less representative of the total population than MediaPost readers.   We are the cultural equivalent of the “inside the beltway” political commentators who are always shocked by the voters out in the hinterland.

One of the reasons traditional TV remains so popular is that people don’t use other devices and platforms to the extent we sometimes think they do.  Even now, barely half of viewers watch any video over the Internet and only 16% watch video on a smartphone.  And among these groups that do have the technology, usage is not terrible high.  Online computer streamers watch about 22 hours of video a month and smartphone users only watch five and a half hours of video a month.  This compares to 157 hours of TV viewing for the average person.

The ongoing popularity of traditional television seems to befuddle many in the TV industry, many of whom probably watch a lot less actual TV than their customers.  The answer is pretty obvious: Television is the easiest entertainment delivery system in the history of the world.  You can lie down on the couch, flick your wrist and let hundreds of different stories unfold with no effort at all.

Contrast that to watching TV online.  If you have a new TV, you might have an Internet hook-up -- if you can figure it out.  The over-the-top devices are not all that hard to set up, but they don’t all give you access to new programming.  Of course you can watch TV on your laptop or computer, but this is a “lean forward” way of experiencing a “lean backwards” medium.  You can attach your laptop to your nice big living room TV, as long as you don’t mind fumbling with the connections in back of the monitor.  And don’t get me started on the aggravations of trying to watch YouTube on the living room TV.

Now that we are more than five years into the Hulu era, which made it easy to stream new network programming, it seems clear that there won’t be a revolution in how people watch television anytime soon.  If anything people are watching more TV through the tube than ever before.

The real question is what will happen when today’s younger viewers, who have grown accustomed to watching TV on laptops and iPads, grow up.  The average 18-24 year old now spends about 7% of his total TV time streaming video.  That compares to 2% for the average 50- to 64-year-old.  Will those teens still be watching TV on their laptops when they have families of their own? 

It’s a rule of nature that the older and more sedentary you get, the more TV you watch.  It’s hard to make predictions on what today’s 18- to 24-year-olds will do based on their current behavior, because as they grow up they will almost certainly grow less active and be more interested in staying home at night watching TV. Unless the cable and satellite companies price themselves out of the market, my guess is that tomorrow’s 30-year-olds will, like their parents and grandparents before them, discover the joys of being coach potatoes.

In the meantime, I wouldn’t junk the old TV set.

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4 comments about "Don't Junk The TV Set Yet".
  1. Julie Piepenkotter from FX Networks , July 2, 2013 at 5:03 p.m.
    Quick fyi on Nielsen's Cross Platform Report. Important to note that the report doesn't quantify most over-the-top (OTT) TV viewing. The online viewing that it does quantify is via desktop or laptop computer. Nielsen is diligently working to get at this OTT video stat, but they're just not there yet. Problematic is that most OTT video (think House of Cards or West Wing eps on Netflix) is unencoded ... and Nielsen aggregates utilizing codes. Also, Nielsen is unable currently to aggregate video viewership via tablets (primarily iPad). What's more, if video streaming occurs on a video game console connectd to a TV, Nielsen is currently unable to extract video game usage from online video streaming. Again, Nielsen is working on all of this ... but in the meantime, there's quite a bit missing in the Cross Platform Report.
  2. Fraser Elliott from Opinions expressed herein are solely my own , July 2, 2013 at 8:30 p.m.
    It's interesting to note that the averages is very heavily skewed by the highest-viewing quintile. That quintile views almost 644 minutes per day on average. The other 4 quintiles combined view an average of 173 hours. That means the top quintile views 3.7 times more TV than the average of the other 4 quintiles. Looked at another way, the top 20% of viewers represent nearly half of all hours watched. We all know that when we buy TV, we're over-buying heavy TV viewers, but wow. That's a heavy skew driving the overall "average".
  3. John Grono from GAP Research , July 2, 2013 at 10:10 p.m.
    Excellent observations Julie. Down here in Australia we are in a similar situation. We know that TV viewing (including play back) is around 80% of all TV usage. However as we don't have content encoded or recorded we don't know what content that is. This "other TV" bucket includes things like game-play, watching video recorded on your iPhone on the big screen, photo slide shows off a USB stick, DVD playback. Key is to monitor the growth in that proportion. The delicious irony is that to measure these 'grains' of usage is VERY expensive. Fraser, such is the nature of quintiles by definition. You could equally say that the average is driving the quintile.
  4. Doug Garnett from Atomic Direct , July 3, 2013 at 6:58 p.m.
    Two facts that are good to know/remember. Right now, we are driving higher measurable impact for clients using TV than I've seen in my 20 year career in TV advertising. So with all the activity, it's not clear what the net impact is going to be. AND, it's always been true that TV economics were driven by the most highly engaged 1/3 and a secondarily engaged 1/3 of viewers. The remaining 1/3 weren't part of the economics. It's possible, even likely, that these heavily hyped new viewing options are siphoning off the 1/3 who were never part of TV economics (meaning the economics of actual impact not Nielsen viewing statistics).