According to just-released numbers from Nielsen, U.S. viewership of linear television (non-time-shifted viewing of broadcast, cable and satellite television) grew last year both in numbers of viewers and time spent per viewer. This growth occurred in spite of the fact that time-shifted television viewing, Internet video viewing and mobile video viewing all grew as well.
Wow! The world's most powerful media platform -- thought by many to be at a point of maturity or decline in the U.S. -- is still growing.
Television's audience problem is one of fragmentation. More people may be watching more TV, but unfortunately, they are watching many, many more channels and more programs than they used to. The pie may be bigger, but the slices of that pie are much smaller.
This is a major problem. Advertisers, who provide tens of billions of dollars of support for television programs, like their slices of pie big -- really big. While they have grudgingly put up with the constantly shrinking slice sizes over the past few years, most of them are getting close to their point of tolerance. Advertisers are starting to say that enough is enough.
This is very bad for television broadcasters, networks and programmers, since they are so dependent on advertising to support their businesses. Thus, the television industry has shifted from a world of scarce distribution to scarce attention, and most expect much of the economic value to follow. Value in the future will be less about securing distribution of programming and more about attracting and retaining audiences for programming, probably on a case-by-case basis.
Why are audiences fragmenting so much? Certainly, part of the problem is that with many more choices -- actually, an explosion of programming choices -- it is quite natural for viewers to spread themselves out among the many different types of channels and programs now available. Folks are no longer tied to only three broadcast networks for their television programming.
But that's not the only problem. I believe that viewer confusion and ignorance may be a very big driver of fragmentation as well. With so many choices on so many channels at so many different days and times of the day, it is practically impossible for viewers to know what's available to them at any one time.
It is a navigation issues. Viewers are confused. They lack information. Old tools like TV Guide magazine, TV listings in newspapers, and "lead in, lead out" programs, are largely obsolete and ineffective.
What about Electronic Programming Guides? Navigating those are like trying to use computers in the pre-graphical user interface days. They're not very user-friendly and only provide very "flat" information.
How will the viewer confusion problem be fixed? Shrinking the number of programming choices is certainly not an option -- the toothpaste is already out of that tube. Clearly, the television industry needs to find ways to better promote their programming to the right viewers at the right time. They need to find ways to distribute more relevant information closer to viewers about what programming is available that they might be interested in.
Almost 25% of all commercial time on television is used for program promotion. That represents at least $10 billion dollars of value, not to mention the several billions of dollars that broadcasters and cable nets and programmers spend "off-channel" to promote their shows.
To date, there is only a limited amount of science brought to bear on this process; not much was ever needed in the past since it always worked. That has changed. Now, I think, is the time to bring much more science to the television program promotion process. It could go a long way toward ameliorating audience fragmentation, or at least bring more predictability to managing audience flows. What do you think?