Nielsen Finds 'Cord-Cutting' Is Real, But Cuts Both Ways: Online Video Churns Almost As Much As TV

In a finding that appears to defy some conventional industry thinking, new research released by Nielsen Co. indicates the so-called phenomenon of "cord-cutting" - people who replace a portion of their TV viewing with online video streaming - is real, but it also cuts both ways. Since Nielsen began simultaneously tracking TV viewing and online video usage in its national TV ratings sample earlier this year, it has found that nearly as many people have shifted some share of viewing away from online video, as have shifted toward it.

The data, which comes from Nielsen's new "convergence panel," was revealed to clients late Wednesday during a webinar entitled, "Cross-Platform Insights: The Relationship Between Television and Internet." Nielsen executives cautioned that the findings are based only on four-months of data, and that seasonality, and the volatility of TV programming schedules, may be a factor, and that it would require at least a year's worth of data before any genuine trends would begin to emerge.



"I think it really is important to keep in mind, that as new as online video is, it's still a very small part of the total video people are consuming," Jon Gibs, vice president-media analytics at Nielsen Online, and one of the executives responsible for the analysis, told Online Media Daily during a briefing before Wednesday's webinar.

In fact, the overall takeaway of the Nielsen analysis should help quell the anxieties of the TV industry that online video is an imminent threat - or by that same token - and significant immediate opportunity for programmers seeking to extend their presence online.

Currently, Nielsen estimates that only about 1% of total U.S. video consumption - traditional TV viewing (95%), time-shifted viewing via digital video recorders (4%), and online video (1%) - occurs via online video streaming among the total U.S. population. Online video usage is about twice that rate for young adults ages 18-24, but at 2% is still a relatively tiny amount of their total video consumption.

Gibs said the main reason for this is that online video usage is still new and the penetration is small relative to television. He noted that the U.S. Internet population, as mature as it is, still has about 100 million fewer users than television.

But when looking at the data among online streaming users emerging from Nielsen's new convergence panel, some interesting - and seemingly contradictory - patterns begin to emerge. During the period tracked - November 2008 through March 2009 - Nielsen found that 30% did cut at least part of their TV cords, shifting a greater share of their viewing to online video. But almost as many - 29% - cut some of their broadband cords too, shifting some share of their online video streaming usage to TV viewing. Forty-one percent experienced no change.

Gibs also cautioned that the amount of shifting that took place among these users was relatively small. Among those who increased their online video usage, only 2% boosted it by 10% or more. Among those who increased their TV usage relative to online video, only 1% boosted it by 10% or more.

And with only an average of six minutes per day of online video consumption, Gibs noted that even a 10% shift toward online video streaming usage is a relatively small drop in television's barrel.

"Is cord-cutting a real phenomenon? Is cord-cutting something we should be worried about" All the data we looked at, including this one, should suggest it is not," Gibs said, adding that the biggest shifts away from TV viewing also appear to be occurring among people who already were the lightest viewers of television to begin with.

"When you talk to people who are cord-cutters, anecdotally, these people tended not to be big TV viewers in the first place. They tend to be a casual TV viewers," he said.

Most importantly, the Nielsen data suggests that while some share shifts are taking place, the overall affect is an expansion of the video consumption pie, meaning people are simply using online video to expand the amount of time they spend watching TV, not reducing it. In its presentation, Nielsen described increases in online video consumption as the "icing on the cake" for the overall television marketplace, and over time, Gibs predicted that online and TV platforms wouldn't necessarily manifest as an either/or proposition.

"It's likely to be much more of a blended experience," he said, with consumers toggling between traditional TV and online video depending on their location, mode of access and viewing disposition.

In fact, the new Nielsen data reveals that the workday, especially from lunchtime through the afternoon, tends to be the "prime-time" of online video consumption. And that the peak usage for online video in the home, tends to be in early fringe - from 7-8 p.m. - just before most Americans begin watching conventional prime-time TV programming.

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