Most TV Viewers Don't Know What To Watch

  • by , Featured Contributor, December 17, 2009
Most TV viewers are lost when it comes to deciding what to watch. According to a new Knowledge Networks report, 56% of U.S. television viewers usually turn on their TV's without the intent to watch a specific program. It certainly sounds like the days of "must-see TV" are over.

While I've written before about the "discovery problem" faced by TV viewers today, the issue certainly justifies a little revisiting.

How -- in an age when so many folks feel time-constrained, and when information about TV programming is so abundant -- could the majority of viewers sit down in front of their television not knowing what they are going to watch? Certainly, there has always been a large portion of TV viewers that turned on sets first and decided later. But how did "turning on before deciding what to tune-in" become the practice of choice for most of us? Here are my thoughts:

So many good choices. With the explosion of new channels, the total number of programming choices for any one viewer is extraordinary; the total number of very-good choices is extraordinary as well. Today, TV viewers are like kids in a candy store.



Poor information and navigation. There are no tools available today that can easily inform viewers in a timely way about all of the available programming that they might enjoy. Electronic programming guides are getting better. Web services and social media services are helping. But, in the end, most viewers know that they don't know what's there that they might enjoy, and are probably hoping to find it through channel- or guide-surfing.

Changing loyalties. Most viewers used to be intensely loyal to specific programs and networks. Now, there are still lots of very loyal viewers -- just look at the ratings of the best shows -- but the loyal viewers are in the minority now, not the majority. Today, viewers are loyal to their TVs, to the days and times when they turn them on, and to favorite genres of programming. Most are no longer loyal to specific programs or networks. At Simulmedia, our analysis of the anonymous viewing habits of many millions of viewers confirms this trend. On average, 60% of the viewers of shows last season only watched one episode live, and the numbers didn't get much better when you added in time-shifted viewing.

What does this mean for the television business? Clearly, the industry needs to do a better job solving viewers' discovery problem, whether through better navigation tools in TV systems or set-top boxes, or more and better on-air program promotions (still the #1 method for viewers to find shows). The most-watched shows will continue to be very valuable, since they will become fewer and far between. The smaller, more niche programming will also do very well and continue to help justify pay-TV subscriptions.

In my mind, what's certain for the future is that the data will tell the story. As the industry becomes more data-driven, programming that doesn't either drive large audiences or justify subscription fees -- those "tweener" shows that don't fulfill either function well -- will lose. What do you think?

16 comments about "Most TV Viewers Don't Know What To Watch".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, December 17, 2009 at 3:27 p.m.

    Or you could look at the research. 25 years ago, James Webster published the first in a series of articles that support the notion that "audience availability" is the best predictor of viewing. Same then, same now, no puzzle at all.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, December 17, 2009 at 3:50 p.m.

    It is hard to believe so many people don't know what they want to watch or like, (Newspaper TV guides and TV guide could help out, but that's another topic.) but the confusion you show bears it out. Personally, I really think it's not that hard to know what one likes or to find it and I am not that smart or tech savvy. What your study says tells more about people than their watching habits and their general cultural behavior. I think overall we will lose some intelligent programming where focus on one thing at time reins (over commercial scheduling again is another topic.. sort of) as well as some dogs (but those give us an excuse to do something else so they do have a purpose).

  3. Brian Quinn, December 17, 2009 at 3:59 p.m.

    We have over 800 channels on our TV and my wife still turns on the TV, goes to Channel 2 and starts clicking up, one channel at a time. When she gets to about channel 15 she says "There's nothing on". Then it's off to HGTV to watch a couple visit 200k houses in a suburb of Dallas. Dave, can you help her???


  4. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia, December 17, 2009 at 4:46 p.m.

    It's critical to have a compelling mission in a business - a big problem to solve - we will do everything that we can :)

  5. Michael Senno from New York University, December 17, 2009 at 10:17 p.m.

    Your first point - So Many Good Choices - remains debatable, as many feel the quality of programming has diminished. The choice part is what has grown, and that's why individual programming has less loyalty, the fragmented audience.

    I think you underestimate the public's intelligence in assuming they can't find the programming they want to, especially those on major networks. Maybe that argument holds weight for niche cable and online programming.

    I am analytically driven, so I prefer the data approach, and have followed your venture the past year or so, but I think its some people like the channel surfing past time, and more people know exactly what they want they you give them credit for here. The data is probably more valuable to programmers and advertisers, so they know how to best deliver on what people want.

  6. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia, December 17, 2009 at 10:21 p.m.

    Michael, I think that fewer people would like the channel-surf pastime if they new of the great programming that they would like. Dave

  7. Robert Formentin from *, December 17, 2009 at 10:48 p.m.

    Dave, TV is still a passive medium. I switch it on and ask it to “entertain me”. That’s the habit. I think Michael Senno is right – programming is generally bad, but there’s tons of choice. I think one thing you neglect to point out is that perhaps viewers don’t always want to decide ahead of time. Yes, we all have our favorite shows that we watch religiously, but there are times I don’t want to decide. I just want to watch. It’s like a surprise in a box! Don’t these words ring true: “I wonder what’s on TV?” – and then you proceed to go hunting. How many times have you watched part of a movie that you’ve not only seen a hundred times, but also have the DVD? Do I really need to know how a toaster is made? No, but I’ll watch for 10 minutes until I get bored and move to the cooking show, real estate, movie etc. I consume TV in small packets of time, except when I want to watch a show I like (very few), because there’s nothing that captivating that will glue me to my seat for an hour. Besides too many other things are begging for my attention, like your column :)

  8. Robin Vogel from From the Loins Greetings, December 18, 2009 at 7:53 a.m.

    You know what makes me channel-surf?

    COMMERCIALS! I despise them so much, especially since they often appear in groups from lengths of three to five minutes, I usually end up trying to avoid them by clicking to a different station, hoping to catch a snatch of PRICE IS RIGHT while HGTV is trying to regale me with the SAME commercials over and over. Sadly, nefariously, most networks seem to show their commercials at almost the same time, so my attempts are futile.

    Which is why I'm getting to the point of DVRing most of my shows. My favorite, SUPERNATURAL, which comes on here in New York at 9 PM on the CW, only runs from 38 to 42 minutes, with the remainder commercial filler. It gives me great pleasure to race through those commercials (which I have seen too many times watching live TV) and get back some of my life!

  9. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, December 18, 2009 at 10:06 a.m.

    My wife and I have five televisions in our house, and our favorite show is the one starring our dog and two cats.

    There's a difference between "what to watch" and "want to watch", and I'd rather watch my pets.

    Not suirprisingly, we now spend more time at the library than we do together in front of the TV(s).

  10. Lona Curtis, December 18, 2009 at 11:33 a.m.

    Lots of choices but nothing worth watching is the problem. There are only six or seven programs that I would miss if I gave up television completely. Even day time tv is better than what is offered in prime time.

  11. George McLam, December 18, 2009 at 6:22 p.m.

    Now that TVGuide info is controlled by one or two companies, the data consumers need to make informed decisions are not as available as they should be. For example DTV receivers are not allowed to show programs in the popular "grid format" unless someone paid a licensing fee.

    TV boroadcasters are doing themselves a HUGE disfavor these days by innundating the general public with "self promotion". It is not good enough that EVERY commercial break contains numerous over-repeated self-promotions, but they now have to super graphics to other programs DURING programming.

    Because there are so many self-promotions running all of the time, viewers IGNORE them. I know I do. And so even when something is being promoted that they WANT to know about, it is not seen. If you, Mr. Broadcaster, want your promotions to be SEEN and HEARD, then you need to be very selective as to how many of them you broadcast and when. If there are only self-promotions just before the top of the hour and no other time, I'll pay attention. But them in every break, they will ALL be IGNORED.

  12. Christi Pemberton from GC Style Magazine, December 18, 2009 at 7:04 p.m.

    I am not into the programming on basic television, but I am pretty fond of cable channels like the Style Network, Food TV, Bravo, and History/Discovery Channels...things that bring a bit of flash, style, and intrigue. There is good programming, but you have to know where look. Plus, Direct TV has a plethora of shows and channels to choose from with great quality. Link TV is excellent in bringing real news from around the world and world music that is really good. All of this "I can't find anything" or the "quality is so bad"..and "I hate commercials" just blanketing a whole segment of entertainment and information that is really unfair and a bit silly. There are great commercials..and every business has to market their product one way or the, I haven't seen McDonald's lose a cent, but gain crazy money from their commercials. So, someone must love the commercials and running out at night to get a Big Mac. Let's stop being grouches and just do a bit more looking to find what "we want to watch", which is the real issue...we want what we want, which may not be always what everyone else wants.

  13. Jerry Foster from Energraphics, December 21, 2009 at 3:43 a.m.

    If you know other languages, everything is now available online. To "defeat this" content producers have to make everything available for 99 cents or $3.99 as fast as possible after the premiere (4 days is OK but 7 days is so long that half the planet may have already seen it if it was a hot show). Avatar was brilliantly released simultaneously around the world - defeating pirates - although it too will probably be out in DVD from Senegal to Mongolia to Montevideo before Christmas.

  14. Jerry Foster from Energraphics, December 21, 2009 at 3:49 a.m.

    I take that back: 4 days is way too long to withhold content. Avatar is already available on pirate DVD outside the first world. This means that most popular films are going to have to be released on DVD almost immediately in markets outside the first world. Holding back is no longer possible.

  15. Nina Gerwin from the NRG group, December 23, 2009 at 1:33 a.m.

    Great post and oh so true, especially about changing viewer loyalties. I no longer have destination shows like I used to; I no longer have the luxury to have appointment viewing. I'm only tuning in when I'm stressed and need to veg out - and that can be at any time and on any day.

    With today's exponential explosion of media opportunities (from smartphones to console games to a plethora of online places to be) and life's options (work, home, whatever) all vying for our dwindling attention, it's no wonder we neither have the time or awareness in our consciousness to actively remember new shows on which channel number (I can no longer remember what channel a particular network is anymore), nor do we have the water cooler time at work to discover and share what we're and others are watching the evening before.

    What does this mean for networks? Networks need to be exponentially more creative to grab our attention and drive into our brains what to watch, when and where. That means they need to understand me as a viewer, what and WHY I watch what I watch, and present relevant content to me at the right time. Are networks up to the task? So far, and the data bears this out, the answer is no, they're not. I find that they are falling way short on understanding me as a viewer and spending way too much time creating market noise.

    Online viewing through Hulu, etc. is a secondary challenge for networks, and especially for niche content producers. See Channel Surfing and Discovery in an On-Demand World.

  16. William Hughes from Arnold Aerospace, December 23, 2009 at 5:23 p.m.

    I hear you Robin Vogel! And why in the name of Heaven do so many Companies believe the best way to get your Product across is to present it in an Obnoxious Manner? It also seems like many Advertisers don't give a hoot over who's watching their Commercials. I Discontinued my Subscription to Cable Three years ago because I saw too many ads for "Adult Products" (Such as "ED Pills") aired at times when children are certainly watching, including during Kids Shows themselves! Nowadays if a Program isn't on DVD I simply do not watch it!

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