Commentary

Redefining What It Means To 'Watch TV'

A new study published in the journal Pediatrics reports that TV viewing is down significantly in the past decade among 6th through 10th graders (aged 11 to 16). In 2001-02, teens reported watching 3.1 hours of TV per day, slightly less on weekdays and slightly more on weekends. TV viewing has been on a steady decline during the past decade, and by 2009-10, the study finds TV viewing was down to 2.4 hours per day, a nearly 25% drop. Nielsen's numbers agree. 

But the numbers don’t tell the whole story – asking teens about TV and DVD viewing doesn’t account for all the ways in which they watch video. Is streaming a show on Netflix watching TV? What about YouTube? What about when they’re watching shows on a tablet or smartphone? And what does this all mean for marketers and advertisers who want to reach teens? Teens are indeed watching less on TV sets, but they’re still actively engaged with shows. They’re just using new ways to “watch TV” that fit their lifestyles. 

It’s Not TV, It’s Netflix

The streaming service is perhaps the greatest threat to teens’ traditional TV viewing. In our ongoing conversations with teens about media, we have learned that they are massive fans of the brand, often preferring it to networks that have historically targeted their demographic. They like being able to watch shows whenever they want rather than when they air. Viewing on their own time is particularly important for this generation of teens whose lives are over-scheduled as they strive to make it into the university of their choosing (complex projects replace traditional homework and extra-curricular activities are increasingly important).

Surfing YouTube Equates To Channel Surfing

It should come as no surprise to youth marketers that teens are spending vast amounts of time on YouTube, but what you might not know is that they think of surfing the site in the same way as they think of channel surfing with a good old fashioned remote control. Bouncing from one clip to another equates to looking for something good on TV. It’s irrelevant to them that the “shows” they’re watching may not be as long as traditional TV shows (they don’t have time to watch lengthy videos anyway) or that the video quality isn’t as good. All that matters is that they can find something entertaining to watch.

The Secret Lives Of Streaming Teenagers

Alternate streaming sources that provide TV and video programming offer teens a way to watch their favorite shows with a little added privacy. Screening videos on their computers, smartphones, and tablets means that their parents are less likely to know what they’re watching. Such freedom from the scrutiny of their parents gives teens an added sense of privacy, autonomy, and independence – three things every teen craves as he or she grows into adulthood. What’s more, streaming allows teens to watch wherever and whenever they want, whether that be at 2 am in bed or sitting on the steps at school between classes and football practice.

The writing is on the wall when it comes to the future of TV. We’re already seeing similar trends in our latest Young Love study with kids and tweens, who show a strong affinity toward Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu. This next wave of youth will likely continue to move the needle further in the direction of small-screen, on-demand, personalized viewing as they enter their teen years.

Don’t discount traditional TV networks as being obsolete just yet. They are also evolving to meet the needs of teen viewers’ changing habits. They’re striking distribution deals with Netflix and Amazon, making content and clips available (legally) on YouTube, and even creating their own apps and websites to allow teens all the secret streaming they want. As teens continue to spend less time in front of TV sets across America, these alternate platforms and viewing services will only become more important to TV networks as well as to marketers and advertisers.

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