Is Ad-Supported TV Better Than Ad-Free TV?

TV isn’t dead. Netflix and HBO might tell you that. But can this same theory apply for ad-supported TV?

HBO’s “Game of Thrones” just boosted its year-ago premiere ratings by a massive 50% to 16.1 million total viewers. This comes from 10.1 million linear TV viewers and 6 million from digital, on-demand and other viewing.

More narrowly, the Season Seven premiere episode of the popular drama is up 27% in linear TV viewing to 10.1 million -- up from 7.29 million a year ago. It has steadily grown in viewership in its seven-year run.

Can ad-supported TV programs offer any of the same evidence of growth -- especially for a TV series entering its seventh season? Not exactly.

AMC’s “Walking Dead” had increased viewer growth in its initial five years, only to taper off a bit in the last two. In 2015, Fox did have a surprising run for “Empire” in its first season --  each new episode grew over the previously aired show. Although it has declined since, it is still a strong performer.



No doubt it is more difficult for individual TV programs. But if you listen to David Poltrack, chief research officer for CBS Corp., a broader picture may look better.

Earlier this year, in analyzing the Nielsen preliminary Total Content Ratings metric -- which considers DVR playback and video-on-demand viewing -- Poltrack said: “The numbers are coming in at the levels of audience around 2000, which was a time when time-shifted viewing was not measured.”

Well, that is good news. But what about the future? Better results may be coming, as data did not include online and/or mobile streaming.

Long-term, many may wonder whether it’s an either/or situation: ad-supported TV or ad-free TV.

Young viewers look to avoid ad-supported TV -- traditional or digital platforms -- more than older TV viewers.  At best, they might seem to watch ad-supported TV with radically different scheduling formats.

At the recent traditional TV upfront, there was still plenty of momentum behind traditional linear TV. But where is the momentum for future TV viewers?

A continuing “Thrones” theme speaks of colder days to come. 

2 comments about "Is Ad-Supported TV Better Than Ad-Free TV?".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, July 19, 2017 at 10:23 a.m.

    "But if you listen to David Poltrack... "  

    Wow, where do I begin with that one? He's very intelligent but hardly a dispassionate voice. As you clearly note, he works for CBS. Is it possible that his research might go out of its way to make broadcast look as sound as ever? Meanwhile, we read from another of your columns that the biggest decline in traditional TV viewing is among teens and young adults, which is hardly a hopeful piece of information.

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, July 19, 2017 at 11:06 a.m.

    Douglas, the fully programmecd broadcast TV networks---ABC, CBS and NBC-----can't be worried about teens as these are not the primary targets of most advertisers and they haven't been big viewers of primetime fare in 40 years, anyway. As for young adults, while the traditional TV networks, again, ABc, CBS and NBC----wouldn't mind reaching more of them, that's a forelorn hope, especially with The CW, which is a partnership between CBS and Warners---siphoning off some of them as well as Fox, with some of its shows and, of course Netflix, cable, etc. So, the broadcast networks are basically operating in the marketing mainstream---adults aged 30+, with a strong emphasis on those over 50. On the plus side, what David is pointing out---and this applies mainly for primetime, not other dayparts, is that for some CBS primetime shows, extended delayed viewing and, digital exposures are adding back many of the seemingly lost viewers that Nielsen wasn't reporting in its "linear TV rating calculations using the three day delay cut-off. Moreover, a high proportion of these "lost" viewers are younger and more affluent than their mainly live C3 counterparts. In short, things aint as bad as one might think.

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