Commentary

Why Have TV Viewers Stopped Channel Surfing?

  • by , Featured Contributor, February 15, 2018
The following was previously published in an earlier edition of Media Insider:

We all know the headlines about television these days: “Massive ratings declines.” “Prime time down.” “TV dying as viewers cut the cord.”

Do these really tell the whole story about the behaviors of U.S. TV viewers, and the health of TV as media?

To find out, my company’s chief scientist Kyle Hubert recently teamed up with Forrester’s Jim Nail to dig into the numbers behind the ratings. They analyzed the “gold standard” of TV viewing data – Nielsen’s All Minute Respondent-Level Data – over the past four and a half years to better understand what was happening at the individual viewer level.

 The high-level findings were what you’d expect. Almost everyone watching TV has access to more channels today than they did five years ago. The ratings of top shows have declined over those same five years, on average about 25% down. To reach the same size audience as five years ago advertisers must buy spots on significantly more shows and  networks today.

 However, a lot of what the data revealed was not nearly as aligned with conventional wisdom about what is happening on TV.

First, while individual show ratings are down by 25% over the past five years, viewing per person has only dropped 15% over that time frame. How is that possible? It’s simply because more shows are being viewed by the average viewer than five years ago. And, if you look at TV viewers who are 25 and older and watch at least 12 minutes of TV a day, there is no change in the amount of TV they watch. Yes,  25+ TV viewers are still watching the same amount.

Further, total TV audience viewing is up 5% over that time, since more people watch TV today. And like the U.S. population overall, the TV viewing population has grown.

Also, the number of different networks each viewer is watching has dropped over the past five years. Sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true. Most TV viewers watch only one or two  networks each day. The number of people who only watch one network per day has doubled, while those watching two networks per day have almost doubled. The number of those watching three networks per day are up 50%.

Wow. Shouldn’t more choice mean that viewers will watch more networks? No. What has dropped is channel surfing. What you can see in the respondent minute level data, and is confirmed by investigation of second level set-top-box viewing data, is that fewer viewers are surfing up and down channels. There is less “snacking” on TV today than five years ago.

In fact, most viewers today ave fewer viewing event and watch for longer periods of time.

With viewers now watching fewer networks and watching each network for longer periods of time, is it getting easier for advertisers to reach them? One would think that a TV media buyer today could just buy the top 10 networks and get the most viewers.

Actually, it’s quite the opposite. TV viewers may be watching fewer networks, but they are selecting those networks from a much larger pool. TV viewing has become more individualized and much more fragmented, with apparently more direct navigation to channel and show destinations. To reach all viewers today who only watch two networks (the largest group of TV viewers), a marketer would have to advertise on 135 different networks.

This has enormous implications for the TV media business. Thirty-five years ago, an advertiser buying one spot each on the top three networks in prime time on the same night reached virtually 100% of all TV viewers. Today, that buy yields less than 5% of TV viewers.

These findings turn upside down what many have thought about TV viewing. Anyone who wants to survive and thrive in the TV world is going to have to throw away old notions and practices and really dig into the data.

Will that be you? Are you ready?

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