TV's Not Dead: Six Recurring Myths

David Brennan from media consultancy Media Native explains how TV is still very much alive and kicking.

Recent rapid changes in the way we consume and access media have led many commentators to conclude that TV is dead. However, examining the various reasons with a more sophisticated eye and a great deal of evidence, David Brennan argues that whatever the impact of these changes and however the landscape is being reformed, one thing is clear – television is performing better than ever before.

There are the six recurring myths on which the ‘TV is dead’ narrative is based. This article examines each of these and finds them to be just that: myths.

1. People don’t watch TV any more

The most common myth about TV’s decline is that nobody watches it any more. But evidence from the wider world of industry ratings systems and other trustworthy research sources (not a sample of internet panel members asked how many hours a day or days a week they watch TV) is clear.

Television viewing has never been higher.

Since 2007, almost every month has produced a new record for the amount of time we spend watching TV. In 2011, record hours of viewing were reported in the US, UK, Canada, Germany, France, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, Holland, Spain and Australia, to name just a few, and 2012 has continued this trend. So far, 2013 looks no different.

The rise is across almost all demographics, including children and younger or more affluent adults. These audiences may not be watching as much as other audiences, such as older adults, but we know that much of the shortfall will be taken up by TV viewing via other platforms.

The UK provides a good snapshot of what has happened globally. During the 1970s, the average individual watched just over three hours of television per day. This rose by around half an hour per day during the 1980s and 1990s, mainly due to extended broadcasting hours. It then stayed flat, at around three hours, 40 minutes a day, until 2007. Since then, average total TV viewing has increased by over 20% and now stands at an average of four hours and 20 minutes every day – not just the highest viewing levels on record, but a record rate of growth.

One of the main reasons for the perception of TV viewing decline, despite so much evidence to the contrary, is that people often concentrate on the headline figures based on the performance of the big programmes and channels. In the UK, ITV witnessed a dramatic decline. To fall from 39% share to just over 20% – to lose almost half of your audience from a seemingly impregnable position in less than a decade – shattered confidence in the power of the broadcast networks. The even steeper decline of individual programmes, especially in the all-important peak-time slots, created a belief that even ratings bankers, such as Coronation Street and Emmerdale, were not long for this world.

But if we add on-demand viewing, delayed viewing and time shift repeats, the figures look much more like those gained a decade ago, when the big shows pulled big ratings. The big hits now create their value just like cinema blockbusters, through a variety of channels across a period of time, rather than just on their release date.

2. Fragmentation is inevitable… and bad for TV

Unquestionably, fragmentation is happening, but all the signs are that fragmentation will have less of an impact on TV ad revenues in the UK than has been predicted, for four main reasons:

The advertising revenue premium gained for the programmes that do reach large audiences, or that act like social glue for a specific subset of the audience, is increasing and goes a significant way towards countering the fragmentation trend.

Although the overnight figures (the ones that are usually reported) are significantly lower than for similar programmes in previous decades, once we add in the accumulated audience from on-demand, timeshift and repeat channels across the rest of the week, both see significant gains, often bringing them up to ‘pre-fragmentation’ levels.

The fragmentation of channel viewing is not being matched by fragmentation of broadcaster power. The consolidation of sales points in the UK, together with the success of the big broadcasters’ digital channels and on-demand services, has created a more cohesive broadcast market than we have had since the launch of Sky Digital.

Social media and online technologies are attracting sizeable audience communities around favourite programming and even attracting viewers back to the live broadcasts so they can share the experience in real time. This is especially true for the peak-time favourites.

3. On-demand: the great ‘migration'

One of the phrases I have found most misleading over recent years has been the concept of audiences ‘migrating’ to other alternatives. The concept of migration is of a long-term movement from one location to another. This doesn’t tie in with the irregularity of visits and short dwell times that the vast majority of ‘migrants’ devote to these new devices and platforms.

In the UK, TV on demand has been an unqualified success. Since the launch of the BBC iPlayer, it has been enjoying strong growth in audiences and revenues. Four out of every five broadband users watch TV online regularly and viewing is increasing by around 25% a year.

But let’s put it into perspective. The combined share of our TV time taken up by these ‘competitive’ on-demand experiences is less than 3%. Even when we add in timeshifted viewing of broadcast content via PVR, the share of total TV viewing taken up by live viewing to the broadcast schedules is well over 90%, and most experts now agree that it is likely to remain the dominant model for the foreseeable future.

Often, the motivation for catching a programme on demand is because viewers missed the show when it was broadcast at the scheduled time and have elected to catch up later, with every intention to go back to the schedules for the next episode. The availability of on-demand catch-up keeps viewers loyal to a series. If this is migration, it is hardly producing a settled population.

The desire to break free from the constraints of the schedule was assumed to be the driving force behind the rapid adoption of video cassette recorders (VCRs) in the 1970s but remarkably, just as with PVRs a quarter of a century later, they achieved around 15% of viewing within the homes that used them – despite being less convenient and easy to use than PVRs. It appears that there is a fairly fixed ceiling in how far away from the schedules most people are prepared to stray.

There are three main influences behind the resilience of the schedule.

Most TV viewing is shared, and this appears to be a growing phenomenon. Most shared viewing is based around the schedules, whereas on-demand tends to be a more individual experience.

The ephemeral nature of television is a powerful driver – what’s on now will always be more important than what we can watch at our own leisure (as anybody who has found themselves watching a movie on TV when they have the DVD just a couple of metres away will testify).

Schedulers know their viewers and know what programmes work best in different dayparts and even days of the week (eg gritty dramas on a Monday night but more gentle fare on Sunday evenings). It is no coincidence that many families continue to schedule other activities (such as meal times, bedtimes and going out) based on particular schedule structures, such as news, soaps and major programming events.

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