Behind the cable frenzy: The shift in TV viewing habits finally takes hold

Behind the cable frenzy: The shift in TV viewing habits finally takes hold

May 26, 2015

The New York Times describes Charter Communi­ca­tions’ $55 billion bid for Time Warner Cable as the result of “a tectonic shift in how Americans watch and pay for television.” How tectonic is it? Recent sur­veys document two in­ter­connected trends: More and more television is being viewed on computers, smartphones, and other devices; and at the same time, there’s an upsurge in the amount of television that’s streamed rather than watched live.

For large numbers of viewers, what we now call television is becoming un­coupled from the TV screen, from the TV schedule, and from con­ventional TV providers like cable and satellite. The impli­cations are huge. Network pro­gram­mers will find their once all-important scheduling func­tion becoming increas­ingly obsolete. And cable and phone com­panies will find their Inter­net business out­pacing their TV bun­dles both in importance and profitability.

Deloitte’s “Digital Democracy Survey” and the In­ter­active Ad­vertising Bureau’s report on “The Chang­ing TV Ex­pe­rience” show US viewers at a tipping point. The most re­markable finding comes from Deloitte: Of all the time people spend watch­ing tele­vision in the US, only 45 per cent is now spent viewing programming as it’s being broadcast. By com­parison, Nielsen reported in 2012 that Americans spent roughly three-quarters of their viewing time watch­ing the conven­tional way—on schedule, and on a TV screen. But now, even the 68-and-over crowd reports watching scheduled tele­vision broad­casts less than two-thirds of the time. For those 14-to-25, that figure drops to a mere 28 per cent.

Demographic trends in general don’t look good for television as it exists today. On the whole, Deloitte reports, those 14-to-25-year-olds value stream­ing video, mobile data, and gam­ing ser­vices more highly than they do pay TV. As for the devices people use, the amount of time spent looking at a TV screen goes down steadily as you move from old to young. Boomers do about 80 per cent of their viewing on TV screens. Those in their teens and early twenties spend most of their time on com­puters, tablets, and smart­phones.

Binge watching? Fully 84 per cent of the youngest group have watched at least three episodes of a series back-to-back, as opposed to 56 per cent of boom­ers and 37 per cent of their elders. The most binged-on genre by far is TV drama.

Further insight comes from the IAB report, which zooms in on the behavior of the one-third of US adults who own an Internet-connected TV (either a smart TV or one augmented by Apple TV, Roku, or some similar device). Guess what? These people stream a lot more video than anyone else. Three-quarters of them stream to their TV screen at least once a month; one out of three say they do so daily. And a quarter of these con­nected TV owners made their pur­chase in the three months before the survey was con­duct­ed—most of them so they could subscribe to Netflix or Amazon Prime.

Nielsen’s report shows that changes in viewing habits are hardly restricted to the US. Worldwide, millennials and their younger siblings watch more video on their com­puters than on a TV screen. In Asia/Pacific, the Middle East, and Latin America, people are as likely to go on­line on another device while watching TV as in the US and Canada; only in Europe is this a minority practice. And viewing on smartphones—during the morning or evening commute, or even at home—is far more prevalent in Asia/Pacific, the Middle East, and Latin America than in Europe or North America.

Recent reports from IHS and Juniper Research show the industry fallout: More and more pay-TV subscribers lost, espe­cially by satellite providers. In the States, IHS forecasts a slow decline over the next few years, with the pro­portion of pay-TV households dropping from a high of 85 per cent in 2009 to 79 per cent by 2019. Globally, Juniper projects that the number of households subscribing to “over-the-top” services like Netflix and Amazon Prime will grow 260 per cent in the next four years, to 332 million, with the bulk of that growth coming from North America, Western Europe, and Asia/Pacific.

I’ve covered television’s halting transition to the Internet-enabled, post-linear, digital future since the earliest, premature experiments in the mid-’90s, first for Fortune and later for Wired. Like most technological shifts, this one has taken far longer than many expected—myself included. But anyone who doubts it’s happening now should check out Nielsen’s home page, which features line drawings of a tablet, a laptop, a TV screen, a smartphone, and a TV screen with a box beneath it—and next to them the words “TOTAL IT UP.” Forget prime-time ratings. For advertisers—and for Nielsen—counting the total audience over time and across devices is what matters now.

The Sea We Swim In

"A master storyteller on the story of stories. Rose deconstructs them expertly—how they make us pay attention, how they move us, and why we remember them. His eloquent toolkit will help us make our own stories more effective and avoid being buffeted by the strange modern sea of digital stories that surrounds us."

—David Kirkpatrick, author of "The Facebook Effect" and founder of Techonomy

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