Over the last decade in particular, our industry has been plagued by poor predictions resulting from an overestimation of the disruptive viewing impact of technological change. To counter this, it has been suggested that any new forecast should be accompanied by the forecaster’s predictions from the previous year. With this in mind, in my blog post from this time last year I noted that 2015 was likely to be: “another tough year for television, with the Individuals 4+ Total TV audience predicted to fall to 8.78 million in 2015 (-2.0%)”. In the event, the actual 2015 Total TV audience in the UK was 8.75 million, down 2.3% on 2014. Not too shabby, even if I do say so myself!
As predicted, this also constitutes a notable slowing in the decline of UK television viewing levels over the last few years, and this is despite the fact that there is likely to have been considerable downward pressure on Total TV viewing levels in 2015 with both the warmest December and highest Employment Rate since records began. It is noteworthy that despite a decade of potentially disruptive technological innovations (with the proliferation of PVRs, internet based VOD/Catch-up services, tablets and smartphones) the BARB measured Average Daily Minutes of television viewing for Individuals 4+ in 2015 (at 216.4 minutes) are practically the same as they were in 2005 (at 219.0 minutes), giving some cause for optimism about the long term future of television.
Among those predicting the demise of television, however, a future scenario based around the changing viewing habits of younger viewers has been gaining currency. It is pointed out that while the disruptive viewing impact of technological change has been more marginal for older age groups, the impact has been much more pronounced for children and young adults (with the latter often being referred to, rather vaguely, as ‘Millennials’). It is then argued that as they age, the younger viewers of today will largely retain their much more limited television viewing habits, resulting in a sustained decline of overall television viewing levels going forward.
While it is certainly not implausible that our current viewing habits will have an influence on the viewing choices we make as we age, there is little to support the view that our habits will not also alter significantly with age. It has always been the case that older viewers watch significantly more television on average than their younger counterparts. So, even if we focus on relatively narrow age groups, it is true to say that in both 2005 and 2015 Children (4-15) watched less television on average that 16-24s, who in turn watched less than 25-34s, and so on. What has changed, however, is that in 2015 younger viewers watched significantly less television than they did in 2005, while older viewers generally watched significantly more. So, comparing Average Daily Minutes of television viewing in 2005 with 2015 we have that: Children (4-15) are down by 17.6% (135.0 vs 111.2), 16-24s are down by 21.2% (157.2 vs 124.0), 25-34s are down by 22.4% (208.4 vs 161.8), 35-44s are down by 11.4% (219.5 vs 194.4), though 45-54s are down by only 1.0% (241.9 vs 239.4), while 55-64s and 65+s are up by 12.5% (263.6 vs 296.7) and 13.6% (300.9 vs 341.9) respectively.
There are likely to be a number of factors that have resulted in this shift. Firstly, it is important to appreciate that since 2005 the digital switchover has meant that everyone (most notably older viewers who are generally later adopters of new technologies) now has access to multichannel television which, with the proliferation of PVRs and HD TVs, has greatly enhanced the quality, choice and convenience of the television viewing experience. This, combined with the exceptionally cold weather and low Employment Rate, certainly helps explain the exceptionally high levels of overall TV viewing over the 2010 to 2012 period, as well as the more recent declines over the last 3 years which have been characterised by milder weather and a strong economy. For younger viewers, however, it is also the case that BARB measured TV viewing levels have been declining much more persistently and were already starting to do so at a time when TV viewing among older age groups was at a record high during the early years of this decade. The most plausible explanation is that this has indeed been caused by the growing disruptive influence of technological change, with younger viewers spending an increasing amount of time using connected small/second screen devices instead of watching television on the big screen.
On the other hand, at least some of the time not spent in front of a TV set will be used to consume both live and catch-up TV content on a PC, tablet or smartphone, and as BARB’s Project Dovetail progresses the eventual incorporation of this viewing as part of the consolidated television audience figures will at the very least begin to mitigate any continuing future declines. That being said, the fundamental question remains of whether or not we are moving towards a fundamental paradigm shift that will see a continued youth driven decline in BARB measured TV viewing levels in the coming years, or are moving towards a new equilibrium that will see viewing levels stabilise. Though only time will ultimately tell, there is certainly some early trend based evidence that TV viewing is beginning to level out for the younger age-groups.
Another piece of evidence worth considering is how younger and older audiences choose to consume what they watch on their TV screens. BARB’s consolidated audience figures currently include all Live and 7-day timeshifted (whether PVR recorded or internet VOD based) viewing though any TV set or associated TV set connected device (be it a Sky+ box or games console), and we already know that according to the consolidated BARB figures young viewers on average watched significantly less in 2015 than they did in 2005 while older viewers watched significantly more. Based on this, one might also reasonably expect the way younger and older audiences distribute their TV set based viewing between Live only and 7-day timeshifted to have grown apart over the last 10 years. With this in mind, it is noteworthy that in 2005 98.6% of consolidated BARB measured Individuals 4+ TV viewing was Live only, with little variation across the different age groups. Unsurprisingly, with the proliferation of PVRs and VOD catch-up services, only 86.8% of consolidated BARB measured Individuals 4+ TV viewing in 2015 was Live only. However, contrary to expectations, there does not appear to have been a considerable polarisation in the amount of TV set based Live only versus 7-Days timeshifted viewing by age group. So, we find that in 2015 Live only TV set based viewing accounted for 85.0% of the Children (4-15) consolidated audience, for 16-24s it was 83.1%, for 25-34s it was 80.4%, for 35-44s it was 83.6%, for 45-54s it was 85.7%, for 55-64s it was 88.1%, and finally for 65+s it was 91.6%. If we are indeed heading towards a youth driven paradigm shift rather than a new equilibrium, one might well have expected the younger and older audiences to be much further apart.
In conclusion, despite a growing number of screen based activities competing with television, as well as numerous opportunities for timeshifted viewing of TV content, there does appear to be a substantial underlying demand for consuming Live schedule based programming on a big TV screen, even among younger audiences. As I have said many times before, the staying power of television should not be underestimated. It is a compelling form of entertainment which, despite significant challenges, is likely to remain an important element in the audio-visual media consumption habits of all ages for the foreseeable future.
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