The ease with which viewers can now timeshift their television viewing has resulted in live viewing levels in the UK dropping from 98.2 % of total consolidated (i.e. live + timeshifted combined) BARB measured TV viewing in 2006 to just under 90% in 2012. This is, however, an average and is clearly going to vary significantly depending on the type of content, with a much higher proportion of the audience tending to watch live when it comes to news and sports than is usually the case for documentaries and dramas. Even for high-end television dramas, however, there is likely to be a significant variation in the extent to which viewers choose to watch live rather than timeshifted, and to get a better idea of the likely ranges involved, a comparative analysis of medical drama House and period drama Downton Abbey provides some interesting insights.
Even within a given genre there are many factors that are likely to influence a given programme’s live versus timeshifted audience, including scheduling, whether it is a first run or a repeat and on which channel/platform it is being broadcast. To achieve consistent results it is therefore best to limit our House versus Donwton Abbey case study to first run UK transmissions only, and to look at the most recent runs of each series. Season 8 of House (which was also the final season) went out on Thursdays in the 22:00-23:00 slot on Sky1 only 3 days after its US premier on Fox, with the first 8 episodes going out between 06/10/2011 and 01/12/2011, and the remaining 14 episodes going out between 23/02/2012 and 24/05/2012 following the mid-season break. To even come close to a comparable number of episodes over a similar timeframe for Downton Abbey we therefore need to look at series 2 and 3 as well as the 2011 Christmas special combined. Series 2 (18/09/2011 to 06/11/2011) and series 3 (16/09/2012 to 04/11/2012) with 8 episodes each both went out on Sundays in the 21:00-22:30 slot on ITV1, with the 2011 Christmas special going out in the 21:00-23:00 slot. Both titles also did extremely well for their broadcasting channels, with House averaging a consolidated Individuals 4+ audience of 654 thousand (2.5 times higher than the 22:00-23:00 Sky1 slot average) and Downton Abbey averaging 11.8 million (2.6 times higher than the ITV1 22:00-22:30) slot average).
Downton Abbey has certainly proved to be a resounding mass audience success for ITV1, and its premier showings now constitute an ‘event’ that many of its loyal fans will make an effort to watch live so that they can be part of the immediate conversation/experience. This is undoubtedly also helped by its very effective scheduling, and of an average Individuals 4+ consolidated audience of 11.8 million an impressive 75%, 8.9 million viewers, watched live. Without the ‘event’ appeal of Downton Abbey and a later slot, one would certainly expect the first run showings of the final season of House to have a significantly lower proportion of the consolidated average audience watching live. That being said, the Thursday night (22:00-23:00) slot on Sky1 would generally still be considered a reasonably effective placement by digital multichannel standards, and House does have a loyal fan base, who one might expect to make a reasonable effort to catch the live showings.
It may therefore come as a surprise to many readers that of an average Individuals 4+ consolidated audience of 654 thousand only 25%, 164 thousand viewers, watched House live. Looking at individual transmissions there does however appear to be a moderate upward trend, whereby the proportion of live viewers grew as the series came to an end, with the final ever episode of House managing to attract the highest proportion of live viewers at 37%. This does suggest that House fans may have felt more of a need to watch the show live as it was coming to its final conclusion, though it must also be noted that the rather erratic nature of the live viewing proportions time-series for Season 8 of House (with significant fluctuations of between 16% and 37% across the entire run) makes this at best a tentative hypothesis. By contrast, with the exception of the Christmas special, where the proportion of live viewers fell to 66%, there was very little variation in the proportion of live viewers across both the 2nd and 3rd series of Downton Abbey, with the proportion of live viewers remaining remarkably stable at between 73% and 79%, testimony to just how strong the desire to be part of a live ‘event’ can be. Watching it on catch-up isn’t quite the same.
That being said, the fact that so few of House’s UK viewers chose to watch the show live is a clear indication of just how dramatic the timeshifted versus live viewing range can be, and this is therefore a warning sign to broadcasters (particularly those relying heavily on spot advertising revenues) that it is important for them to raise the ‘event’ status of their leading shows to not only maximise their consolidated audiences, but to also ensure that the proportion of live viewers to these key assets remains consistently high. The problem with a low proportion of live viewers is of course the fact that a very high proportion of adverts are skipped in timeshifted viewing streams, and the dramatic impact this can have is something I will be discussing in my next research note.
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