Annual BARB measured television viewing levels in the UK have fallen significantly for the first time since the advent of the new BARB panel in January 2010. Having fluctuated at just over 240 minutes a day during the three year period from 2010 to 2012 inclusive, average daily total television viewing (i.e. both live and timeshifted combined) for Individuals 4+ fell to 231.8 minutes in 2013 (down 8.8 minutes = 3.7%). As one would expect, the decline was even more pronounced when looking at live viewing only, with average daily live television viewing falling from 216.4 minutes in 2012 to 205.6 minutes in 2013 (down 10.8 minutes = 5.0%), having previously only dropped by around 1.9% per annum from 2010 to 2012.
Is this the beginning of the end for traditional ‘linear’ television? Are we inevitably moving to a world of small screens and personalised schedules where people getting together to watch a live television broadcast on the main living room TV screen is reserved for major sporting events and talent/game shows? While any significant decline in BARB measured TV viewing levels is a cause for concern, it certainly isn’t time to hit the panic button just yet. At an average of 232 minutes per day BARB measured TV viewing levels remain high, and are still comfortably above the 225 minutes per day at which the old BARB panel peaked back in 2009. While few would disagree that the increasing use of second screen devices (most notably tablets) to watch both catch-up and live television will have contributed to the decline in BARB measured TV viewing levels, as viewing on such devices is currently not included in the BARB data, the good summer weather in 2013 (not the mention the absence of mass audience events like London 2012) as well as the growing optimism about the economy (with more people able to afford nights out and foreign holidays) will also have played a role. Nevertheless, as I noted in a previous research note back in November 2012: “Whether we see a significant decline in measured total TV viewing levels (i.e. live and timeshifted combined) in the coming years will, rather ironically, largely depend on BARB’s ability to capture TV viewing on non-TV devices”. The good news is that BARB has been making significant progress towards measuring and reporting viewing on such devices, and while timescales can be rather elastic the current target is to start reporting TV viewing on desktops/laptops and tablets by the summer of 2014.
Sceptics, however, would still point out that while this might help mitigate the decline of BARB measured total TV viewing levels, it would do nothing to arrest the decline in the levels of live TV viewing. In fact, viewing on laptops and tablets is even more likely to be timeshifted catch-up viewing, though one can also watch live on such devices. They would also be able to point to the fact that as the take-up of PVR and VOD enabled devices has proliferated, the proportion of BARB measured total TV viewing that is live (as opposed to catch-up) has fallen consistently from 92.9% in 2010 to 88.7% in 2013. With up to 80% of adverts being skipped/fast-forwarded in timeshifted viewing streams, there is a risk that if such a decline were to continue unabated, then advertisers would lose confidence in TV’s ability to deliver mass audience ratings. Rather than continue chasing a dwindling supply of TV based Commercial Impacts and putting up with the associated rise in CPTs, they would eventually allocate more of their advertising budgets to other forms of advertising, spelling disaster for those commercial broadcasters that are too reliant on TV advertising revenues. That this is something which the TV industry is taking seriously, can also be said to be reflected in ITV’s increasing shift towards a more subscription based business model, most notably in its recent deal with Sky, whereby the new channel ITV Encore will be exclusive to Sky combined with the wider availability of ITV’s channels and programmes on all of Sky’s platforms including Sky Go, Sky Store and NOW TV.
Being cautious and diversifying one’s income stream, on the other hand, is simply good business practice, and there will always be those who watch very little live television once they have access to robust and convenient timeshifting technologies. What really matters, however, is that the hard empirical evidence to date suggests that there is a limit to how much TV viewing the average UK Individual is prepared to timeshift. The best way to appreciate this is to look at the live TV viewing levels on a mature platform where timeshifting is an integral part of the viewing experience. Sky+ fits the bill perfectly, having been one of the UK’s first PVR platforms, and with the latest generation of Sky+ boxes also incorporating internet connectivity and the associated access to VOD. In 2010 82.9% of total TV viewing (i.e. live and timeshifted combined) on the Sky+ platform was live and this did fall quite sharply to 80.8% in 2011. Over the 3 year period from 2011 to 2013, however, the proportion of live viewing on the Sky+ platform remained stable, holding at 80.8% of Sky+ total TV viewing in 2012 and only dropping marginally to 80.1% in 2013. This stability in the proportion of live viewing on the Sky+ platform over the last 3 years is particularly pertinent, as it coincides with a period of increasing internet connectivity for the platform, with even more VOD content and the ability of connected Sky+ users to catch-up on missed shows whether they remembered to record them or not.
The moral of the story is that live TV viewing is likely to continue to dominate even in an environment where everyone has ready access to a variety of PVR and VOD enabled devices, and while the way we are watching television is changing, our fundamental need for a shared live viewing experience in front of the main living room television set has remained the same. As I have pointed out on many occasions during my career as a broadcast media consultant, the empirical evidence does not support the perennial predictions of the demise of television.
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