Annual BARB measured television viewing levels in the UK have fallen again significantly for the second year running, further highlighting the end of the exceptionally high and stable levels of Total TV viewing that were a hallmark of the new BARB panel over the 3 year period from 2010 to 2012. Having fluctuated at just over 240 minutes a day, Total TV viewing (i.e. both live and catch-up combined) for Individuals 4+ fell to 231.8 minutes per day in 2013 (-3.7%) and has fallen again to 220.6 minutes per day in 2014 (-4.8%). The growing UK population, however, has meant that the Total TV audience (i.e. how many people, on average, are watching TV at any given point in time) has declined somewhat less in percentage terms, falling from 9.59 million Individuals 4+ in 2012 to 9.30 million in 2013 (-3.0%) and then 8.97 million in 2014 (-3.6%).
The obvious questions to ask are: why is this happening, and where are we headed? The first thing to note is that through a combination of the general economic uncertainty and exceptionally cold winters in 2010 and 2011, followed by the ‘Jubilympics’ and an unusually wet summer in 2012, the 2010-2012 period must be seen as one where the Total TV audience was particularly high. After all, between 2009 and 2010 the Individuals 4+ Total TV audience rose by 8% from 8.89 million to 9.60 million (and then persisted at this level through to 2012), and while the BARB panel change in Jan-2010 may well have contributed to this (through a more accurate reflection of the evolving television landscape than the previous BARB panel), there is little reason to doubt that it also reflected a genuine underlying increase in the Total TV audience at the time. However, given the unusual nature of the 2010-2012 period, an eventual downward adjustment was always going to be likely. That being said, there can also be very little doubt that the increasing use of second screen devices (most notably tablets) to watch both catch-up and live television will have contributed significantly to the decline in BARB measured TV viewing levels (particularly among younger viewers), as viewing on such devices is not currently included in the BARB data. The good news is that BARB’s Project Dovetail has been making significant progress towards measuring and reporting viewing on such devices, though the complex nature of the task means that we are unlikely to see this reflected in the consolidated BARB viewing figures before 2016 at the earliest. It must also be acknowledged that Project Dovetail will not be able to counteract all the downward pressure on the BARB measured television audience, as opportunities to watch content outside the catch-up window as well as VOD films and material from broadcasters’ archives that fall beyond the scope of BARB’s Gold Standard consolidated TV audience metric continue to grow.
These are therefore clearly challenging times for the television broadcasting industry, and the latest figures will undoubtedly fuel the perennial speculation about the imminent demise of television. There has certainly been no shortage of rather extreme and largely unfounded claims, and as any serious analyst of television viewing habits will confirm, when it comes to speculating about the future of television it is (rather depressingly) far too often the case of not letting the actual facts get in the way of a good story about the death of television.
So, in the interest of letting the actual data (rather than new media pundits) do the talking for a change, what does one of the most relevant datasets (i.e. the BARB viewing data) tell us about the likely trajectory of the Total TV audience in the UK? Where are we likely to be in 2020? To answer this admittedly difficult question we’ve been developing a Total TV forecasting model built around the trends in the average daily minutes of viewing by age-band demographic (how much TV we watch a day and the rate at which this has been declining is highly age dependent) combined with ONS UK population projects (the UK population is aging but also growing) to generate a set of Total TV audience forecasts to 2020.
In the short term (with Project Dovetail unlikely to be implemented before 2016 at the earliest) all the trend based evidence is pointing towards another tough year for television, with the Individuals 4+ Total TV audience predicted to fall to 8.78 million in 2015 (-2.0%). To predict further into the future, however, we need to make some additional assumptions, and the best way to define where we are likely to end up is to forecast the likely outcomes based on two polarised positions to define a lower and upper forecast range, with the most probable outcomes being somewhere in between. Under the pessimistic lower forecast range we see the strong downward trends persisting through to 2020, despite the underlying efforts by BARB and the broadcasters to counteract this. This would see the Total TV audience fall to 7.96 million. The more optimistic upper forecast range, on the other hand, would suggest that through a combination of Project Dovetail and a persistent underlying demand for schedule based television (both live and catch-up, and irrespective of the platform or device on which it is consumed) there is a reasonable chance that we could actually see a significant recovery in the Total TV audience levels. This would see the Individuals 4+ Total TV audience rising from a predicted low of 8.78 million in 2015 to 9.06 million in 2020.
Based on the current evidence, the likelihood is that we will probably end up somewhere in between the upper and lower forecast ranges, but what to my mind certainly stands out the most is that even under the pessimistic lower forecast range we are still predicted to be in a position where in 2020 just under 8 million people in the UK are, on average, watching a combination of live and catch-up television at any given point in time. That is a likely minimum average of 8 million people in the UK watching TV every minute of every day in 2020, or to use one of those large numbers that new media pundits like to quote as evidence that VOD streaming services are eclipsing television, that is 4.2 trillion minutes of BARB measured television viewing. To conclude, while it is certainly true to say that television is evolving and facing significant challenges, this does not (as so many seem to believe) automatically translate into conclusive evidence that it is in decline. In fact, while it is difficult to predict the future, the actual direct evidence that we do have from the BARB panel suggests that television will prevail.
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