The rapid evolution and proliferation of screen and internet based technologies has left many in the television industry feeling under siege. I have lost count of the number of media executives who tell me that they hardly ever watch live television anymore, and that surely everyone else must be doing the same. Then there’s the ‘digerati’, who have been predicting the demise of traditional ‘linear’ television since the turn of the millennium, if not before. The latest buzz is now around ‘Connected’ devices, bringing everything that the internet has to offer to our ‘Smart’ TV sets and second screens. Is the tipping point nigh? Are we finally witnessing the demise of traditional ‘linear’ television as we know it?
To begin with, talking about ‘linear’ television is starting to become somewhat of a misnomer. What is currently being measured by BARB (Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board) in the UK is live TV set based viewing as well as any timeshifted (catch-up) viewing within 7 days of the original live transmission through any TV or TV connected device (be it recorded or a via an on-demand service). As a result, a significant proportion (around 10% in 2012) of the viewing being measured and reported is only ‘linear’ in the sense that it is being watched within 7 days of the original live transmission. It is also very telling that although viewing (live or catch-up) through PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones isn’t currently being captured by BARB, average television viewing levels in the UK have nevertheless remained at a record high of just over 240 minutes per person per day over the last three years.
While cynics may point suspiciously to the fact that these record viewing levels coincided with the introduction of a new BARB panel in January 2010, it is also the case that new panel is in all probability likely to be more accurate than the old, having been designed from the outset to measure TV viewing in a converging digital environment. The inevitable conclusion is that the new technologies and devices have so far acted as more of a compliment to than a substitute for our TV set based viewing, with ‘linear’ TV schedules still largely dictating our viewing habits whether we watch live or timeshifted within the measured 7 day catch-up window. The digital switchover has also meant that we now all have access to a much greater range of channels and associated content than ever before.
While all this is rather positive, it is also important to consider whether television viewing levels have now peaked and are likely to decline in the future. To begin with, the UK’s digital switchover is now complete, and at 240 minutes per person per day we are, on average, already spending 25% of our waking hours (assuming we average 8 hours sleep a day) in front of the television watching live or timeshifted TV content, and it is worth keeping in mind that this does not include such well-established activities as using the TV to play video games and watch DVDs or VOD/recorded content that doesn’t qualify as catch-up. If BARB succeeds in its current endeavour to measure and add the time we spend watching catch-up through PCs, laptops and possibly even tablets and smartphones to the television viewing total, then there may be scope for more growth. BARB is also considering an extension of the measured catch-up window from 7 to 28 days, which could push viewing levels up even further. On the other hand, there is also likely to be more downward pressure on television viewing overall, as the opportunities to watch TV content outside the catch-up window (even if it is eventually extended to 29 days), as well as VOD films and material from broadcasters’ archives, continues to grow, and we are already seeing the impact of this for younger demographics, where BARB measured TV viewing levels have begun to decline in recent years. Whether we see a significant decline in measured total TV viewing levels (i.e. live and timeshifted combined) in the coming years will therefore, rather ironically, largely depend on BARB’s ability to capture TV viewing on non-TV devices.
While the future direction of aggregated TV viewing levels is still in doubt, there is much less uncertainty about what is likely to happen to live television viewing levels in the coming years. It is a fact that we are now much more likely to timeshift our TV viewing, and this has begun to encroach on the amount of live television that we watch on a daily basis, which has declined by nearly 4% (from 224.9 to 216.6 minutes per day) over the last 3 years. It is therefore the ability to easily catch-up on shows that we have missed, or to watch them at a more convenient time (not to mention the ability to pause live TV) that has had the most significant impact on our television viewing habits in recent years. As around 80% of adverts are skipped in timeshifted viewing streams, this has also been a significant source of concern for broadcasters, like ITV, that rely on spot based TV advertising for the bulk of their broadcasting revenues. It is therefore no surprise that a core part of ITV chief executive Adam Crozier’s five year plan is to move away from traditional spot advertising and generate revenue from other sources.
At the moment, of course, live TV viewing levels, while falling, still remain high, but with the proportion of our BARB measured viewing that is timeshifted rising steadily from just under 2% in 2006 to just over 10% in 2012, it is important to consider where this trend might lead. Extrapolating from the existing trend suggests that by 2017 around 17.5% of our viewing will be timeshifted, rising to just below 25% by 2022. But simply extrapolating from an existing trend doesn’t really tell us where this is all likely to end. Will we inevitably end up in a world where the bulk of our viewing is no longer live? Many would believe so, but there is also some rather compelling evidence to suggest that our desire/need to watch live TV is actually much more deeply engrained than might at first appear to be the case.
It is certainly true that as we gain access to simple and effective timeshifting technologies, we do choose to watch less live TV, and it is the growth in the number of individuals who have access to this technology that is driving the growth in timeshifted viewing at the expense of live TV consumption. Once we have gained access to such technology there does, however, appear to be an upper limit to how much we are willing to substitute live for timeshifted viewing time. The original paradigm changing timeshifting technology was the PVR/DVR (i.e. Sky+, Freeview+, etc.), and BARB has been capturing timeshifted viewing through such devices since 2006. More importantly, the number of Individuals living in PVR homes has risen dramatically from around 3 million in 2006 to over 38 million in 2012. The proportion of timeshifted viewing in PVR homes, however, has remained remarkably stable, fluctuating at around 15% over the last 7 years, and while there has been some indication of a moderate upward trend in recent years (possibly as a result of further improvements to the technology), the best-fit-trend model (under current technological conditions) suggests that it is likely to level off, with the proportion of timeshifted viewing growing to around 17.5% in 2017, but only rising to 18.5% by 2022.
One must, of course, be very cautious when using such projections as the impact of future technological innovations is difficult to anticipate. Nevertheless, even if we try to factor in further improvements in timeshifting and VOD technologies, there is currently no indication from any of the empirically based projections that we are likely to move much beyond the 20% to 25% mark when it comes to the proportion of our TV viewing that we choose to timeshift over the next 10 years.
There will, of course, always be those who choose to timeshift most of their viewing, and on average younger viewers tend to timeshift more than older ones, but across the UK population as a whole there is currently still a strong demand for live viewing, and there also appears to be a limit to the extent to which we want to create our own on-demand schedules. Major sports, entertainment and news events are, of course, best watched live, and will continue to be so in the future. However, even putting aside such ‘best watched live’ content, it would seem that very often we just want to be entertained without putting too much thought into our viewing choices, and live viewing is still the simplest way to do that. It is also true to say that in many ways television viewing remains a communal activity that we like to discuss and share as it is happening. There is clearly something special about being part of the immediate conversation/buzz that is created by a live broadcast, and it is therefore perhaps no surprise that according to Twitter’s own statistics, 40% of all tweets during prime-time relate to TV shows.
To conclude, if broadcasters can continue to use the new screen and internet based technologies (including social media) to their advantage, and engage viewers with a broad range of high quality programmes, then there is every reason to believe that despite all the threats and challenges, the TV industry is likely to be on a stable footing for the foreseeable future.
If you would like to receive the associated research notes to Dr Farid El-Husseini’s blog posts please email him directly on: firstname.lastname@example.org.