TV's not dead: six recurring myths

TV's not dead

Recent rapid changes in the way we consume and access media have led many commentators to conclude that TV is dead. However, examining the various reasons with a more sophisticated eye and a great deal of evidence, David Brennan argues that whatever the impact of these changes and however the landscape is being reformed, one thing is clear – television is performing better than ever before.

There are the six recurring myths on which the ‘TV is dead’ narrative is based. This article examines each of these and finds them to be just that: myths.

1. People don’t watch TV any more

The most common myth about TV’s decline is that nobody watches it any more. But evidence from the wider world of industry ratings systems and other trustworthy research sources (not a sample of internet panel members asked how many hours a day or days a week they watch TV) is clear.
Television viewing has never been higher.

Since 2007, almost every month has produced a new record for the amount of time we spend watching TV. In 2011, record hours of viewing were reported in the US, UK, Canada, Germany, France, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, Holland, Spain and Australia, to name just a few, and 2012 has continued this trend. So far, 2013 looks no different.

The rise is across almost all demographics, including children and younger or more affluent adults. These audiences may not be watching as much as other audiences, such as older adults, but we know that much of the shortfall will be taken up by TV viewing via other platforms.

The UK provides a good snapshot of what has happened globally. During the 1970s, the average individual watched just over three hours of television per day. This rose by around half an hour per day during the 1980s and 1990s, mainly due to extended broadcasting hours. It then stayed flat, at around three hours, 40 minutes a day, until 2007. Since then, average total TV viewing has increased by over 20% and now stands at an average of four hours and 20 minutes every day – not just the highest viewing levels on record, but a record rate of growth.

One of the main reasons for the perception of TV viewing decline, despite so much evidence to the contrary, is that people often concentrate on the headline figures based on the performance of the big programmes and channels. In the UK, ITV witnessed a dramatic decline. To fall from 39% share to just over 20% – to lose almost half of your audience from a seemingly impregnable position in less than a decade – shattered confidence in the power of the broadcast networks. The even steeper decline of individual programmes, especially in the all-important peak-time slots, created a belief that even ratings bankers, such as Coronation Street and Emmerdale, were not long for this world.

But if we add on-demand viewing, delayed viewing and time shift repeats, the figures look much more like those gained a decade ago, when the big shows pulled big ratings. The big hits now create their value just like cinema blockbusters, through a variety of channels across a period of time, rather than just on their release date.

2. Fragmentation is inevitable… and bad for TV

Unquestionably, fragmentation is happening, but all the signs are that fragmentation will have less of an impact on TV ad revenues in the UK than has been predicted, for four main reasons:

  • The advertising revenue premium gained for the programmes that do reach large audiences, or that act like social glue for a specific subset of the audience, is increasing and goes a significant way towards countering the fragmentation trend.
  • Although the overnight figures (the ones that are usually reported) are significantly lower than for similar programmes in previous decades, once we add in the accumulated audience from on-demand, timeshift and repeat channels across the rest of the week, both see significant gains, often bringing them up to ‘pre-fragmentation’ levels.
  • The fragmentation of channel viewing is not being matched by fragmentation of broadcaster power. The consolidation of sales points in the UK, together with the success of the big broadcasters’ digital channels and on-demand services, has created a more cohesive broadcast market than we have had since the launch of Sky Digital.
  • Social media and online technologies are attracting sizeable audience communities around favourite programming and even attracting viewers back to the live broadcasts so they can share the experience in real time. This is especially true for the peak-time favourites.

3. On-demand: the great ‘migration'

One of the phrases I have found most misleading over recent years has been the concept of audiences ‘migrating’ to other alternatives. The concept of migration is of a long-term movement from one location to another. This doesn’t tie in with the irregularity of visits and short dwell times that the vast majority of ‘migrants’ devote to these new devices and platforms.

In the UK, TV on demand has been an unqualified success. Since the launch of the BBC iPlayer, it has been enjoying strong growth in audiences and revenues. Four out of every five broadband users watch TV online regularly and viewing is increasing by around 25% a year.

But let’s put it into perspective. The combined share of our TV time taken up by these ‘competitive’ on-demand experiences is less than 3%. Even when we add in timeshifted viewing of broadcast content via PVR, the share of total TV viewing taken up by live viewing to the broadcast schedules is well over 90%, and most experts now agree that it is likely to remain the dominant model for the foreseeable future.

Often, the motivation for catching a programme on demand is because viewers missed the show when it was broadcast at the scheduled time and have elected to catch up later, with every intention to go back to the schedules for the next episode. The availability of on-demand catch-up keeps viewers loyal to a series. If this is migration, it is hardly producing a settled population.

The desire to break free from the constraints of the schedule was assumed to be the driving force behind the rapid adoption of video cassette recorders (VCRs) in the 1970s but remarkably, just as with PVRs a quarter of a century later, they achieved around 15% of viewing within the homes that used them – despite being less convenient and easy to use than PVRs. It appears that there is a fairly fixed ceiling in how far away from the schedules most people are prepared to stray.

There are three main influences behind the resilience of the schedule.

  • Most TV viewing is shared, and this appears to be a growing phenomenon. Most shared viewing is based around the schedules, whereas on-demand tends to be a more individual experience.
  • The ephemeral nature of television is a powerful driver – what’s on now will always be more important than what we can watch at our own leisure (as anybody who has found themselves watching a movie on TV when they have the DVD just a couple of metres away will testify).
  • Schedulers know their viewers and know what programmes work best in different dayparts and even days of the week (eg gritty dramas on a Monday night but more gentle fare on Sunday evenings). It is no coincidence that many families continue to schedule other activities (such as meal times, bedtimes and going out) based on particular schedule structures, such as news, soaps and major programming events.

4. PVR – the death of the 30-second spot?

When the first digital TV recorder launched in 1999, there was little doubt that the technology would be a success, but the overriding narrative was not about how it would enhance and increase TV viewing but how it would destroy the 30-second spot. Why, the experts reasoned, would people sit and watch the commercials they had always professed to find so irritating when they could arrange to watch all their favourite programmes in time shift mode and then fast forward through the ads in just a few seconds?

In the UK, mainly due to the success of BSkyB’s marketing of Sky Plus, the number of homes owning a PVR has grown to 50% in less than a decade. During that time, not only has total viewing grown consistently and significantly, but the viewing of TV commercials at normal speed has grown even faster. When PVRs first came to market, the average UK viewer watched on average 38 commercials in full every day. Now they watch almost 48. How can this be?

Part of the reason for the growth in commercial impacts is that we are simply prepared to watch more commercials. A greater proportion of UK viewing is going to non-PSB (public service broadcaster) commercial channels, and those channels are allowed more advertising minutage than the three commercial PSBs. So consumers, who are watching more TV in the first place, are exposed to more advertising per hour viewed.

Even when they do record programmes on their PVRs, those consumers are not lost to the advertiser. On average, PVR owners watch around a third of time-shifted commercials at normal speed. Often it is because they forget they are watching in time shift mode (a big chunk of playback is via live pause). There is also plenty of evidence that they will often stop fast forwarding to share a particularly entertaining or relevant commercial – a valuable advertising opportunity if ever there was one.

What this all adds up to is a net increase in the viewing of TV ads at normal speed of two to three percentage points compared to before the PVR was installed. Far from destroying the 30-second spot, PVRs appear to be increasing our exposure to TV advertising across the board (there is also strong evidence that fast forwarding increases the impact of sponsorship bumpers because they are used as signposts). This is true of just about every developed TV market and is consistent across every research tool used to measure it.

PVRs show no indication of destroying the TV advertising model – indeed, they appear to be strengthening it. People don’t adopt PVRs to avoid ads, but to improve their viewing experience and watch more programmes. The fact that not only does that expose them to more advertising, but that they are more likely to be engaged with the surrounding programmes, shows how even the most ‘disruptive’ technologies can prove to be a blessing in disguise.

What all this means is a thriving spot advertising market. Viewing of TV commercials is at astonishing levels. In the past five years alone, when the TV spot has been under so much pressure, the time spent watching UK commercials at normal speed increased by almost 25% and reached record levels for every main trading audience.

5. Advertising is dead – or is it?

The death of advertising has been predicted for some time. Take this quote from a magazine article: “Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused, and it is therefore become necessary to gain attention by magnificence of promises, and by eloquence sometimes sublime and sometimes pathetic.”

It is from a magazine called The Idler and is the first reported comment on ad avoidance. It was written by celebrated London chronicler Dr Samuel Johnson in 1759.

We have always expected audiences to try to avoid advertising; maybe that is due to a sense of low self-esteem on the part of those who create it. Advertising is everywhere and, just as with the linear schedule, its death has been widely presumed.

The ‘death of advertising’ lobby points to the recent declines in TV revenues (all of which were clawed back in 2010). They point to the increase in marketing activities that seek to bypass paid-for media in favour of ‘owned’ media (the company’s website, free magazine or branded channel), or ‘earned’ media, such as viral views on YouTube). They talk about the ‘age of interruption’, when most of our brand conversations are created through interruptive advertising in the first place.

Advertising revenues aren’t dying, they are shifting, recently from display to classified (through the phenomenal growth of the search advertising market) and from brand building to response. So far, that shift has not radically impacted on TV’s revenue base, contrary to expectation. Plus, there is plenty of evidence that the tide is turning and the role of display advertising is becoming more valued.

6. The death of ‘content’?

The final, often vaguely outlined threat to television’s future I will refer to as the Apocalypse View. Content will be free and easily accessible, its value will decline exponentially, advertising will be instantly avoidable and we will consume content we generate ourselves. All of the Apocalyptics’ predictions are vague on what this replacement content will look like, but all tend to agree that the ‘traditional’ media channels will crumble in its wake.

Yet, the more choice that is available, the more people are returning to the ‘trusted editors’ to help manage it. Nowhere is this truer than for television. Despite ever-increasing alternative ways to find any video content ever made, scheduled TV still forms the vast bulk of our audio-visual entertainment, a massively-growing market in itself. Consumers are still flocking to the schedules, and channel brands and EPGs are their main navigational tools.

But TV’s real power doesn’t lie in the technology – it lies in the content. TV offers high-quality, curated, rich media storytelling entertainment, and people will always flock to that. So will advertisers. Given that brands will always be with us and the financial impact of branding is becoming better understood over time, all the evidence suggests TV will be able to offer scale, impact, engagement and effectiveness to justify their investment. Add in the willingness of consumers to pay for that same high-quality, narrative-led entertainment content (let’s just call it TV for short), then we should follow the money.

To the Apocalyptics, I say people will always be prepared to pay for better access and better content, but if they can get it for free with some advertising included, they are remarkably receptive to that option. Unless a cost-free, ad-free, hassle-free alternative is easily available, consumers will follow the content, and where consumers congregate, especially if they are engaged and receptive, then brands will seek them out. Some forms of content may have become commoditised, but TV is performing better than all expectations.


David Brennan is founder of media consultancy Media Native [email protected] This is an edited extract from David Brennan’s book, TV’s Not Dead! How television’s analogue strengths have created a digital supermedium, published by New Generation Publishing, 2013 and taken from the June issue of Market Leader. Browse the archive here