How America watches TV: 8 trends to be aware of

First published on TheMediaBriefing and written  with Abigail Edge.

Is the age of traditional television viewing in the USA finally on its way out?

More than a quarter (28 per cent) of total TV viewing in the US is now accessed via digital streaming services such as Netflix, according to a recent study by market researcher GfK MRI.

Given these numbers, it looks like it’s not just young people who are accessing TV shows via these digital services; the implications of which could have big revenue ramifications for major TV broadcasters.

Alongside this shift to streaming services, legacy operators are also contending with the fact that traditional TV viewing time in the States is also declining.

Nielsen’s latest Total Audience Report, published last month, showed adults in the US spent an average of four hours 55 minutes watching live TV in Q1 2015, compared to five hours 11 minutes in the same period of 2013.

That’s a decline of 16 minutes daily viewing in just two years.

Against this backdrop, here are 8 wider TV viewing trends from America (and of course often also found elsewhere) that you need to be aware of:

1.  Mobile viewing

Interestingly, much of this streaming from services like Netflix tends to take place on a computer or mobile devices (16 per cent) rather than through a traditional TV (nine per cent), GfK MRI, note.

More widely, mobile technologies are increasingly popular as devices for TV viewing; be that from streaming services, catch-up TV providers like Hulu or other digital portals. Almost a third of viewers had watched a TV programme – from any provider – on a smartphone (30 per cent) or tablet (29 per cent) in the last 30 days.

And while people still tend to watch less video via smartphones compared to traditional TV, on average just under two hours a month, this is a substantial increase on the previous year’s figure of one hour 40 minutes a month, according to Nielsen.

2.  Cord cutting and millennials

The shift towards cutting the cord of paid TV subscriptions in favour of streaming TV on digital devices appears to be led by millennials.

Earlier this year, GlobalWebIndex found that:

“In the TV-obsessed US, 9 per cent of 16-24s are in the CordCutter camp. That means it’s now a significant section of the youngest consumers in the US who are falling outside the influence of the traditionally dominant cable TV companies.”

cord cutters GlobalWebIndex

3.  Online video trumps TV for young people

As well as consuming content from streaming service providers, US millennials also watch a lot of other forms of digital content, a habit which, in turn, also impacts on traditional TV viewing habits.

Defy Media, a popular YouTube network, recently revealed that traditional TV is viewed by only 81 per cent of 13 to 24 year olds, at an average of eight hours weekly.

In contrast, online video – which isn’t necessarily TV-like content (i.e. clips, rather than full episodes or movies) – is considerably more popular. 96 per cent of Defy Media’s US sample watch online videos each week, for an average of 11.3 hours.

This consumption dwarfs their usage of both premium – and free – TV streaming services; nevermind scheduled or recorded TV.

youth video viewing in the USA

4.  The ‘No TV’ household

Millennials are also less likely to own a TV than older audiences.

A Nielsen report from 2013 found adults under 35 made up 44 per cent of all “Zero TV” households, which tend to stream video online over traditional television offered by cable or satellite providers.

However, the total number of households without a television still only accounts for five per cent of the overall US market. We can expect to see that number rise.

This trend is not unique to the US. In the UK, the number of households with a television set fell for the first time from 2012 to 2013, according to Ofcom’s Infrastructure 2014 report.

Some 26.33 million households owned at least one television at the end of 2012, the latest Ofcom stats available, compared to 26.02 million at the end of 2013.

5.  Torrents and Privacy

Of course, illegal downloading and streaming also have a huge impact on people’s inclination to subscribe to cable or satellite.

The latest season of Game of Thrones set a new record for online piracy, for example, with 32 million people pirating episodes within the first week, according to TorrentFreak.

Alongside this, customers are also potentially by-passing paying for services through shared logins.

According to Global Web Index, two thirds of Netflix users in the UK and US share their password with other people. Given that some of these users are likely to be in different households, this is a potentially large subscription base that is being lost.

6.  Binge viewing

One of the drivers for some of these dubious and illegal behaviours is binge viewing.

A recent TiVo report, revealed several reasons why people binge watch, including wanting to “catch up” with episodes that had already aired and the assertion that “some shows are better when watched back-to-back”.

Overall, 92 per cent of respondents admitted to binge viewing at some point, highlighting it as a “new norm” in viewing behaviour.

More than half of GfK MRI’s “digital enthusiasts” (57 per cent) also admitted they were frequent binge viewers, defined by TiVo as watching three or more episodes of a series in a day.

7.  Second Screening

Binge viewing is a relatively recent phenomenon made possible by the mainstreaming of digital libraries and the increasing cheapness of TV boxsets. Technology has also helped drive the second screen activities whereby consumers use a secondary mobile device at the same time as watching TV.

Second screen behaviours can be both complementary (e.g. using IMDb or Wikipedia to find out information about actors, plots or locations) or completed unrelated (e.g doing email or surfing the web).

Smartphone video viewing whilst watching TVA 2015 study from On Device Research found that more than half of their global sample “often” or “sometimes” watched video on their smartphone at the same time as watching TV.

8.  Social TV

Often second screen activity involves social networking; and far from pushing out TV, social media is enhancing some viewers experiences through second screening.

In a Nielsen report published last year, a quarter of TV viewers said they were more aware of TV shows due to their social media interactions in a year-over-year comparison from 2012 to 2013.

What’s more, in 2013, 15 per cent of viewers said they actually enjoyed watching television more when social media was involved.

Perhaps in a sign of things to come, last month the British TV comedy Catastrophe made its US debut – not on a TV network, or catch-up TV service – but on Facebook.

The battle for attention

All of this means that for TV providers, gaining – and retaining – the attention of audiences is becoming harder.

According to Nielsen, although television is still the dominant media platform for adults overall, 18 to 34-year-olds spend nearly as much time using digital devices (smartphones, tablets and computers) as they do watching TV.

And, of course, for many users much of this wider digital activity often has a strong video element.

As a result, we’re seeing an increased focus in video content aimed specifically at smartphone users. This includes the social video-centric approach adopted by AJ+ to full-length feature documentaries from Vice and an increased emphasis on native video from the likes of Twitter and Facebook.

The future of television

TV is not dead, despite reports to the contrary.

Rather, television is diversifying to meet the demands of new audiences, platforms and changing behaviours in the digital age – much in the same way legacy news outlets are having to do.

A new survey by the technology advocacy coalition CALinnovates suggestsmost Americans do not expect cable or satellite TV to be around in five years, given the increasing prevalence of over-the-top (OTT) platforms, accessed through internet-connected devices.

Furthermore, Digital Content Next recently stated that TV is now the second screen for most children, with 57 per cent of parents claiming their child prefers to watch video on a device other than the TV. This is the new digital reality which media providers need to cater for.

So it seems the revolution will still be televised – just probably on your mobile rather than a traditional TV.

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