In the 1960s, media philosopher and visionary, Marshal McLuhan, dubbed the new electronic media world of television a global village. For the first time, people at opposite ends of the country were able to simultaneously see and hear live events as they were happening.
Nearly 50 years later, the global village has become a personal village. People still have access to the same information at the same time, but they no longer have to access it at the same time, on the same platform, on the same device, or even at the same speed.
Over the past five decades, television has undergone several fundamental changes, each affecting not only what programming is available to view, but also when, where, and how it can be viewed.
The remote control, which started gaining widespread use during the late 1970s/early 1980s enabled viewers to switch channels at will, and affected the way both commercials and programs were structured.
The home VCR, started to grow during the late-1980s, eventually being owned by more than 90% of all TV households. While having a major impact on daytime soap operas (many of which had high degrees of time-shifted viewing), the average delayed viewing impact on primetime television never really exceeded 5 or 6%. But watching pre-recorded videocassettes became a major new use of the television set, and had a strong contributing affect on the broadcast networks giving up on original scripted Saturday programming.
At the same time, as more and more people started receiving cable television, the number of channels available to the average home started to rise. This started to give people more choices, and the phrase “audience fragmentation” entered the media lexicon. Pre-digital, cable systems had limited channel capacity. As recently as 1990, the average home could only receive 33 channels. This grew to 61 in 2000, and stands at more than 150 today. In 2000, only 11% of the U.S. could receive 100 or more channels. By 2010 that had grown to more than 75%.
In 2005, the first video iPod was released. The same year, Disney made a deal with Apple to make episodes of several of its series, such as Desperate Housewives and Lost available to download via iTunes (for $1.99 an episode) soon after the initial broadcast. This ushered in a new era whereby old and current television content would be made available to view online and through mobile devices.
In 2008, hulu, a joint venture between Newscorp (FOX) and NBC was launched (Disney joined the following year). Containing commercials, Hulu allowed users to view current television series episodes for free. This was one of the contributing factors turning FOX’s Glee into a hit, as the pilot episode, as well as various clips and behind-the-scenes footage was available throughout the summer leading up to the show’s fall premiere. Hulu is now second only to Youtube in terms of the number of video streams each month.
Hulu Pus, a monthly subscription service debuted in 2010. Also containing commercials, it offers an expanded content library in the form of full seasons and more episodes of shows already available on hulu.
In 2010 Apple released the iPad, followed by the iPad 2 in 2011. Similar tablets (most notably Samsung’s Android Galaxy Tab) from several other companies were quickly rolled out. While not yet widely owned (10-15% of the U.S.) mobile video viewing is poised to grow significantly over the next few years.
DVR penetration continues to inch upward. By the start of next season, 40% of homes will own at least one DVR, while the percent penetration among adults 18-49 and 25-54 will be approaching 50%. Unlike VCRs, which never lived up to the promise (or threat) of allowing viewers to program their own networks to watch at their leisure, DVRs are doing just that – and making commercial avoidance easier than ever. For many of the most popular scripted series, the percentage of live viewing is diminishing each season (and the bulk of time-shifted viewing includes fast-forwarding through commercials).
At the same time that DVRs, hulu, and mobile media were starting to grow, social media, in the form of Facebook and Twitter, among others, was becoming more prevalent in people’s lives.
During their recent upfront presentations, all the broadcast networks talked about how they are utilizing social media to enhance the experience of their content exposure to their fans. CW has taken the lead in incorporating social media into their advertising plans. But the current impact of social media on television viewing is unclear. It seems to be able to have some impact on special event programming, but there is no evidence that it has yet moved the TV ratings needle at all. It may have contributed to both Chuck and Fringe being renewed, but hasn’t added viewers (at least as measured by Nielsen).
At this writing, an amazing 13.8 million people “like” Glee and Grey’s Anatomy on Facebook. About 7 million like The Vampire Diaries and 9 million like Gossip Girls (both on CW). Nearly 8 million fans like The Office and Desperate Housewives on Facebook. These shows might be expected to draw lots of Facebook fans. But more than 7 million fans like Criminal Minds, 11 million like NCIS, and more than 6 million like CSI – all older skewing series on TV. It’s interesting to note that the DVR time-shifted audience is about 10 years younger than the live TV audience. The social media fan base is likely at least that much younger.
What all this means going forward is unclear. The only thing that is clear is that social media does not take away from TV viewing – it has the potential to tremendously enhance it. Everyone is trying to figure out the best approaches.
TV May Be Everywhere, But Research is Still Nowhere
Through all these sea changes in the viewing environment, the basic unit of TV audience measurement, used as marketplace currency, has remained essentially unchanged. Since the 1960s, when three broadcast networks accounted for 90 percent of all viewing, and were the conduits for Mr. McLuhan’s global village, the way Nielsen measures the average minute has not evolved.
In that pre-remote-control era, when it took a minute or more for someone to actually get off the couch and change the channel, it didn’t really matter much how Nielsen chose to measure the average minute. Minutes were simply averaged up to the program rating, and no one thought about any potential need for more granular data.
Today, of course, people can easily switch channels a dozen times in a minute. Nielsen can’t really pick up all that activity. Today, 40% of homes have DVRs and time-shift much of their viewing. Most DVR playback involves the use of fast-forwarding through commercials. Nielsen, even after switching to C3, can’t accurately measure fast-forwarding. Now Nielsen is trying to measure online video streaming and cross-platform viewing.
We guess the real question is, can relatively small samples still accurately measure an increasingly more diverse and segmented viewing environment. The whole idea of a sample is that you and your cohorts have similar viewing patterns. In other words, there are a dozen or so factors Nielsen uses to determine which homes are like which other homes (presence of children, primary language, income, etc.). Up until to the early 1990s, when the average home could get only 30-40 channels, it worked quite well. If I was watching Seinfeld, chances are someone else of my age, income, household makeup, and other factors Nielsen decides are significant, was also watching Seinfeld.
I question whether that is necessarily true today. I happen to have more than 200 channels, three DVRs, and DirecTV. I happen to like poker, while someone else who is otherwise exactly like me in every measurable way – wife, 12-year-old son, same type of job, same income, same level of education, etc., happens to hate poker – but loves going to flea markets. Well, I might be watching ESPN’s World Series of Poker, which I taped three days ago, while he’s watching Antique Roadshow. How can Nielsen possibly take our differing niche interests into account and project it out on a national basis? This is why census-like set-top data is important. So important, in fact, that it would be better to use just set-top household data than Nielsen age/sex data. If only the industry could get set-top data that actually covers a representative portion of the entire country.
People still like watching TV at home on a television set. We can spend all the time we like talking about how the industry should buy and sell programs and commercials. We can talk all we want about flaws in current measurement systems. Consumers don’t really care. They still just want to relax and be entertained.
Despite new devices designed to speed up or make viewing more convenient, and despite multiple new platforms on which to download and watch videos, one simple fact remains – the combined ad-supported broadcast and cable television ratings are remarkably stable from year to year across virtually all age groups.
That’s because television is the only medium where the message is still, sit back, relax, let us entertain you, bring your friends and family along, you can interact if you want, but you don’t need to – still an incredibly appealing prospect to most people – especially those of us who work for a living (or spend much of the day seeking work).