nScreenMedia OTT multiscreen media analysis

Is linear TV viewing as rock solid as the industry, and data, paints it?

At OTTtv World Summit in London last week, speaker after speaker lauded the enduring strength and vitality of plain old linear TV. And who could argue with them with viewing figures at all-time highs in the US and UK? After a while, however, all the praise for TV began to sound like complacency. Are there hidden forces ready to upset the apple cart?

One does not have to look far to find ample evidence to support the conference speakers’ position. Nielsen says U.S. viewers watch 4 hours 19 minutes a day, essentially unchanged for the last 3 years. Barb says UK viewers watch 4 hours a day, again unchanged in 3 years.

Jon Gisby of Magine, a Swedish OTT pay-TV operator, had a different perspective on linear TV. He likened the current situation to standing on the Arctic ice sheet. All that is visible is a vastness of ice, both broad and deep. How can it possibly vanish? However, silently working behind the scenes are the forces of global warming, threatening to melt all the ice within a few short years.

Is Mr. Gisby right? Are there unseen forces undermining the foundations of linear TV? I think there may well be.

One candidate force was pointed out by Thomas Helbo, the CTO of Danish pay-TV operator Stofa. During his panel on multiscreen innovation, he stated flatly that in Denmark family viewing was virtually dead. Though the main TV is still being used, it is typically watched by just one person.  Other family members are watching their own videos on PCs, tablets or smartphones. Though the family may be together in the same room, they are each watching something completely different!

Another candidate force is the death of disconnected TV watching. Nielsen reported that in the second quarter of 2012, over 40% of TV viewers were watching daily with a tablet or smartphone in their hands.  This number has almost certainly increased considerably in the last year, and looks set to continue in the new year with CEA’s Steve Koenig forecasting another big holiday season for tablets.*

What this means is that even when a viewer is watching live TV, she may not be paying attention. Of course, when she is really engaged with a show a common behavior is to tweet about it and look up information about characters etc. However, when the viewer becomes bored (like when the ads come on,) they inevitably shift their attention to the web through the tablet or smartphone.  Every TV show watched must now compete for the viewer’s attention with everything available on the web.

Both of these forces are undermining the core of the linear experience as we have known it for the last 65 years. Also, these new behaviors may not impact the linear TV viewing data because the TV is on in the room where people are, though they are not paying any attention to it!

Will linear TV withstand these huge behavioral shifts? As several speakers pointed out, plain old TV has survived the onslaught of the VCR, DVD player and DVR, and emerged stronger than ever.

Somehow, this time feels very different.

Why it matters
Data from the UK and US support the contention that linear TV is as healthy as ever.

However, fundamental changes in consumer behavior may already be undermining the core linear TV experience.

*Mr. Koenig forecast this at the OTTtv World Summit on November 21st 2013 while participating in my panel “Understanding brand relationships with multiscreen and future big data strategies”.

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