Are Young People Watching Less TV? (Updated – Q2 2014 Data)

Nielsen-Traditional-TV-Weekly-Viewing-Trends-Among-18-24-Q12011-Q22014-Sept2014The latest TV viewing figures are in, and with more than 3 years’ worth of data to examine, it’s possible to see some real trends emerging in Americans’ TV viewing habits. The short of it? Yes, youth as a whole are watching less TV – and they watch a lot less than older Americans. And, as the data in this latest cross-platform report [download page] from Nielsen attests, the drop-off in viewing by the 18-24 demo is intensifying again.

[Editor's Note: Want to understand these trends within the broader context of the TV and video industry? This article has been expanded into a more detailed analysis within a new MarketingCharts Debrief that offers data-driven insights into the evolving TV industry, examining viewing behavior, ad spending trends, and TV's impact as an advertising medium.]

Nielsen’s most recent study indicates that Americans aged 18-24 watched a weekly average of 19 hours of traditional TV during Q2 2014. That was a substantial 2-and-a-half-hour drop-off from Q2 2013, which in turn had been down by an hour from the year before. In fact, in the space of 3 years, Q2 TV viewing by 18-24-year-olds dropped by more than 5 hours per week. That’s a considerable amount, equivalent to roughly 45 minutes per day.

In percentage terms, traditional TV viewing among 18-24-year-olds in Q2 2014 was down by 11.7% year-over-year. Between Q2 2011 and Q2 2014, weekly viewing fell by 21.7%, a sizable figure.

Although that 21.7% figure is a composite figure over 3 years, there’s no denying a steady decline in traditional TV viewing by 18-24-year-olds; the weekly average has now dropped on a year-over-year basis for at least 10 consecutive quarters. The decreases in viewing might reflect increasing consumption of over-the-top video, although it should be noted that the Nielsen data indicates that time spent watching traditional TV still exceeds online and smartphone video by a considerable margin, even among youth. Indeed, research suggests that online video tends to largely act as a complement rather than a replacement for traditional TV, at least for the time being.

In terms of time spent in front of various screens, Nielsen notes that overall TV screen time among 18-34-year-olds is down only 10 minutes over the past 2 years, to 4 hours and 17 minutes, while digital video screen time (PCs, laptops and tablets) has almost doubled, but to only 35 minutes. It should be noted, however, that “TV screen” time in this case includes game consoles and enabled smart TVs, although it’s unclear to what extent they impact TV screen time as opposed to live TV and DVR playback. Overall, though, the study notes that American adults watch an average of 4 hours and 36 minutes of live TV per day, as opposed to half-an-hour watching time-shifted TV, 11 minutes using a game console, 1 hour and 7 minutes using internet on a computer and 1 hour and 25 minutes using a smartphone. Not surprisingly, time spent with digital media is up, while live TV viewing is down, though by only 12 minutes year-over-year.

That’s because declines in traditional TV consumption are smaller for older age groups, although the losses are spreading. Traditional TV viewing among 25-34-year-olds declined again in Q2, also for the 10th consecutive quarter. Consumption was also down again among 35-49-year-olds, and viewing dipped among 50-64-year-olds for the first time since Q3 2013. (For more on TV’s reach and advertising influence on Baby Boomers, see MarketingCharts’ new Debrief, Advertising to Baby Boomers: The Why and How.) Once again, though, the 65+ population increased its TV viewing.

The interactive chart below offers a visual presentation of the data, showing how TV viewing is trending down (sloping to the left) for younger demos, while gradually increasing (sloping to the right) for the oldest group.

Chart: Traditional TV Viewing, by AgeDescription: Traditional TV Viewing, by Age, Q1 2011-Q2 2014Tags: Author: MarketingChartscharts powered by iCharts

A couple of notes regarding the chart: a vertical line chart is used there because it better portrays the varying trends among age groups than a typical horizontal line chart. Also, the trends are exaggerated by making the horizontal data range 15-55 hours per week rather than 0-55 hours per week.

Here’s what the data looks like as a horizontal line chart with no horizontal data limits applied: the consumption decline is a little less pronounced.


The above figures are averaged among the entire population, meaning that they include those few Americans who don’t watch TV (more prevalent among youth). But the drop-off among 18-24-year-olds is broadly consistent even when looking just at persons in TV households (TV viewers): these viewers watched about 18 minutes less TV per day during Q2 2014 than during Q2 2013 (96 hours and 53 minutes versus 105 hours and 58 minutes). Between Q2 2011 and Q2 2014, traditional TV consumption by 18-24-year-old viewers dropped by a little more than 14%, with the vast majority of that decline coming within the last year.

The difference in declines between the viewing population and the 18-24 population as a whole suggests the growing presence of “cord-nevers” – people who have never subscribed to a pay-TV service and are instead getting all their programming options from OTT services. It also means that TV’s grip on its young viewers remains, but is loosening.

What about teens? Teens are often used as a barometer of things to come (just Google “Facebook” and “teens” for an example – or run a search on this publication…). So how is this potential leading indicator faring in terms of TV viewership?

In Q2, 12-17-year-olds watched an average of 18 hours and 58 minutes of traditional TV per week, representing a 14-minute-per-day year-over-year decline. That’s an uptick from recent declines.

Altogether, the trends indicate that while viewing remains solid among older age groups, it’s tailing off with younger audiences. Particularly with the emergence of alternative viewing methods, one might expect that consumption decreases will continue among this age group. But, it should be noted that the data doesn’t support “TV is dead” prognostications. Yes, TV consumption is declining among younger age groups – but it’s still a (if not the) primary media activity, and it far outweighs alternative video viewing methods in terms of total time spent.

Other Findings:

  • Looking at ethnicity and race, African-Americans viewers continued to consume the most TV on a monthly basis in Q2, more than double the amount of time spent by Asians, who spent the least amount of time watching TV (206:03 vs. 83:02).
  • On a year-over-year basis, African-American TV households decreased their traditional TV viewing by about 45 minutes per month, a relatively insignificant figure. Hispanic viewers watched 3-and-a-half hours less per month, while Asian Americans’ consumption was down by about the same amount.
  • Overall time spent watching TV in TV households was 159 hours and 7 minutes per month, up by about 90 minutes from the year-earlier period.
  • Among the total 2+ viewing population, TV consumption decreased by about 4 hours per month (about 8 minutes per day) to about 4-and-three-quarter hours per day.

Note: it’s true these figures come only from one source, Nielsen, and other research may disagree as to the exact amount of time being spent in front of the TV. What’s more pertinent than an exact number in this case, though, is the direction of that figure, and the consistency afforded by these quarterly reports allows for a thorough examination of those trends.