[Editor's Note: This article has been expanded into 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.] The results are in, so to speak, and with several quarters’ 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.
Nielsen’s most recent study indicates that Americans aged 18-24 watched a weekly average of a little less than 22 hours of traditional TV during Q1 2014. That was a 95-minute drop-off from Q1 2013, which in turn had been down by 80 minutes from the year before. In fact, in the space of 3 years, Q1 TV viewing by 18-24-year-olds dropped by a little more than 4-and-a-half hours per week. That’s a substantial amount, equivalent to roughly 40 minutes per day.
In percentage terms, traditional TV viewing among 18-24-year-olds in Q1 2014 was down by almost 7% year-over-year. Between Q1 2011 and Q1 2014, weekly viewing fell by almost 18%, a sizable figure.
Although that 18% figure is a composite figure over 3 years, there’s no denying a steady decline in TV viewing by 18-24-year-olds; the weekly average has now dropped on a year-over-year basis for at least 9 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.
Meanwhile, consumption trends are mixed for older age groups: TV viewing among 25-34-year-olds declined again in Q1, also for the 9th consecutive quarter. But consumption was steady among 35-49-year-olds, arresting a multi-quarter decline, while increasing among those aged 50 and older. (For more on TV’s reach and advertising influence on Baby Boomers, see MarketingCharts’ new Debrief, Advertising to Baby Boomers: The Why and How” [download page].)
The interactive chart below offers a visual presentation of the data contained in the data table above, showing how TV viewing is trending down (sloping to the left) for younger demos, while gradually increasing (sloping to the right) during the past year or so for the oldest groups.
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 20-55 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 somewhat 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 consistent even when looking just at persons in TV households (TV viewers): these viewers watched about 5 minutes less TV per day during Q1 2014 than during Q1 2013 (111 hours and 15 minutes versus 113 hours and 59 minutes). Between Q1 2011 and Q1 2014, traditional TV consumption by 18-24-year-old viewers dropped by a little less than 10%.
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 is maintaining a grip on its young viewers for the time being.
One other thing to note: while composite amount of viewing among the entire 2+ population has remained steady (up by 20 minutes a week year-over-year in Q1), total consumption figures are being propped up by older audiences, who comprise a large proportion of TV viewers.
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 Q1, 12-17-year-olds watched an average of 21 hours and 12 minutes of traditional TV per week, representing only a 10-minute year-over-year decline. That was significantly less than the declines seen throughout 2013. Interestingly, while consumption decreases expanded among the 18-24 group in Q1, the opposite was true for teens.
What that portends is up for debate. One could argue that people tend to watch more TV as they get older – and that such a trend will hold true for youth as they age. Alternatively, the trends indicate that while viewing remains strong 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.
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.
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