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Are Young People Watching Less TV? (Updated – Q4 2013 Data)

by MarketingCharts staff
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Nielsen’s most recent study indicates that Americans aged 18-24 watched a weekly average of about 22-and-a-half hours during Q4 2013. That was a 47-minute drop-off from Q4 2012, which in turn had been down more than 2 hours from the year before.

So in the space of 2 years, Q4 TV viewing by 18-24-year-olds dropped by about 3 hours per week. That’s a fairly substantial amount, equivalent to almost a full-length sitcom on an average day. Even so, it’s worth noting that most of that decline came between 2011 and 2012; it has since stemmed to some extent – the decline in viewing between Q4 2012 and Q4 2013 amounted to less than 7 minutes per day.

In percentage terms, traditional TV viewing among 18-24-year-olds in Q4 2013 was down by just 3.9% year-over-year. That might be a statistic worth mentioning the next time a “TV is dead” article comes along.

Still, there’s no denying traditional TV viewing among 18-24-year-olds as a demographic is declining; it has now dropped on a year-over-year basis for at least 8 consecutive quarters. Here’s what that decline looks like:

  • Q4 2013 vs. Q4 2012: 7 minutes less per day
  • Q3 2013 vs. Q3 2012: 2 minutes less per day
  • Q2 2013 vs. Q2 2012: 9 minutes less per day
  • Q1 2013 vs. Q1 2012: 11 minutes less per day
  • Q4 2012 vs. Q4 2011: 20 minutes less per day
  • Q3 2012 vs. Q3 2011: 17 minutes less per day
  • Q2 2012 vs. Q2 2011: 15 minutes less per day
  • Q1 2012 vs. Q1 2011: 13 minutes less per day

The immediate trend that jumps out of those figures is that while TV viewing averages continues to fall for the 18-24 demo, the declines appear to be slowing. Throughout 2012, the year-over-year decrease in viewing grew larger with every passing quarter and stayed in the double-digits for each (in terms of daily minutes). In 2013 the gaps tended to be narrower. The relatively small decreases in viewing might indicate that youth are watching less TV in favor of alternative options (such as over-the-top services), but are not rapidly abandoning traditional TV viewing. Indeed, research suggests that online video tends to act as a complement rather than a replacement for traditional TV.

Another interesting point of note is that viewership among 18-24-year-olds has dropped off the most during the first and fourth quarters of the year, when consumption had historically been highest (see the above chart – click to enlarge).

What might be more worrisome for the TV industry is that declines appear to be spreading from younger age groups to older ones. Both the 25-34 and the 35-49 age groups watched less TV on a year-over-year basis during each quarter of 2013 – with the declines more pronounced in Q4 than in any other quarter for the 25-34 bracket.

Nielsen-TV-Weekly-Viewing-by-Age-2011-2013-Mar2014

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 group.

Chart: Traditional TV Viewing, by AgeDescription: Traditional TV Viewing, by Age, 2011-2013Tags: 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 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.

Nielsen-Traditional-TV-Viewing-by-Age-2011-2013-Mar2014

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). And that leads to the hidden surprise: when looking just at persons in TV households (TV viewers), Q4 continues a new dynamic first seen a quarter earlier: 18-24-year-old viewers actually watched more TV than last year (stop the presses!). Specifically, they watched 113 hours and 14 minutes of traditional TV per month, up from 111 hours and 20 minutes per month the previous year. That’s about 4 minutes per day more (in Q3, it was an increase of slightly more than 3 minutes per day).

Granted, that’s a small increase, but it continues a trend observed during prior quarters, where consumption losses had stemmed: during Q2 2013, 18-24-year-olds TV viewers watched roughly 4 minutes less per day than the year before, a much narrower gap than in Q1 (7.5 minutes per day less), Q4 2012 (19 minute drop-off) and Q3 2012 (15-minute decline). Maybe the increasing social buzz around TV is amounting to something?

That consumption increased among these young TV viewers while declining among 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.

Looking at other age groups, 25-34-year-old viewers watched more than 5 hours less per month during Q4 2013 than during Q4 2012 (compared to roughly 4 hours less in Q3, 2 hours and 40 minutes less in Q2, 3 hours less in Q1, 30 minutes less in Q4 2012, and 40 minutes less in Q3 2012). The 35-49 demo also posted a significant decline, watching more than 4 hours hours less per month in Q4. Consumption among 50-64-year-old viewers decreased by about 2-and-a-half-hours, while it increased by about that amount among the 65+ crowd.

Those are curious results: when looking at actual TV viewers, the trend looks positive for the 18-24 group, but negative for most other age groups. These figures will be worth keeping an eye on in future data releases.

One other thing to note: while composite amount of viewing among the entire 2+ population has remained steady (down by just 10 minutes a week year-over-year in Q4), total consumption figures are being propped up by older audiences, who comprise a large proportion of TV viewers.

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 Q4, 12-17-year-olds watched an average of 20 hours and 41 minutes of traditional TV per week, representing a 47-minute year-over-year decline. That was roughly the same as the decline in Q3, down from a 58-minute drop in Q2 and a 52-minute decline during Q1. More importantly, it matched the Q4 2012 decline, meaning that unlike 18-24-year-olds, declines in TV viewing by teenagers don’t appear to be subsiding.

Looking at year-over-year patterns, teen consumption of TV decreased:

  • by 47 minutes per week in Q4 2013;
  • by 49 minutes in Q3 2013;
  • by 58 minutes in Q2 2013;
  • by 52 minutes in Q1 2013;
  • by 46 minutes in Q4 2012;
  • by 98 minutes in Q3 2012;
  • by 47 minutes in Q2 2012; and
  • by 127 minutes in Q1 2012.

The interesting takeaway from there is that while consumption decreases have slowed among the 18-24 group, they’ve stayed fairly constant among teens in the past 4 quarters. Moreover, even among 12-17-year-olds in TV households, consumption is down by about 4-and-a-half hours per month, more than the 3-hour decline in Q3.

What that portends is up for debate. One could argue that the data demonstrates that people tend to watch more TV as they get older – and that such a trend will hold true for teens 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.

Other Findings:

  • Looking at ethnicity and race, African-Americans viewers continued to consume the most TV on a monthly basis in Q4, more than double the amount of time spent by Asians, who spent the least amount of time watching TV (218:01 vs. 92:13).
  • On a year-over-year basis, African-American TV households increased their traditional TV viewing by about 3 hours per month. Hispanic viewers watched roughly 7-and-three-quarter hours less per month, a fairly drastic decline, while Asian Americans watched more than 7 hours less per month.
  • Overall time spent watching TV in TV households was 155 hours and 32 minutes per month, down slightly less than 1 hour from the year-earlier period.
  • Among the total 2+ population (not just TV households), TV consumption dropped by 10 minutes per week to 33 hours and 53 minutes (almost 5 hours per day). That was despite an increase in the number of viewers, from 283.9 million to 286.7 million.
  • The average adult spent 5 hours and 4 minutes per day watching live TV during Q4 2013, down 6 minutes from the previous year, but relatively flat from Q4 2011. Time spent watching time-shifted TV (at 32 minutes per day) was the highest in that time period.

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.