The State of Traditional TV: Updated With Q3 2020 Data

May 12, 2021

Nielsen Traditional TV Viewing by Age in Q3 2020 May2021It’s been 6 months and an ongoing pandemic since our last traditional TV update, but it’s time for us to dive into viewing patterns again. Let’s explore some findings from the latest quarterly Total Audience report [download page] from Nielsen, this time covering data from Q3 2020.

A quick note before we start: if you’re interested in historical TV viewing data you can visit this article to get a comprehensive, 6-and-a-half year analysis spanning from Q1 2011 through Q2 2017. You can also purchase our even deeper analysis here in the form of a presentation that goes into more detail on TV trends (Q1 2012-Q1 2017) and derives a host of insights from the data.

Here we go.

What Are the Latest Viewing Trends Among Youth?

Nielsen’s most recent report indicates that Americans aged 18-34 watched a daily average of about 1 hour and 12 minutes of traditional TV during Q3 2020. What does that mean?

No surprises – despite the pandemic and indications that it has resulted in increased TV viewing, youths’ traditional TV viewing is down again. In terms of a year-over-year change, Q1’s figure represents a decline of about 22 minutes per day, according to a review of the figures in Nielsen’s Q3 2020 and Q3 2019 reports.

The declines were across both live and time-shifted TV.

In percentage terms, the amount of time 18-34-year-olds as a whole spent watching traditional TV (live and time-shifted) in Q3 2020 dropped by 23.4% from the previous year. That’s a huge chunk – a drop of almost 1 in every 4 minutes – and continues years of viewing declines.

To give some context to the extent to which digital has supplanted traditional TV for youth, this latest report indicates that 18-34-year-olds spent about 2.5x times as much time using apps and the web on smartphones alone than watching traditional TV.

A quick note: the above data is averaged among the 18-34 population as a whole, meaning that it includes those (many) youth who don’t watch traditional TV. How many? Traditional TV reached just 62% of 18-34-year-olds during the third quarter (compared to 80% of the adult population). By comparison, 89% of 18-34-year-olds used the internet on smartphones during the quarter.

In Q3 2020 traditional TV users ages 18-34 (those 62%) spent about 1 and 3/4 hours (1:43) per day watching traditional TV. This is a 13-minute decline from the previous year, when they spent almost 2 hours (1:56) per day. The percentage decline (-11.1%) in viewing among traditional TV viewers was not as acute as among the general 18-34-year-old population, indicating that cord-cutting had a role to play in the overall drop in viewing numbers.

What About Other Age Groups?

Traditional TV tends to have an older audience composition than other platforms – and has been slowly trending that way for some time. (Further analysis of that shift in this report.)

So the behaviors of Gen Xers (who could be expected to watch more at this life stage) and Boomers (now a core audience) are also very much worth analyzing. Teens are also worth a look as potential leading indicators of future viewing patterns.

Age Group: 12-17

The latest study indicates that as a whole, teens watched about 6 hours and 13 minutes of traditional TV per week, or less than an hour per day (0:53).

If you’re keeping count, that means that teens (12-17) are watching even less traditional TV than 18-34-year-olds, although we don’t know how they compare to the narrower 18-24 bracket.

Q1’s figure represented a 14-minute drop year-over-year, or a considerable decline of 21%.

Although this decline was note quite as large as that witnessed among 18-34-year-olds; the relatively small amount of traditional TV that this group is watching does not bode well for the pay-TV industry…

It’s worth noting that the Q3 2018 Nielsen report (comparisons with earlier editions of the report are not possible due to a methodology change in Q1 2018) had teens watching almost 10 hours per week. In other words, teens’ traditional TV viewing has been cut by 37% in just 3 years.

Age Group: 35-49

In Q3 2020 35-49-year-olds watched 2 hours and 43 minutes of traditional TV per day, which is more than double the time spent by the younger 18-34 demographic.

Compared to the year-earlier period, traditional TV viewing among 35-49-year-olds declined by almost 26 minutes per day, a sizable cut.

In percentage terms, traditional TV viewing among 35-49-year-olds fell by 13.3% year-over-year. That’s certainly not as extensive a decline as seen among the 18-34 demographic, but still a rather large one, representing more than 1 in every 12 minutes previously spent with traditional TV.

It’s also worth noting that during Q3 adults ages 35-49 spent more time every day using apps/web on smartphones than they did watching traditional TV.

Age Group: 50-64

Overall, 50-64-year-olds watched a hefty 5 hours (4:59) per day during Q3 2020.

Compared to the year-earlier period, traditional TV viewing among 50-64-year-olds declined by about 10 minutes per day. Obviously, the industry is holding onto this demographic more successfully…

In percentage terms, traditional TV viewing among 50-64-year-olds declined by a relatively small 3.3% year-over-year.

Age Group: 65+

During Q3 2020, the 65+ demographic watched an impressive 6 hours and 39 minutes of traditional TV per day.

Compared to the year-earlier period, traditional TV viewing in the 65+ group was actually up, by about 11 minutes per day (0.3%). Once again, the industry is holding onto this demographic a lot more successfully than younger Americans, another measure of how traditional TV’s audience is trending older over time. The pandemic may have played a role here, though, with older adults more likely to stay home and watch TV during these times.

Still, this comes on the heels of data showing that older age groups are accounting for a larger share of streaming hours.

Traditional TV vs. TV-Connected Devices

The latest report from Nielsen provides a look at how much time people are spending daily with TV-connected devices, defined as DVD/Blu-Ray Devices, Game Consoles, and Internet-Connected Devices (including streaming media players and smart TVs).

As a result, we can compare the time spent with TV-connected devices to the time spent watching traditional TV (h:mm) for each age group. This data is averaged among the entire population by segment, rather than device users. Here we go:

  • (12-17) TV-Connected Devices: 1:16 per day. Traditional TV: 0:53
  • (18-34) TV-Connected Devices: 1:21 per day. Traditional TV: 1:12
  • (35-49) TV-Connected Devices: 1:18 per day. Traditional TV: 2:43
  • (50-64) TV-Connected Devices: 0:56 per day. Traditional TV: 4:59
  • (65+) TV-Connected Devices: 0:37 per day. Traditional TV: 6:39

As the data indicates, there are huge differences by age group in terms of viewing behavior, with traditional TV time far greater among older audiences and connected TV time much higher among younger groups, even overtaking traditional TV among teens and 18-34-year-olds.

Here’s the data in chart format:

Nielsen Trad vs Connected TV in Q3 2020 May2021

Comparing Races/Ethnicities

While the focus of this article is on age groups, let’s take a moment to compare the behaviors of African-Americans, Hispanic Americans and Asian-Americans, per the report’s data. Because they’re quite different…

Take for example, traditional TV, which averaged in Q3 2020 (h:mm):

  • 4:39 per day of live TV among Black adults, with an additional 25 minutes of time-shifted TV;
  • 2:15 per day of live TV among Hispanic adults, with an additional 14 minutes of time-shifted TV; and
  • 1:46 per day of live TV among Asian-American adults, with an additional 13 minutes of time-shifted TV.

As such, African-American adults watch close to 3 times more traditional TV per day than Asian-American adults, and about twice as much as Hispanic adults.

In case you’re wondering how much of that is attributable to reach (with these figures being averaged among the entire population), traditional TV’s reach averaged 81% among Black adults, 76% among Hispanic adults and 65% among Asian-American adults in Q1.

So some part of the discrepancy is due to Asian-Americans being less likely to watch traditional TV, but both Asian-American and Hispanic TV viewers are watching about half as much as African-American viewers.

How Much Time Does Everyone Spend With Video?

OK, one more way to look at video viewing behavior before we wrap this up. The Nielsen report also totals up the time spent with video per day, which includes traditional TV, TV-connected devices, video on a computer, video-focused apps/websites on smartphones and video-focused apps/websites on tablets. (The last two device’s limitation to video-focused apps/web, such as HBO GO, means that they exclude time spent watching videos on Facebook, for example.)

The grand total? A sizable 5 hours and 21 minutes per day spent consuming video content by the average adult.

That’s plenty of video time, and is about equal to the year-earlier period, with more time this year allocated to TV-connected devices and less to traditional TV.

More to come with the next report’s release.

[A quick note on methodology. The above data in large part concerns “traditional TV” viewing, which averages out all live and DVR/time-shifted TV viewing (such as video-on-demand) during each quarter. As such, it is a measure of legacy TV viewing on set-top boxes, and does not include viewing via connected TV devices.]


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