Are TV Audiences Really on the Decline?

November 19, 2014

This article is included in these additional categories:

Broadcast & Cable | Television | TV Audiences & Consumption

Rentrak-TV-Average-Audience-Trends-Nov2014The topics of TV consumption and cord-cutting have been back in the national conversation with the recent rash of announcements regarding stand-alone streaming services from the likes of HBO and CBS. MarketingCharts has been tracking trends in traditional TV consumption on an age basis for several quarters; now new data from Rentrak’s Chief Research Officer Bruce Goerlich adds another dynamic to the discussion.

Goerlich tackles the topic of the decline in TV viewing that’s been in the media and marketing trade press (not guilty of that here!) by delving into viewership of 33 common networks across Q3 2013 and Q3 2014. Unlike Nielsen’s sample-based data, Rentrak’s system “reports episode-level viewing for programs that were common across live TV, DVR playback for up to 15 days, and Video on Demand for up to 28 days.” Essentially, this audience data is taken from cable and satellite set-top boxes.

Rentrak touts its ability to measure on-demand viewing considerably later than the live event, and this figures into the data analyzed, which encompasses episode-level audiences for programs common across live TV, DVR playback for up to 15 days, and Video on Demand viewing for up to 28 days. With the episode sample size (66,952 in Q3 2013 and 67,502 in Q3 2014) consistent, the data allows for a year-over-year comparison of viewing audiences.

The results indicate that overall TV viewership – measured by audience levels - is in fact steady. What appears to be changing is when programs – in this case mostly primetime episodes – are being watched. Rentrak’s figures indicate that overall audiences are steady (index of 100), but live audiences are down by 3% (index of 97). By contrast, viewing 1-3 days after airing is up by 23%, while viewing 8-15 days after air is up by 34%. In other words, the live audience drop is being offset by growth in time-shifted audiences.

Even so, most of these episodes continue to be watched live. During Q3 2014, live audiences accounted for 73.2% of all audiences, down from 75.9% during the year-earlier period. The biggest increase in share of viewing came for audiences viewing episodes 1-3 days post-airing, with this group accounting for almost 10% of the overall audience, up from 7.8% a year earlier.

Of note, the analysis does not look at demographic trends: the Nielsen data tracked on a quarterly basis by MarketingCharts does find that there has been a decline in traditional TV viewing time among youth, which has been offset by an increase among older viewers. (Interestingly, though, a new MarketingCharts report on the demographics of US media audiences finds that despite the talk of a graying broadcast audience, it’s actually the cable audience that’s graying more quickly. And as with various other media, affluent audiences over-index in their weekly viewership of broadcast and cable TV.)

It’s also worth noting that this analysis is limited to Q3 viewing, which might represent an anomaly from full-year trends. And at this point, it’s worth including in the discussion a new Flurry report that proclaims time spent with mobile devices has surpassed time spent with TV. While there’s no doubt that time spent with mobile is increasingly rapidly, the TV consumption figures used for comparison are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which have a daily average (of less than 3 hours in Q3) far smaller than the daily average reported by Nielsen (which is closer to 5 hours). So the comparison is still inconclusive, for now.

For an in-depth look at trends in TV viewing and advertising, see the MarketingCharts report, TV in Context: Viewing Trends, Ad Spending, and Purchase Influence.


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