Don’t Junk that TV Set Yet

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Is there anything more surprising than the continuing lack of surprises in Nielsen’s “Cross-Platform Report”?  This quarterly effort, which compares TV viewing across multiple screens, shows once again that TV habits still aren’t changing all that much.  After all the hype about online viewing, mobile viewing, “cord cutting” and other doomsday scenarios, it seems that most people are still watching television the old fashioned way: on a TV set.

How can this be? I’m as surprised as everyone.  Our house is filled with devices: smartphones, laptops, tablets, an “over the top” Apple TV gizmo and a DVR. We make liberal use of Netflix, VOD, Hulu, and MLB.com.  Except for sports we rarely watch live TV. And we’re hardly the most technologically advanced family in existence.  So my own personal experience tells me that traditional TV viewing is declining.

Yet according to the “Cross-Platform Report,” TV viewing has been holding steady over the past five years.  The average person still watches five hours of live and recorded television per day. Traditional TV still swamps all kinds of other video viewing, with the average person watching 34 hours of TV a week, compared to one hour of online video and 13 minutes of video on a smartphone.

Of course it’s a classic mistake for anyone to extrapolate their own behavior to society as a whole.  And when it comes to TV viewing, there’s probably no audience less representative of the total population than TV bloggers.   We are the cultural equivalent of the “inside the beltway” political commentators who are always shocked by the voters out in the hinterland.

One of the reasons traditional TV remains so popular is that people don’t use other devices and platforms to the extent we sometimes think they do.  Even now, barely half of viewers watch any video over the Internet and only 16% watch video on a smartphone.  And among these groups that do have the technology, usage is not terrible high.  Online computer streamers watch about 22 hours of video a month and smartphone users only watch five and a half hours of video a month.  This compares to 157 hours of TV viewing for the average person.

The ongoing popularity of traditional television seems to befuddle many in the TV industry, many of whom probably watch a lot less actual TV than their customers.  The answer is pretty obvious: Television is the easiest entertainment delivery system in the history of the world.  You can lie down on the couch, flick your wrist and let hundreds of different stories unfold with no effort at all.

Contrast that to watching TV online.  If you have a new TV, you might have an Internet hook-up — if you can figure it out.  The over-the-top devices are not all that hard to set up, but they don’t all give you access to new programming.  Of course you can watch TV on your laptop or computer, but this is a “lean forward” way of experiencing a “lean backwards” medium.  You can attach your laptop to your nice big living room TV, as long as you don’t mind fumbling with the connections in back of the monitor.  And don’t get me started on the aggravations of trying to watch YouTube on the living room TV.

Now that we are more than five years into the Hulu era, which made it easy to stream new network programming, it seems clear that there won’t be a revolution in how people watch television anytime soon.  If anything people are watching more TV through the tube than ever before.

The real question is what will happen when today’s younger viewers, who have grown accustomed to watching TV on laptops and iPads, grow up.  The average 18-24 year old now spends about 7% of his total TV time streaming video.  That compares to 2% for the average 50- to 64-year-old.  Will those teens still be watching TV on their laptops when they have families of their own?

It’s a rule of nature that the older and more sedentary you get, the more TV you watch.  It’s hard to make predictions on what today’s 18- to 24-year-olds will do based on their current behavior, because as they grow up they will almost certainly grow less active and be more interested in staying home at night watching TV. Unless the cable and satellite companies price themselves out of the market, my guess is that tomorrow’s 30-year-olds will, like their parents and grandparents before them, discover the joys of being coach potatoes.

In the meantime, I wouldn’t junk the old TV set.

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