HAS US PRIME TIME LOST ITS SHINE?

October 16th, 2012

According to a recent academic paper by a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, there has been an increasing collective interest in death and dying within American society, and it has been growing consistently for several decades. It certainly seems to have permeated the US media industry, and particularly its industry press, which has been chirruping recently about the dramatic falls in viewing the US networks have been experiencing in the last month or so, and the signal it sends that Americans are (finally!) drifting away from their television sets for good.

The New York Times reported under the headline ‘Prime-time Ratings Bring Speculation of a Shift in Viewing Habits’ that the combined network audiences were down by double digit levels year on year, with the comment “I think we are at a tipping point in how people are going to watch shows”. The LA Times breathlessly reported that “the prime-time television ratings drop took centrer stage at the Digital Content NewFront presentations in New York, with former ABC Entertainment Chairman Lloyd Braun seizing on the numbers as an opportunity to talk about changing viewing habits — and the rise of digital media”. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?

A single month of poor figures and the prophets of doom and gloom immediately assemble to pick over network television’s carcass. Except, there is no body to scavenge and the numbers being touted suffer from some basic misinterpretations!

Thanks to my good friend, Dr. Horst Stipp of the Advertising Research Foundation, I have managed to get hold of some Nielsen figures, which put a different light on the numbers.

The first thing to note is that the numbers relate to the 4 week period ending 12th April. Now, first of all, a four week period is hardly enough time to suggest the death of the dominant digital media channel, but sadly that is the short-termist nature of the world we live in. However, it wasn’t just any 4 week period; it was a period which contained both the Easter and spring breaks this year, but not in 2011. TV viewing suffers during those two periods, as anybody who has tried to get out of a major US city during Easter weekend will tell you. So, for a start, the analysis compares apples and pears.

The analysis is also incomplete. It only takes into account viewing to the main commercial networks (across one of their traditionally weaker audience periods) and, like most markets with a vibrant multi-channel offering, their share of viewing has been declining consistently, for something like 24 consecutive months. It also only includes live and same day viewing; so much of the timeshift viewing that has long been a feature of US TV viewing is taken out of the equation.

If we were to base the analysis on a longer time-span and a like-for-like comparison of all television viewing, Nielsen data shows a much more settled picture. For example, across the whole of the first quarter, total viewing is up and viewing amongst the all-important 18-49 demographic – the cord cutters and Netflix addicts (supposedly) – was actually up 2% on 2011.  In fact, across the whole TV season, from September 2011 to April 2012, both all individuals and 18-49 TV viewing levels were up on slightly on the previous year – and that, remember, is coming off a very high base.

There is a depressing familiarity to the speed with which this ‘TV is dying’ narrative continues to re-emerge. It only takes a few weeks’ data to set it off again, it is woefully ignorant of the context (e.g. the importance of Easter in the comparison) and it is based on wishful thinking, reminiscent of a time when “if we build it, they will come” was a staple phrase in most digital business plans.

Leave a Reply

Current day month ye@r *