Breaking News: Most People Still Watch Linear Television Most of the Time

If you’re reading this, you’re probably not normal. And neither am I.

You and I probably have a bit of an unhealthy interest in all things media – radio in particular.

You probably don’t watch an enormous amount of television – less than the 3 hours and 52 minutes a day that was the average viewing time in 2013.

You might not even own a TV – watching iPlayer or Netflix on your tablet or laptop.

But you are not normal.

Sorry. But it’s true.

I do get slightly fed up when I repeatedly hear that “people don’t watch television any more” or similar claims. There does seem to be a prevailing view amongst some – in the technology industry in particular – that people are effectively watching all their TV viewing on demand. That might be via their PVR, or it might be via iPlayer/Netflix/Amazon.

Most recently I heard the claim in discussion about the “Dapper Laughs” furore. Surely being on television makes no difference in this YouTube/Vine world? Who watches live TV any more?

Well, er, TV really does matter.

Most people in the UK watch television (94.4% of the population in the most recent week on the BARB website).

Most of the time they spend watching TV it is live (89% of all viewing in 2013 according to BARB, as reported by Ofcom).

It might seem incredible. But it’s true. You and I might pick and choose all our viewing in advance, and largely watch it back on-demand, with perhaps exceptions for news, sports or big reality shows (the latter being less an issue for me).

But let me reiterate: we’re not normal.

Even though PVR ownership, and access to services like the iPlayer have grown enormously, viewers have not shifted as fast as people sometimes think they have.

And that’s really important when we make broad brush-stroke comments about the importance of TV.

Here are some charts from the annual Ofcom Communications Market Report 2014:


This shows that of the average 232 minutes a day UK individuals spent watching television in 2013, 206 minutes (89%) were live.

Even if you break that down and look at viewing by age, you can see that even in the demo that does the most time-shifted viewing (25-34s), 83% of viewing is still live:


OK. Not every home has a PVR (or DVR as Ofcom calls it). So what about if we limit our analysis to homes that are more capable of watching time-shifted viewing (which kind of ignores iPlayer and 4OD apps), the story is broadly the same – 83% of viewing is live:


And the trends show that this isn’t actually changing all that fast. There will be changes in the future. You’d expect that if the BBC Trust allows BBC 3 to go online only, that’ll make a difference. And increased availability of PVR-functionality or access to IP delivered on-demand streaming, will also make a difference. But it’s not as fast as you’d think.

Viewing Habits

On the train home this evening, I noticed an outdoor advertisement for Sky Atlantic’s big new series, True Detective. So I posted this on Twitter:

Now I was a being a tad disingenuous as I do know (or at least think I know) the answer to my question. But a few people engaged in conversation, so I thought it might be worth elaborating a little and discussing things more broadly.

In some respects there is the simple answer in that expecting people to remember a date and time is pointless in today’s 24/7 world. I can go home and Google it. Sky emails me weekly and has told me about it. If I go into the On Demand section on my Sky box, it’s already there waiting for me to preview it.

Then after it has aired, the show will get lots of repeat opportunities across the week. And it’ll stay available on demand for box-set style catch-up opportunities.

So in that respect, giving me a date and time – the traditional way of doing things – isn’t necessary.

Then again, look at the promotional activity surrounding the upcoming fourth season of Game of Thrones. It’s all about the date.

That’s because the shows do two different things. Game of Thrones gets audiences that are probably bigger than any other show on the channel. It’s also the most pirated show in the world.

Whereas True Detective isn’t going to be a mass crowd pleaser. HBO who make both shows understand this. And so does Sky. HBO simply has to keep making shows that prevent subscribers cancelling the premium channel, or make them want to subscribe to it. Actual viewing figures don’t matter. Sure, you’d think one would drive the other. But that’s not always the case. It’s a bit like buying a book or an album that you think you should read or listen to, but never quite get on. It doesn’t matter. You’re part of the in-crowd.

In fact, True Detective isn’t an easy-to-watch programme. If you’re in the habit of sitting with a tablet on social media while you watch TV, then you’re not going to get a lot out of this. But it does come with two mega-stars in Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. So in fact the show is getting a massive marketing push because it’s the kind of show you should be watching – even if you don’t.

And given that Sky Atlantic is exclusive to the Sky platform, it’s another reason to be with Sky and not Virgin Media.

How do I know this? Because it’s going out on Saturday nights. Yes BBC Four has made a virtue of using this night for dramas, but there’s no way that True Detective will get more than a couple of hundred thousand going out at 9.00pm on Saturdays up against the big entertainment shows on BBC1 and ITV.

The other big programme at the moment, with Hollywood star quality is of course the second series of House of Cards on Netflix. Is this the future of television? All thirteen episodes available in one go from last Friday? Superb acting, writing and production?

Well yes. But also no.

House of Cards is superb. The cast is exceptional, and the second series begins with a bang (No spoilers, but I remember the original series. I also watched this the same day I watched the first episode of the second series of Line of Duty).

The question I’ve got to ask is this – how long can Netflix keep up its batting average?

So far you can just about name every series that Netflix is 100% responsible for. In some instances, they’ve “saved” broadcast shows like Arrested Development and The Killing. In other cases they’ve commissioned new series like Orange is the New Black (still to get into this, although I hear John Plunkett likes it) or the less well received Hemlock Grove.

So far, they’ve mostly done really well. But just because you have the cash to hand, and have allowed producers more creative freedom than certainly US broadcast networks offer, is that enough to “guarantee” hits? Well no. Netflix hasn’t had a big flop yet – although they keep streaming figures a closely guarded secret – but it’s inevitable. Compare and contrast with the film business. Even arthouse studios aspire to make every film the best possible, but as we well know, that’s not possible.

The real problem is that it’s one thing commissioning two series – 26 episodes – up front for $100m and getting a hit. What happens if the series fails spectacularly?

What’s clear in both the case of HBO and Netflix shows – it’s near impossible to discuss them in the workplace because no longer is everyone at the same place.

And on that, can I just ask nobody tells me what happens in Breaking Bad, as I’m only two episodes into the first series…