Television: The lazy medium (The Economist)


Might be worth your while picking up a copy of The Economist, which has a special report on Television.

One of the main features of this report is a reception study carried out by Sarah Pearson of the University of Sussex. Pearson has been studying how people actually use their PVRs, and is especially interested in the number of TV commercials they watch live as opposed to skipping through. In one 2007 study, she found that 70% were viewed live, for example. In other words, studies are beginning to emerge which show that the impact of PVRs on exposure to commercials is limited.

On the other hand, the increase of TV channels is making audiences shrink, and this is especially true once you get beyond the top-rated shows.

[A] change in expectations is not quite the same as a change in behaviour. Although it is easier than ever to watch programmes at a time and on a device of one’s choosing, and people expect to be able to do so, nearly all TV is nonetheless watched live on a television set. Even in British homes with a Sky+ box, which allows for easy recording of programmes, almost 85% of television shows are viewed at the time the broadcasters see fit to air them.

“People want to watch ‘Pop Idol’ when everyone else is watching it,” says Mike Darcey of BSkyB. If that is not possible, they watch it as soon as they can afterwards. Some 60% of all shows recorded on Sky+ boxes are viewed within a day. Often the delay is only a few minutes—just enough to finish the washing up or to make a phone call. For the most part, internet video is used in the same way. Matthias Büchs of RTLNow, a video-streaming website, says online viewing of a programme peaks within a day of that programme airing on TV

Another interesting finding is that people under-report how much TV they watch and over report how much online video they watch. See this graphic for details.

This research shows the importance of reception studies, or at least more ethnographic observation of people’s actual habits. Undertaking a survey has little use value unless it’s backed up with scientific observation. This is called ACB, or Actual Customer Behaviour research. A survey becomes useful in revealing how deluded people are about their own habits! To base a research finding on a survey alone will lead to misinformation – and this ends up costing the industry money. You ask people what they want and then give it to them, and it turns out it wasn’t what they wanted. This means your product flops badly and costs your company money.

The relative failure of Apple TV in comparison to, say, the iPad, is a great example of this. With the iPad, Apple ignored what people say they want and just produced a new gadget that (suddenly) everyone wants. There are still complaints about missing features, but that hasn’t stopped them selling a million or so of the thing in the first month. On the other hand, Apple TV allows people to get programmes and films on demand, download them, and watch them when they want to. Hardly anybody has one, and we all sit in front of our TVs and watch what’s on.

I think downloading does have an impact – when the most enthusiastic fans of a programme choose to download episodes instead of waiting for them to be broadcast, the show often gets cancelled – but it’s certainly not having the impact that the industry claims.

If they made decent, original, and innovative programmes, people would watch them. If they ask people what they want and then give it to them, the audience will continue to shrink.