Television has been a cornerstone of our popular culture, our living rooms, and our marketing plans for decades. Some pundits suggest that the television era is behind us as we enter the age of digital media. Is this really the case? Or, is our traditional view of television outdated? We researched this issue and the findings suggest that television has evolved far beyond our traditional definition of the medium. Television is alive and well; rather, it’s the old labels we apply to television and how we define television viewing that have become obsolete.
First and foremost, what is “television”? What do we mean when we say, “I’m watching television”? Only half of all adults refer to “sitting in front of a television set” when they claim to be watching TV. The other half mean something else: they are either watching TV on any screen device that happens to be available to them, or they no longer use the phrase “I am watching television” at all. For these respondents, the screen is irrelevant and they refer solely to the content they are viewing. And, when we look specifically at millennials aged 18-24, we find these shifting labels are even more pronounced. An equal number of adults 18-24 refer to television as “any screen available” as those who still think of television as that large screen device that is plugged into the wall. [FIGURE 1]
Given all these different screens that now qualify as television, it’s not at all surprising that audiences have taken matters into their own hands and they now view television content on the most convenient device available and on their own schedule.
According to survey findings, adults are now 1.5X more likely to be time-shifters than appointment viewers who tune in for their favorite shows when the broadcaster schedules them. The regular program schedule set by the broadcaster really doesn’t matter much anymore. Does this mean that live viewing has gone completely away? No, but live viewing tends to be concentrated around “event” programming such as award shows, marquee sporting events, news, and/or finales of popular reality TV franchises as opposed to regularly scheduled fare. Nearly 43% of adults will still often or always tune in for special event television programs. The regularly scheduled fare is now consumed whenever/wherever/and in multiple episodes all at the whim of each viewer who can now control his/her destiny. In fact, an equal number of adults (45%) now state they often or always binge view their favorite serial content.
Where is all this binge viewing taking place? You would be surprised. We often assume that binging is the exclusive domain of online streaming services such as Netflix. And, while Netflix has the largest number of responses for “the way I binge most often,” it is far from the only way that audiences binge view their favorite content. In fact, when you add binge viewing through DVRs and video-on-demand together, these linear TV-based methods outpace Netflix by a margin of nearly two-to-one!
The overwhelming majority of binge viewers watch three or more episodes back-to-back at a time. And, 25% of binge viewers claim to “marathon binge” where they will spend a whole day or an entire weekend to get through a full season of programming in one sitting. With so much binge viewing and so little time in our day, what are we giving up to fit in all this television programming? Not surprisingly, binge viewing is replacing regularly scheduled TV viewing time. However, binge viewing is also taking over other time spaces in the audience’s life such as: bad weather days, weekends, and sick days when audiences can’t do much else but lay back and enjoy their favorite shows. However, binge viewing is also taking away from household chores and even sleeping! [FIGURE 2]
So, what does this all mean for television? Television viewing is clearly alive and well. However, our traditional view of sitting down to watch regularly scheduled programming on a television set doesn’t begin to capture all the behaviors around “television” viewing. Television viewing means so much more: it seamlessly crosses devices and it can consume much of our free time. We tend to binge view our favorite episodic TV shows while we will still gather together to watch important live television events. Perhaps the greatest insight from our research is that we must open up our minds to the new potential of this medium that has been a cornerstone of our culture, our living rooms, and our marketing plans today, tomorrow, and well into the future.
About the Research:
Qualtrics Online Field Study Q1 2015 N=1,000 Sample balanced to U.S. population and media device penetration. For more information contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Judy Franks, Lecturer at Northwestern Medill IMC
Edited by Arwen Hao Li, Medill IMC Class Of 2017