“Broadcast TV is dead” vs “Flat Earthers"

Whether it’s NAB, IBC or one of a never-ending series of analyst or research reports, evidence for a fundamental shift in the broadcasting value chain is mounting.

For every report that screams “the end of broadcast TV as we know it”, there appears to be a blog or report suggesting the polar opposite.

For every report that screams “the end of broadcast TV as we know it”, there appears to be a blog or report suggesting the polar opposite.

Or is it?

For every report that screams “the end of broadcast TV as we know it”, there appears to be a blog or report suggesting the polar opposite.

Positions at either extreme of the debate can be summarized as the “Broadcast TV is dead” view versus the “Flat Earther” view. The first view says it’s only a short matter of time before live, linear viewing on TV sets becomes a minority of viewing, while the second says that live, linear viewing on TV set is barely changing, if at all – and will not change significantly in the foreseeable future.

The problem with this debate is that nearly everyone starts out from pre-defined positions, based on where their company or organization stands in the current value chain. If you’re Reed Hastings then of course you’re going to say that “Broadcast TV will be dead by 2030”, and similarly if you’re Thinkbox (which is funded by broadcasters) then you may well state – as they did – that “UK linear viewing {in 2014} is down because of the vastly improved weather and economy which has encouraged people out of their homes more and naturally lead to a little less linear TV being watched”.

In order to take an unbiased, considered view, you need to look at actual, incontrovertible facts – of which there are precious few around. Surveys or focus groups done on a handful of respondents must be treated with a huge degree of caution, yet often they are the basis of inflated claims. One press release I saw the other day claiming that “TV viewers are creatures of habit” was - incredibly - partly based on just 18 couples living together!

So what facts can we use?

How about the official source of “gold-standard” (their claim) data for the broadcast industry in the UK – BARB. In 2013 BARB data revealed that average daily viewing on UK TV sets fell below 4 hours, for the first time since 2009. And then, according to BARB figures released in January 2015, the average daily viewing time per person in the UK on TV sets (whether linear or VOD) in the UK in 2014 fell by 5% compared with 2013. Among younger age groups, the reduction is significantly greater.
That’s a 5% fall in TV viewing in just 12 months. I think most neutral observers would say that that a 5% shrinkage in any market in one year is pretty significant, unless you believe either a) BARB’s methodology or data gathering in 2014 (compared with previous years) was wrong, or b) unless you think that data is just a temporary “blip”. Those counter-arguments may well be right, but where’s the evidence? In fact BARB data for the first four months of 2015 reveals that TV viewing fell by another 2.8% year-on-year compared with January-April 2014; that’s a pretty sustained blip.

Interestingly, while we in the UK debate whether something fundamental in happening in viewing habits, in North America that debate has long since moved on, and most accept that the broadcast world is changing significantly. A rejoinder from the “flat earthers” that the European broadcast industry is very different structurally from North America has validity, but what even the flattest of earthers over here admits is that the viewing habits of millennials is different from everyone else.

And that’s the crucial point – will those UK and European millennials change their viewing habits as they get older and richer, and turn into the passive TV set couch potatoes that I and everyone else that aren’t young currently are? That’s the 64 million dollar question. In the US there is mounting evidence that the first wave of “cord-nevers” - who have gone through college and have started families and now have well-paid jobs - actually have not reverted to the viewing habits of their parents.

Instead, they prefer their OTT viewing on “second” screens; they also (and this is a trend that many in the industry bury their heads over) continue to stream some content illegally; and they really, really love choosing and watching the exact content they want to watch - rather than be at the mercy of schedulers. 

Will that fundamental shift in viewing habits happen in the UK once our millennials get through university and are into their first salaried positions? Is a significant shift in viewing away from the TV set occurring now anyway? No-one knows for certain, but BARB's data is starting to provide sustained evidence that the earth may not be so flat any more.