We’re creatures of habit: Why linear TV still has a key role to play

Commentators are constantly telling us that catch-up and on-demand services are killing linear TV. Are they right?

Whether it’s on-demand TV, YouTube broadcasts or even the likes of Netflix or Amazon Prime, there have been a great deal of pretenders to linear TV’s crown. As each of these services grows in popularity, the number of obituaries being written continues to grow. But I believe the reports of its demise are being greatly exaggerated and here’s why…

Personally, I can’t imagine a world where on-demand or catch-up doesn’t feature in my family’s viewing habits. Looking ahead, as broadband connectivity improves; this valuable service will become available to a great many more people, who will no doubt rely on it as much as I do.

Ofcom’s latest report “Public Service Broadcasting in the Internet Age” backs this up. With more internet connected homes, more and more viewers are embracing on-demand and catch-up services, particularly younger people.

However – and this is key – linear TV provides the foundation for all of it. If you want proof, look no further than the name itself – ‘catch-up’. Yes, people are freer to watch TV at a time that suits them, but they’re catching up on what’s already been broadcast.

Want more stats? How about the fact that last year, 80 per cent of all viewing in the UK was scheduled (either watched live or recorded). To put it another way, for every hour of TV consumed, only 12 minutes of it was on catch-up.

Why is linear TV still so pervasive?

Linear TV has handled all the challenges thrown its way; how? What is the rather old-fashioned way of watching TV doing that’s ensuring its continued success even in the face of greater competition and tech innovations?

Put most simply, linear TV is something that’s always going to need events to be broadcast in the present, whether it’s news, sporting events, talent shows that require audience interaction, or something else altogether. It’s not just live TV, though. There’s a social aspect around being able to react to the same shocking development in a soap storyline, whether that’s on social media or around the coffee machine at work the following day.

You’re always going to have the need for people sitting down and collectively enjoying an event at that time.

Irrespective of whether it’s digital terrestrial TV (DTT), satellite or cable, there will always be a need for TV in the present.

What about changing habits?

Despite everything I’ve said above, some people still aren’t convinced. Their argument is that young people have vastly different viewing habits to everyone else and watch very little TV, so as the population ages and those more used to linear TV are no longer around, the viewing habits of the wider population will change to those exhibited by young people today.

I’m not so sure, though.

Yes, young people watch comparatively less TV (with linear TV accounting for just 50% of 16-24s daily viewing) – but they always have. Some people claim that the youngsters who don’t watch much TV now will watch less than my generation does when they reach my age.

However, humans tend to largely revert to type and as you get older you watch more TV. It’s as simple as that. Also, as we have families, communal viewing becomes even more important, with people often spending more time at home as their lifestyles change with young children and also when they retire. Linear, scheduled TV is ideally suited, and designed, to service such communal and social viewing.

In fact, 85% of total consumption for all adults (16+) is still linear (live or recorded TV) according to Ofcom’s Digital Day 2014 research.

A change still to come?

TV has certainly had to evolve in pace with changes in technology and customer preferences. The growth of on-demand services is evidence of the fact that we’ve had to evolve – and have done so successfully.

The launch of Freeview Play last year is a good example of this evolution, where the linear DTT channels on Freeview underpin the service in combination with catch up and on-demand services from BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4 and Demand 5. This offers a more hybrid experience for viewers who now expect to be able to access both live and on-demand services seamlessly.

Smart devices, phones and tablets, are also truly revolutionary and change the way consumers watch TV. Yet, even in the face of huge penetration volumes, the TV market has remained robust.

All I know is that the TV industry will continue to evolve – and all the while it does, it will remain relevant. Young people may not think they watch that much TV, but their consumption levels still sit at around two or three hours a day – a startling figure given the number of other devices vying for their attention. By comparison, the UK average is only marginally higher at 3 hours 36 minutes.

Linear TV has stood up to countless tests in recent memory, but has come through them almost entirely unscathed. More opportunities are certain to follow in the ever-evolving TV landscape, but on recent form, it’s hard to imagine drastic change is anywhere on the horizon.