The 5 Myths of TV Viewership: What You Don’t Know Might Surprise You

TV remains the dominant medium for content consumption across the 3 screens, even with the growing presence of video content on web and mobile platforms. Yet 5 great myths — urban media legends if you will — about trends in television consumption have managed to become commonly held beliefs, even among senior Marketing professionals. 

5 TV Viewing Myths

And like the proverbial alligator in the New York City sewers, they just don’t want to go away. As the new year begins, it’s time to disentangle the myths and their realities: 

MYTH #1:    Young People are Watching Less and Less TV
REALITY:    Youngsters Have Always Watched Less TV

A positive correlation has always existed between age and TV viewership — older people watch more, younger people less. This is simply a function of time available, as older people have more of it. A recent Nielsen Wire post (Disclosure: I work for The Nielsen Company) showed that adults aged 65+ watch 38% more TV hours per month than those ages 25–34. And, viewers aged 12-24 watch even less.

TV Viewing: Always Lowest Among Younger Viewers

It’s true that children and teens watch less TV each month than adults do —  but contrary to popular belief, they are not replacing TV with the internet for video consumption, but have always watched less TV than older people. Instead, younger consumers are supplementing TV with new web and mobile mediums.  

MYTH #2:  Ratings are Down Due to People Watching Less TV
REALITY: Ratings are Down Due to Network Fragmentation

TV viewership in the U.S. is actually up over the past decade. The number of TV channels in the U.S. has more than tripled since 1990, and the availability of more channels has spread audiences more thinly. As a result, the average channel audience and program becomes smaller, driving lower ratings.

TV Viewing -- More Channels Means Lower Ratings

Accenture research on television viewership shows that over the past year, there has been a 5% increase in viewers watching six or more television channels and a 6% increase in viewers watching eight or more television programs per week. For marketers, fragmentation means that TV program engagement metrics to measure the engagement of viewers with TV programs become even more important.

MYTH #3:  Small Channels Have Highly Loyal Audiences
REALITY: Small Channels Are Small and Disloyal

Small channels face the same “Double Jeopardy” laws of small brands. Fewer people watch small channels and those who watch don’t watch for very long. Even when a small channel has an above average amount of viewers, viewers still only spend a small proportion of their total viewing time on small channels.So, the commonly held belief that you can reach a small, but highly loyal group of viewers on a small channel is false–small channels, just like small brands, are small because of fewer viewers and the viewers they do have aren’t that loyal.

MYTH #4:  Audience Demos Differ by Channel
REALITY:  Demos Are Similar Across Large Channels

Audience demographics vary far less than expected among large network television channels.

Large channels have almost identical demographic profiles. (Data courtesy of Nielsen Media Research, Inc. 2009)


Most network content is so broad based in appeal that, apart from obvious exceptions (Kids channels, music channels, etc.) the larger channels and networks do not have significantly different audiences.

MYTH #5:  Programs Have Highly Loyal Audiences
REALITY:  Programs Have Relatively Low Loyalty

Research shows that repeat rates for TV programs are generally low — around 38%. Repeat rates are lowest for comedies and low rated shows (see Double Jeopardy above). For perspective, most CPG companies consider a 50% repeat rate the bare minimum hurdle for a successful new product.While admittedly not a perfect comparison, the reality is that the same exact viewers are generally not watching a program week in and week out. Viewers tune out because of inconvenience, availability, lack of interest, family preferences, and other reasons.

TV Viewing — Myths No More

Research shows TV will continue to reign as the preeminent advertising platform for the foreseeable future. TV viewing habits have proven to be remarkably impervious to social and technological changes and the introduction of new media. In fact, the research that’s been done on the topic suggests that there has been no significant decline over the past 15 years in the effectiveness of TV advertising generating sales lift (see Joel Rubinson blog).

Where Should CMO’s Focus ?

CMO’s should focus on creating media strategies based on the fundamental truths about longstanding TV viewing behaviors. Avoid the popular urban media myths that are so rampant — e.g. TV is dying.

Focus instead on how your brand can use TV advertising in a more integrated way with new digital, social and earned media. This will be the real space for innovation in the future.  After all, those fictional New York City alligators have yet to migrate out of the sewers and into TV land.

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7 Responses to The 5 Myths of TV Viewership: What You Don’t Know Might Surprise You

  1. Judy Bodner says:

    Thank you for an interesting discussion! Assuming that two key attributes of successful advertising are relevance and engagement, then relevance could be determined through data analytics and delivered to targeted audiences online/mobile, and the reinforcing engagement on TV/radio. Article in today’s NYT “In Ad Blockers, a Test for Google” ends with comment in line with your advice: “The ideal result would be to retire this [ad blocking] extension because the entire Web was covered with ads that people loved and no one wanted to block them.”

    • beardrs says:

      Judy — Thanks for reading the blog and commenting. Ultimately, ad effectiveness is a function on targeting the right audience, with the right creative, within the right context or programming. All 3 need improvements, and I believe there is on-going innovation in TV land that will make targeting and context much more easy to plan against in the future. Then, perhaps we can reach teh nirvane the NYT asks for.

  2. gurugupta says:

    As I see the real point is: TV as the biggest screen (amongst the 3 you mention) delivers the most compelling and engaging audio-video experience for professionally produced content. Whether this content is streamed via traditional satellite/cable channels or Internet will irrelevant to the audience. Developing a proven business model for delivering targeted communication via this screen is where the challenge is. We will see what comes out of and Youtube’s attempts to overlay ads on videos.

    • beardrs says:

      Hi Asit — Thanks for reading the blog and providing your comments. I agree with you that, in the end, consumers want compelling ad content, professionally produced, on the best screen available–and for most people this is currently TV. Having said this, we already know that, in general, the same ad actually performs better on web in-stream video than TV, although the question is still unanswered as to why: is it due to less clutter or the lean-forward medium? Also, I believe network TV will morph into networked TV for many and this will offer far more targeting capabilities than exist today. An excellent read on this is Shelly Palmer’s book “Television Disrupted.”

  3. mhose says:

    Randall – A tangential urban myth about the younger generation is that their overall consumption of media is going up, and that as a relative proportion TV is going down. Wonder if that is true? If so, marketers will need to rely on non broadcast mediums to reach younger their targets, especially as they develop new, future audiences. Your point about integrated campaigns and the need to really develop those is well taken – and critical for younger audiences. And even if TV remains critical, as important now is the concept of marketing as dialogue-so the other mediums used offer that feedback loop. Love the thinking – thanks for tackling this issue.

    • beardrs says:

      Hi Mark–Thanks for reading the blog and commenting. The viewing data I’ve seen for the younger generation shows TV consumption in the absolute is still increasing, but as a percentage of total screen viewing it is definitely lower than the older demographic groups. So, it’s clear that younger people are consuming proportionately more on-TV media, even though their TV consumption is not going down. This just means to me that Marketers must not only continue to do TV well, but also figure out digital, social media, etc. and how they all work most effectively in combination.

  4. Hello world! says:

    […] I recently wrote about “The 5 Myths of TV Viewership,” and this post forms a book-end with that earlier one. Like TV viewership, there are many myths about how and whether TV advertising actually works in […]

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