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

January 4, 2010

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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Why TV Viewership Keeps Growing

November 30, 2009

Against all gravitational odds, TV viewership continues its inexorable rise. The average U.S. consumer now watches TV 32.9 hours per week, versus 26.3 in 2000, a +20% increase. With the growing presence and ubiquity of the web and mobile, how can this possibly be?


TV Viewing -- More Screens, More Content, More Options

Supply Drives Demand

The simple answer is supply.  Consumers now have more places, means and content to view than ever before. It’s a well established fact in many industries that supply can drive demand.


  • P&G once learned that Bounty Paper Towel rolls with +50% more sheets lasted only +33% longer.
  • In the food industry, research suggests that the more food a person is served, the more they tend to eat. 
  • Costco’s focus on large sizes is designed in part to drive increased consumption.

And when people have more TV’s, more channels, and more ways to control their viewing, guess what?  You guessed it, they consume more TV.


Drivers of TV Consumption

  1. More TV’s to View – Consumer households contain more TV’s than ever. The average household now has 2.8 TV’s, up from 2.4 in 2000. With more TV’s, there are more opportunities to watch.

    More TV's Per Home Drives More Viewership


  2. More Viewing Content – The expansion of cable and satellite TV has provided viewers more content options than ever. The average 2008 viewer had over twice the number of choices as in 2000 — 130 channels versus just 61 in 2000.
  3. More Viewing Flexibility – The rise of the DVR has provided viewers greater viewing flexibility. Time shifting is on the rise. Now consumers can record their favorite shows for playback whenever it’s convenient-and it’s easier than ever before. For an interesting take on the impact of DVR’s, see “How the DVR is Saving TV Advertising.”
  4. More Quality Viewing – The introduction of new TV technology (e.g. high definition, plasma, etc.) and digital TV have improved the viewer experience. TV picture quality has never been better.

TV Isn’t Dead

Contrary to what some would have you believe, TV is alive and even growing. What does this mean for Marketers ?


  • TV continues to be a core awareness building block for mass appeal brands. Any mass appeal brand which needs to build awareness and brand equity simply can’t ignore TV. It’s broad reaching, it’s efficient, and it’s still effective. Nielsen IAG data shows no significant decline in key advertising effectiveness metrics–awareness, branding, likeability–over the past 5 years. Great TV advertising is still just that – great.
  • Marketers need to focus more on the effect of “context” on their TV plans. Specifically, Nielsen IAG research shows that program context makes a big difference. Ads aired in high engagement TV programs have high recall and vice versa. And matching your brand’s equity to the equity of the program can enhance ad pursuasiveness.
  • TV is becoming increasingly digital and interactive. Already, many brands are experimenting with interactive TV (iTV), and new technology promises to bring web interactivity to your future TV as soon as you plug it in. As well, Marketers need to do more to understand same program/cross-platform viewing–e.g. viewing of the same program across TV, web and mobile.

Where CMO’s Should Focus

The data shows that the demise of traditional TV is way over-blown. That said, CMO’s need to push their brands to innovate in this traditional medium. Opportunities to do so abound. New targeting capabilities, ad and media effectiveness measurement approaches, interactive TV technologies, and cross-platform viewing dynamics promise to challenge Marketers even as they are reassured that TV is far from dead.


What’s your brand doing that’s new in TV ?


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