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TV goes back to the future

Marty McFly, when faced with a tricky situation, often described it as “heavy”. When Marty finds himself in 1955 and Doc Emmett Brown tells him that the girl who will become his mother fancies him, Marty says “Whoa. This is heavy”. Doc takes him literally. “Why are things so heavy in the future?” he asks. “Is there a problem with the Earth’s gravitational pull?”

Why am I telling you this? Well, to be honest, it is mainly to delay the detailed statistical analysis of the BARB data for 2014 that follows. This is my first blog for Thinkbox and inevitably it was going to feature lots of numbers, so I needed a way in that would keep you with me for at least one paragraph before you nod off.

But it is relevant: there is a bit about the past and future – and heaviness.

TV’s future has arrived. It had threatened to arrive for some years, but never quite did. Now it is here and it needs careful analysis to appreciate what is happening – and what isn’t.

In 2004 (nearly 20 years after Marty first went time travelling) the average viewer in the UK watched 3 hours, 42 minutes of TV on a TV set a day. In 2014 we watched 3 hours, 41 minutes on a TV set – plus an extra 3 minutes, 30 seconds on other devices like tablets and laptops.

So that’s 10 years and only a single minute’s difference in TV set viewing. Considering the immense amount of change TV’s been through over the last 10 years that is extremely resilient.

But TV is changing. Year on year, average TV set viewing was 10 mins down, and there was a decline in 2013 as well. It certainly isn’t the end of the world, TV remains the UK’s favourite medium by some distance, but a new landscape is taking shape. And, when you dig into the numbers – and I love digging into numbers – something interesting is happening.

There are a number of reasons why TV set viewing has dipped. The effects of digital switchover (when more people with more channels watched more TV) have worn off and the easy availability of on demand services from the broadcasters and others is now having some effect. Plus the economy is improving and with it employment. And the weather has been better, which we also know has a direct effect on TV viewing.

But what’s most interesting is that the dip in viewing is occurring at the “heavy” end of the viewing spectrum. The number of people watching over 20 hours a week has fallen by 9% since 2010. There’s been a waterfall effect in which some heavy viewers have become medium viewers and medium viewers have become lighter viewers, but lighter viewers haven’t gone away. The result is that there are more medium/light viewers and less heavy viewers and so this is where the decline in viewing is being felt the most.

So it isn’t that people have stopped watching; weekly reach is unchanged at 94%, exactly the same as it was when TV viewing hit record heights of over 4 hours a day in 2010.

This is important for advertisers. It means that TV’s ability to reach a mass audience is unaffected. Analysis of the reach delivered by  a 500 rating campaign naturally delivered across commercial TV shows only a tiny fall in 1+ cover and this is the same across all the key buying audiences (Adults, ABC1s, 16-34s). There is a cost implication because advertiser demand is up and supply is slightly down, but it is worth remembering that TV advertising is incredible value – 33% cheaper than it was 10 years ago, based on constant prices. Advertisers are actually getting more reach for less. That’s pretty heavy.

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