Why do we watch TV and Netflix, or use YouTube? ‘The Age of Television’ reveals all

  • Major study reveals why different forms of TV and video co-exist in our lives
  • There are 8 reasons we watch, and live TV is most popular for all but one
  • Live TV in particular excels at helping us stay in touch with the world and to share viewing experiences
  • Broadcaster and subscription on demand TV help us lose ourselves in other worlds
  • Younger viewers in particular often choose on-demand TV for escapism
  • Online video like YouTube excels at quick distraction and more practical needs

We now watch nearly 5 hours of TV and other video a day, and a new study of the UK’s viewing habits has found that, whenever we watch, we are doing so to satisfy one or more of 8 specific needs.

‘The Age of Television’ study was conducted by research and strategy consultancy MTM, commissioned by Thinkbox. Its findings are based on a qualitative analysis of 150 days of TV and video viewing filmed through camera glasses worn by 30 people, and a quantitative study of 6,000 people in the UK.

It explains the different reasons why people watch live TV and on-demand TV (both from broadcasters and subscription services like Netflix). It has also revealed why people use online video platforms like YouTube. 

The 8 reasons we watch

There are 8 different ‘need states’ which people watch TV and video to satisfy. In order of time spent, they are:

  1. Unwind (26% of viewing time): relax and de-stress from the pressures of the day.
  2. Distract (18%): instant gratification to fill time, counter boredom, have a break.
  3. Comfort (16%):  shared family or couple time with familiar shows.
  4. In touch (12%): feel aware of what’s happening in the world.
  5. Experience (10%): watching together, watching live or joining social conversation about what’s on.
  6. Indulge (9%): pursue personal interests, hobbies and passions, sometimes guilty or niche pleasures.
  7. Escape (7%): lose yourself in another world.
  8. Do (2%): seek out useful, practical information.

Within this, the research found that people turn to different forms of video for different reasons…

Why do we watch TV live?

Despite the explosion in ways to watch, live TV accounts for over half (56%) of all the video the UK watches, some 2 hrs, 38 mins a day. The study explains its enduring popularity because it satisfies the widest range of our viewing needs for more time than any other type of viewing.

People in the UK use the largest chunk of their video viewing time as a means to relax (‘Unwind’). Live TV accounts for over half (56%) of this time, as the wide variety of TV shows and genres complements the rhythms of everyday life.

By its nature, live TV excels for watching together and watching shows that are best seen when other people are watching (‘Experience’), accounting for over two thirds (68%) of all time people spent in this need state. playback / on-demand viewing accounts for 18% of this ‘Experience’ viewing. Online video like YouTube accounts for just 11%.

The same is true for viewing that makes you aware of what is happening in the world (‘In touch’), for which live TV accounts for 77% of all viewing, online video 13%, and playback / on demand 10%.

Why do we watch playback / on-demand TV?

We have never had more choice and control. Broadcaster payback TV (like that recorded on Sky+) and Broadcaster on-demand services like All4, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, Sky Go, and UKTV Play account for 15% of the average person’s video consumption (41 minutes a day). On top of this many households have subscription VOD services like Amazon Prime Video and Netflix, which account for 6.4% of viewing (18 mins a day).

Where palyback / on-demand TV plays an important role is in helping people to lose themselves in another world and immerse themselves in highly involving shows (‘Escape’). In total, playback / on-demand services account for 32% of this viewing.

This is especially the case for younger viewers, where playback / on-demand viewing is more used than live TV for satisfying the need to ‘Escape’, accounting for 42% of 16-34s’ viewing in this need state compared to live TV’s 24%.

Why do we use YouTube?

Online video platforms like YouTube account for 18% of all video viewing (51 mins a day). The study found they often serve different functions from live and playback / on-demand TV.

All types of video are turned to for distraction, but online video excels here, especially for younger people – for example, when bored or waiting for a bus / dinner to cook. Online video accounts for 30% of all viewing in this need state, 40% for 16-34s – largely due to the often mobile nature of use and prevalence of short-form content.

Although it only accounts for 2% of all video time, watching for practical help (‘Do’) is dominated by online video. It accounts for 56% of all ‘Do’ viewing compared to 31% for live TV and 10% for playback / on-demand. This is largely because it has a very long tail of easily accessible ‘how to’ guides on a variety of topics.

The study also found that online video is often used for non-video purposes, such as being used as a jukebox. 31% of people reported using YouTube to listen to music without watching the video for it.

People also often turn to online video when they want to pursue their hobbies and personal interests (‘Indulge’). It accounts for almost a third of all viewing in this need state (30%).

Age makes a difference

Some of the reasons people watch TV and video are universal and vary only slightly by age group. There is very little difference between the ages in the amount of viewing time spent watching for ‘Comfort’, ‘Experience’ and ‘Escape’, for example.

However, the research did identify some significant differences elsewhere. Younger people want more distraction. 29% of 16-24s’ total viewing is to satisfy the ‘Distract’ need state, whilst it only accounts for 13% of time among 55-64s.

Conversely, the need to stay ‘In touch’ is much larger among older age groups, accounting for 17% of all viewing time among 55-64s vs. only 7% for 16-24s.

Matt Hill, Research and Planning Director at Thinkbox: “This research explains why different forms of video co-exist and why TV broadcasters’ live and on-demand offerings continue to make up the vast majority of video viewing time. It also shows how services like Netflix have emerged to super-serve some of our needs when we watch TV, but that they can’t reach all the places TV can – especially the more social and shared reasons to watch, which are so important to people. And it shows how YouTube is often UseTube, with a distinct role for practical help.”

James Bryson, Managing Partner, MTM: “This has been one of the most ambitious and exciting studies that MTM has been involved in. Our research provides a comprehensive understanding of the needs that influence viewer choices across all forms of video. It’s demonstrated the enduring and distinct value of TV for audiences, alongside newer video platforms.”


Stage 1 involved an analysis of the UK TV market and a qualitative study among 30 households, collecting 150 days of camera glasses footage that revealed insight into video viewing habits. This enabled them to build an understanding of the motivations underpinning viewing occasions across the day.

Stage 2 involved a quantitative online diary study amongst a nationally representative sample of 6,000 Adults (16+).  This study collected information relating to their previous day’s video viewing occasions and the motivations that drove them using a questionnaire that was designed from the output of the qualitative phase.

The resulting data was then weighted using industry standard measurement data (which forms the basis of Thinkbox’s video day analysis) in order to size the need states.

For more detail on the methodology for the video day analysis visit here.

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