Nielsen: TV isn’t changing so quickly, after all

Traditional television viewing completely dominates viewing habits. New behaviors are evident, but they are slowly shifting the landscape.

The latest from Nielsen’s periodic Cross Platform Report (formerly, the Three-Screen Report):

90% of US households subscribe to cable, satellite and similar television services. This number is NOT dropping. It is stable.

75% of US households pay for a broadband connection.

5% are “broadcast/broadband households” – that is, they do not subscribe to cable or satellite services, instead watching either broadcast channels and internet video (and, presumably, a lot of DVDs from Netflix). This group is growing. In comparison with Q3 2010, there are 23% more today. It’s still a very small portion of US households.

81 million US households pay for cable plus broadband.

22 million US households subscribe to cable or satellite, but not to broadband.

Looking at the total population, we’re still watching about 35 hours of television per week–still an astonishing 7 hours per day (do you actually know anybody who watches 7 hours of television a day–I know one person, but she’s pretty much housebound). About 2 of those hours are recorded on a DVR or VCR. Compare that with just 4 weekly hours of internet use (really? most people I know use the internet a whole lot more than 4 hours a week). How much internet TV viewing? About a half hour per week (seems about right to me).

Yes, there are generational differences, but the swings are not huge. Adults 18-24 watch 25 hours of television per week–over 3 hours a day. And they watch about 45 minutes of internet video. People 50+ watch about 45 hours per week, actually about twice as much TV as those 18-24. Teens 12-17 behave very much like the 18-24 crowd, but teens watch about a third less internet video than the college and post-college crowd.

Or, so Nielsen claims. Although Nielsen presents itself as the authority on television viewing, nowhere in the report is the survey base explained–no numbers of people or households surveyed, no demographic breakdown, no description of the sample used. Remember: Nielsen’s work is based upon surveys and samples–that is, Nielsen uses one household to represent perhaps 5,000 households. Of course, Nielsen claims that over time, the households come and go, but the survey results are very consistent. Look closer and examine Nielsen’s base–not all age groups, not all communities, not all zip codes, not all household incomes or ethnicities are measured.

Is something changing? Of course–everything is changing in every possible direction. Babies born in 2010 and baby boomers born in 1950 are watching “TV” on iPads and phones. Movies are available through so many sources, but these viewing habits aren’t really captured in Nielsen’s survey. Neither are videogames. So what we have here is a somewhat unreliable, but perhaps directional, study of a particular (though undefined) population of viewers who may or may not be evenly sampled or represented. A healthy skepticism of anything published by Nielsen should be part of any critical thinking exercise related to media and its transformation.


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