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Seven reasons why TV’s doubters are wrong

Seven reasons why TV's doubters are wrong


Seven reasons why TV’s doubters are wrong


Ofcom has produced its annual ‘Media Nations’ report and, as usual, the picture it paints is contradictory to the one presented within so much of marketing.

While the ‘TV is dead’ meme seems to have disappeared under the sheer weight of continued ad spending, there is still a recurring view among many marketers that it is only a matter of time before TV expires.

And yet the data from Ofcom, once again, suggests TV’s death dive continues to be overstated and misinformed. The report itself weighs in at more than 100 pages and I would encourage every marketer to take a look. But the killer slide, at least for me, is the ‘time watched’ graphic shown above.

What this simple bar chart demonstrates is that TV remains the predominant medium for video consumption in this country. That’s really all I wanted to say in this week’s column. I might just wrap it up here in paragraph four if that’s OK with you?

Unlike most crap media research that asks people to somehow recall their total watching behaviour, BARB monitors exactly what is being watched.

But, of course, it’s probably not, because you’re a marketer and the dominant, prevailing ideology of marketing is that TV is in freefall and whatever you want to call the digital alternative – streaming, Facebook, YouTube or just The Future – now runs the show.

So, although I have nothing really to say in my column this week other than a) look at the fucking bar chart and b) no, really LOOK at it, I suspect I might need to answer those digitally addled marketers’ most common, fundamentally misplaced, queries about the chart above.

Is this data actually correct? It looks off to me.

Ofcom is incredibly objective given it’s a government operation. And the data comes from BARB’s own British panel of households. This is – at least in my experience – the most robust and ridiculously rigorous sample on the planet.

BARB uses Ipsos to interview 1,000 different households every week. That’s not the sample, that’s just the calibration technique they use to recruit the ongoing sample. Based on the responses to that research, BARB knows the correct quotas of households it needs to recruit to gain a completely representative rolling sample of the British viewing public.

That sample currently sits at 5,300 homes and more than 12,000 people, meaning the data can be sliced and diced by any segment variable and still provide data at a very acceptable confidence level.

Unlike most crap media research that asks people to somehow recall their total watching behaviour, BARB monitors exactly what is being watched on all the screens in the household in real time. To check who is in the room when the screen is on, each member of the household indicates they are present with offline and online buttons. Aberrant patterns are monitored and households are regularly removed.

The data, which is collected daily, encompasses all the screens being watched by every single one of the 12,000 people. So yes, it’s correct. In fact, as most trained statisticians would confirm, it shits all over any other audience research in the UK. From a very great height.

OK, but this doesn’t measure if people are actually watching the screen, does it?

No, it does not. But let’s be clear that TV is 100% viewable (if you define viewability as an ad being 100% present and in a place where it can be seen) and we know the person is in the room with the screen when it is on (thanks to BARB). So we have two of the three important pieces of the viewing puzzle. No audience research that gathers data on this kind of scale can possibly also include eyes-on-screen viewing data too.

But that data does exist and can be readily added to the mix using data from Lumen. It uses eye-tracking cameras to gauge whether and for how long someone dwells on an ad. For the average TV ad, the consumer pays proper attention 23% of the time.

‘Aha!’ you might think. ‘TV ads suck at actually holding attention?’ Well, yes, in the sense that the audience aren’t paying full attention three-quarters of the time. But that’s a markedly better result than print (7.5%) and digital advertising (a splendid 1.4%). Only one medium beats TV for dwell time and that’s cinema on 85%, but that is another story.

Cinema’s comeback is a tale worthy of the big screen

Thanks to TV’s big screen, constant audio, relaxed viewing mode and the abject lack of alternative activities in most households, there is still significant value to be had from a viewer getting partial, aural exposure to an ad. Passive viewing of TV advertising is, in many senses, one of its greatest advantages.

Yeah but this data includes TV viewing with recorded playback, when ads are always skipped

You’ve been watching Gary Vaynerchuk videos again, haven’t you? For recorded playback, which accounts for less than 20% of the time spent watching live TV, there is evidence that between 50% and 90% of recorded ads are fast-forwarded or, in some cases, automatically removed from the recording by the platform.

But there is also evidence, recently published by Rouwenhorst and Zhou in Business and Management Research, that when ads are zipped through they can actually produce better recall than ones watched at normal speed. This all depends on the speed of the zipping.

Most brand managers have to work out where to spend their money next year and the year after. Despite what they might have heard, TV remains a superb option.

At three times normal play speed, the recall for most ads goes up significantly. But once it reaches 18 and then 60 times (current Sky boxes can zip up to 30 times the speed), recall levels dip to around a quarter of their normal levels. The exception here is the last ad in the break, which holds up remarkably well in recall levels at any speed.

So no, Ofcom’s data does not include zipped TV programming. But, given it is only 20% of the total and that a crude average recall rate for zipped ads still appears to be around 40% of normally played ads, it’s hardly a deal breaker.

But all that TV viewing just turns into second-screening when the ads come on anyway, right?

Yes, studies indicate that a significant proportion of TV ads are experienced in the presence of an additional screen that is usually sharing or competing for the viewer’s attention. But research from media agency MediaCom and tech firm ViewersLogic from a sample of more than 1,000 British TV viewers shows that, far from being a barrier to TV effectiveness, second-screening is a catalyst.

Those using their smartphones during an ad break are 12% more likely to have established brand awareness for an advertised brand at the end of the commercial break than those who do not have their phone in hand. Second-screening also reduces the likelihood of leaving the room or changing channels. Better still, second-screening during an ad break increases the chances of a viewer following up an ad and doing more research into a product by 75%.

So, you are right that the Ofcom research does not record how many minutes of TV viewing were accompanied with second-screen time. But you are wrong to infer that this proportion would somehow invalidate or reduce the effectiveness of TV. If anything it should be seen positively. Sorry.

But..but…young people are watching much less – if we just looked at them it would be a problem

That’s true. If you only look at the younger half of the population there is a clear and continuing decline in time spent watching TV. The Ofcom report shows the trend clearly.

This is the data much loved by most marketing thought leaders because, if you only look at children, young adults and people aged up to their mid-40s, there is a dramatic downturn in viewing time. That drama can be increased further if you dispense with a proper Y-axis and show the declines apparently tailing off to almost nothing (see below).

But showing half the viewing audience is, frankly, absurd. Yes, they might be the “future”, as one expert put it to me this week in justifying his focus on just the one half of the market. But most marketing and media people are really not that interested in what might happen in a decade.

Most brand managers have to work out where to spend their money next year and the year after. Despite what they might have heard, TV remains a superb option for many – if, perhaps, not all – big brands.

That picture only becomes more apparent when you look at the whole market and do it on a proper Y axis, which demonstrates the enormous dominance TV had across all demographics at the start of the decade (see below).

Yes, it is changing for younger demographics. And, yes, these are the young, cool customers that look good on Powerpoint and who will one day inherit the earth. But to brazenly ignore half of the market is troubling for a number of reasons.

First, consumers aged over 40 are the ones with all the money. They might look like shit and only have 40 years left to live, but in that remaining time they can immediately and repeatedly buy stuff. Call me old-fashioned but I am targeting the exhausted customer with disposable spend over the one that looks good while being broke.

TV has also always been – to some extent – a middle-aged pursuit. Look at the viewing figures from 2010 and it’s clear that young people were watching less TV even back then. Their decline is precipitous but, because they were always contributing relatively less to the total viewing audience, their reduction, while concerning, is doing less to the overall picture for now than one might expect.

And extrapolations are dangerous things. Clearly there is a downward spiral for younger demographics but it might soften as these perky, athletic young people encounter the downward gravitational forces caused by age, children and giving up their ‘jobs’ as an influencers or personal trainers to become electricians and office workers.

The ‘Knopfler Effect is not going to make these lines suddenly point skywards again as people turn 40, but it will soften and lengthen the arc of decline.

Think TV is dying? You’re forgetting about the ‘Knopfler Effect’

Clearly there is a difference between young and old viewers in the Ofcom data. But the bar chart I showed at the start of this column was of the whole market, not just the old. Beware any expert who focuses only on the younger half of the market and passes it off as the full picture.

TV has a long-term issue that might or might not be addressed by video on-demand and addressable TV. In the short term, even the digital generation of 16- to 34-year-olds still derive 42% of their video from TV and, because of the dynamics of TV, a significantly higher proportion of their total video advertising. Thinkbox estimates TV could provide up to 90% of all video advertising for the 16- to 24-year-old group, despite their much lesser TV viewing.

If you focus on the yellow dotted line in the middle of the chart above (all individuals) you see a decline of 20% over the decade. As big as the reduction is, TV started from a huge base and was already skewed towards older viewers. Those declines are troubling for the long term but manageable in the short.

But in other countries it’s much worse than this – the UK is obviously an outlier

Not really. The international TV body EGTA produces annual reports from across most of the main TV markets and the picture presented in the new Ofcom report is remarkably consistent with what we see in other markets.

Time spent watching TV is on the decline in every market but it’s not as severe as many marketers think. And if you were going to invest money in promoting most brands to most target segments and you had sufficient budget, you should have your head examined if you don’t include TV as one of your main media investments.

You are only saying this because the TV lobby is paying you

Alas, no. I really am this misguided for free. I have certainly accepted lovely payments to speak at TV events but it has been my content and my point of view.

I have also made equally lovely large amounts of money giving talks for digital platforms, radio bodies, outdoor media companies and news media organisations. Essentially, with a few obvious exceptions, I will take money from anyone. As long as I can say what I want and they will pay me stupidly large amounts of cash to do it, I’m up for it.

None of the arguments above will wash with a certain proportion of marketers. There is a narrative that they subscribe to.

But I am that rarest of things – my own man. I really think this stuff because when I look at the data I see a massive misalignment between how marketers think about media and how it really is. So while you might accuse me of stupidity, irrelevance and ignorance, don’t accuse me of being bent. Because I will sue you like that last bloke who tried to say it.

I’m well aware none of the arguments above will wash with a certain proportion of marketers. There is a narrative that they subscribe to and they cannot deviate from. Everything they have heard at conferences, read about in the marketing media and experienced from their own very subjective behaviour is telling them that TV is finished.

They only care about young people. They are obsessed with the future and not the present. They are addicted to the pornography of change. Everything that was dominant in the past must fade and new shiny things must rise to replace it.

For these marketers there is no hope. Try telling them, for example, that podcasts only account for 4% of audio listening in this country. They will tell you that you are wrong.

They ‘know’, for a ‘fact’, that podcasts are huge because everyone they know has a podcast and everyone listens to them all the time, so how can it only be 4% of total listening time? What, live radio is 16 times bigger than podcasting? Tuning in on a radio set? How is that even possible?

Page 85 of the Ofcom report, if you’re interested.


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