The Monday Morning Quarterback

Changing Channels: Phantom TV Viewers May Be Counted

Imagine the concerned looks on the faces of network TV programmers when they learned that the Nielsen Company – a national ratings service that compiles data about people and the programs they watch – was considering including TV viewership by households with no broadcast, cable or satellite service.

Turns out, there are about 5 million households in America that utilize TV, but not traditional sources of programming, and the number is growing.

A recent study released by the Nielsen Company caught my eye when it noted that the number of households with television is on the rise, but the number of U.S. homes that don’t get traditional television service is rising faster.

In other words, according to the Nielsen Company report, the estimated 5 million homes that don’t get TV signals over the airways or through cable, satellite or telecommunications companies have – and use – televisions anyway.

What do they watch? Or better said, what do they use? Most of these TV-signal-free homes are satisfied to use their TVs for games, DVD playback, or popular web-based services like Netflix or Apple TV. In this way of course, these households are beholden to no network, no programmers, and instead decide for themselves what they are going to watch and when.

Nielsen’s report shows how the nature of TV service is changing. Before the percentage started declining about three years ago, more than 99 percent of TV homes received the traditional TV signals over the air, or via cable or satellite. Now that number has dipped just below 96 percent. That may not seem like much, and it’s not. But it is the beginning of a slide – 5 million households and counting.

What we’re talking about here are 5 million households that have more or less removed advertising-supported content from their home TV screens (cable and satellite programming) and replaced it with recorded material or subscription-based on-demand services.

Of course, another part of the traditional TV decline in viewers is also economic – cable and satellite services are deemed expendable by people struggling to make ends meet.

More data about non traditional viewers:

  • According to Nielsen, the typical non traditional TV consumer spends 14 minutes a day using gaming consoles, although owners of Wii, XBox and PlayStation 3 spend more time because these devices are also popular sites for accessing video.
  • People over age 65 spend nearly 48 hours, on average, watching traditional television services each week. At the other end of the spectrum are teenagers aged 12 to 17, who spend an average of (only) 22 hours per week watching traditional TV.
  • African-Americans spend an average of 210 hours per month watching TV, more than whites (nearly 153 hours), Latinos (131 hours) and Asians (100 hours), according to Nielsen.

What to make of these changes in viewers? Currently, these 5 million homes with TVs but no traditional service are not a part of the TV rating system, which primarily provides advertisers and their agencies with accurate viewership data. Until now, the thought was that the number of non-traditional TV viewers was insignificant, (and, after all, they successfully avoided most advertising, so why count them at all?).

Instead, at 5 million and counting, this large – and growing – number of non-traditional TV viewers has caused Nielsen to consider adding a new category to what it considers a television household to be: people who get service through web-based Netflix or similar services instead of the traditional TV signals.

Non-traditional TV viewing is not just the purview of the newly-discovered 5 million. During the first three months of 2012, the average TV consumer spent about 2 percent less time watching traditional TV than the previous year, according to Nielsen. Again, this is a number that seems insignificant, until you read into the data and learn that these same TV consumers more than made up for the 2 percent drop by spending even more time watching non-traditional TV.

– Art Reker, Account and Creative Executive