Is Anyone Watching (Network) TV? January 2018
If you were born after 1965, images of a nuclear family gathered around a television set to watch a favorite program chronicle a bygone era. In 1975, the average US household had 1.57 TV sets, according to Nielsen, the TV industry's data-measurement company; by 2010, "the average American home had 2.93 TV sets per home." The US Census Bureau reports that the average US household size in 1975 was 2.9 persons; the average in 2010 was 2.58 persons. In other words, in 1975, the average household had one and a half TV sets per household, whereas by 2010, the average household had one TV set for every household member. Given the decline in average family size and the growth in the average number of TV sets owned by household, some industry analysts suggest the United States has reached peak TV.
During roughly the same period (between 1975 and 2017), the Big 3 television networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—no longer dominate as program providers. The number of broadcast networks has expanded, the number of cable channels has mushroomed, and streaming-video subscription services such as Netflix and Hulu garner increasing viewership. Free, over-the-air broadcast networks currently number five (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, and The CW), plus noncommercial PBS. Spanish-language cable networks are 11 in number; genre-based and general entertainment networks are 28; news, sports, and lifestyle networks are 17; shopping networks are 7; and religious networks are 27. In fact, in 2014, Nielsen reported "that on average, US homes receive 189.1 TV channels, but viewers only watch 17.5 of those channels."
In 2017, viewing platforms and content are customized. The television set is no longer the only—or for some people, even the primary—viewing device for news, information, and entertainment: Computers, tablets, smartphones, and even watches are viewing platforms. Time shifting (the practice of viewing TV programming at the viewer's convenience) through the use of DVRs and on-demand services is increasingly popular. Niche-focused programming offers an almost endless menu of choice. With so many choices, I ask myself, "Why can I find so little of interest to watch?"
Today, few programs receive double-digit ratings or shares. Nielsen estimates ratings and shares each fall on the basis of a sample of the number of television households—a single national ratings point represents 1% of the total number. A share is the percent of television sets that are tuned into the program. People meters, which first appeared in the US market in 1987, provide Nielsen with the ability to estimate ratings and shares on the basis of people (PUTS) and households (HUTS).
PUTS and HUTS are the currency in use to calculate how much an advertiser will pay to place a "spot" (an advertisement) in a program. Although the final cost of an advertising schedule is often negotiable, ratings and shares are the starting point. Overall, the more eyeballs (people) that watch a program, the higher the cost to reach them. A cable channel with a low rating costs much less than a network television program with a low rating, because network programs typically attract more viewers than a cable-channel program does.
One of the top 100 programs of all time was the M*A*S*H Special (on CBS, 28 February 1983); the program had a 60.2 rating and a 77 share. A rating and share of this magnitude is unheard of in 2017. Even ratings for one of the most widely watched television events of the year—the Super Bowl—are in decline. According to Nielsen, the 1982 Super Bowl XVI had a 49 rating; the 2009 XLIII Super Bowl had a 42 rating. Following several years of modest rating increases, the National Football League reports that the 2017 Super Bowl LI (Broncos versus Panthers) had the lowest TV rating in three years—a 49 rating. What's a 49 rating worth? FOX charged advertisers between $5 million and $5.5 million for a 30-second Super Bowl ad in 2017.
Nielsen ratings are not the only measure of TV programs. GfK MRI's The Survey of the American Consumer provides subscribers with the ability to determine time spent with various media as well as average audience viewership. For example, the 1998 GfK MRI's spring study reports the average number of total television half-hours viewed by US adults age 18 and older in a week in was 91.85 (roughly 46 hours a week); by 2008, the total number of half-hours decreased to 61.6. In spring 2017, the average number of half-hours per week has increased somewhat to about 63.
VALS™/GfK MRI provides needed context. For example, in the 2009 VALS™/GfK MRI spring study, only Thinkers (48%) were more likely than all US adults (38%) to have watched the Super Bowl; in 2017, Thinkers and Achievers were above average for doing so. For Thinkers, watching the Super Bowl is a family activity; for Achievers, watching the game is an excuse for a party. The numbers of half-hours spent viewing television by VALS type varies widely from a high of 50 hours per week for Survivors to a low of less than 22 hours per week for Innovators. Survivors spend many hours alone. They have a constrained worldview and are technology-use laggards. Survivors use a limited number of sources for news, information, and entertainment. In contrast, Innovators are busy and engaged. They have a global worldview and are early adopters of most technologies. Innovators use a broad range of news, information, and entertainment sources.
The venerable 60 Minutes is a good example of how viewing habits have changed. In 2001, the average audience for 60 Minutes was 17% adults. Calculation of the average audience is on the basis of the average number of times people view a program in the past month (for programs that air once a week) or the past week (for programs that air daily). Thinkers, Believers, and Survivors were more likely than all adults to have been watchers. Thinkers have ought/should benchmarks for social conduct and seek understanding. Believers use right/wrong benchmarks to conduct their lives and look to authoritarian providers for information. Survivors see events and conduct as good or bad; they trust 60 Minutes because the program is familiar. By 2017, the average 60 Minutes audience has fallen to 8%—roughly half of what it was in 2001. Although Thinkers and Survivors are still more likely than all adults to watch the program, the percent of Thinkers has fallen from 24% to 13%, and the percent of Survivors has fallen from 26% to 14%. The impacts of more viewing platforms and more programming choice are clearly evident in the numbers.
The following 11 programs had the highest average audiences in spring 2017—between 6% and 13%. Can you match the following network television programs with the year in which they premiered?
Television Program (Network):
- Blue Bloods (CBS)
- The Big Bang Theory (CBS)
- Criminal Minds (CBS)
- Family Guy (FOX)
- 48 Hours (CBS)
- Law & Order: SVU (NBC)
- Modern Family (ABC)
- NCIS (CBS)
- NCIS: L.A. (CBS)
- 60 Minutes (CBS)
- The Voice (NBC)
(Answers: 1J, 2G, 3F, 4C, 5B, 6D, 7H, 8E, 9I, 10A, 11K)
Check out the top 100-rated television shows of all time: http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/reference/top-100-rated-tv-shows-of-all-time/14922/.
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