Lies, damned lies and statistics about TV consumption

Lies, damned lies and statistics about TV consumption

by Jonathan Thompson, Chief Executive, Digital UK

posted on March 7, 2017

While in no way wishing to accuse the mainstream press of being ‘the enemy of the people’ (I’ll leave that to others more powerful than me), there is a tendency of some parts of the media to jump to conclusions about the future of broadcasting based on dubious statistics.

Only last week, the usually reliable Wall Street Journal  published the following headline…

‘YouTube Tops 1 Billion Hours of Video a Day, on Pace to Eclipse TV’

The first part of this headline comes directly from YouTube and I have no reason to dispute it.

However, the second half I struggle with. The article said that in the US around 1 billion hours of broadcast TV content are consumed every day (according to Nielsen), which does seem to indicate that maybe YouTube is about to eclipse TV.

Except the YouTube stat is for global consumption – not just in the US. YouTube didn’t publish its consumption data for the US, but evidence in the UK suggests that YouTube currently represents 4.4 per cent of all video consumption (across TVs and mobile devices). So still some way from eclipsing mainstream TV consumption.

This is an example of something I’ve observed increasingly in recent months: headline-writers picking a statistic about online video consumption and using this as a clear example of the ‘death of broadcast TV’.

There is a textbook approach to how to write these headlines, which is as follows:

-    Pick one of the fashionable new providers of online video (e.g. YouTube, Netflix)
-    Find a stat that ideally involves billions of something or other (e.g. 1 billion hours of
      YouTube consumption)
-    Conclude that this must mean TV is dead

A similar technique was used in a Times  article a few months ago which claimed…

‘Streaming upstarts steal traditional television’s crown. Britain is turning into a digital couch potato economy, with four in five of us subscribing to at least one streaming service.’

You can see that the approach is once again familiar: name new upstarts, reveal stat, conclude TV dead.

Well like the WSJ  article, this would have been revolutionary stuff, except it isn’t true.

The article was based on a piece of research from YouGov in conjunction with a company that is in the business of subscription management. The 4 in 5 number was the number of people subscribing to a service of some kind – not just to streaming services (where the relevant stat is about 2 in 5 of us). I could continue with many other examples of this approach to misleading conclusions from random data in the mainstream media, but I hope the point is by now well made.

And before anyone says it, I’m not in denial about the impact of technology on TV. Broadcasting is changing. More people are watching TV online than they were five years ago. Netflix, Amazon and YouTube are all growing as they expand their global reach. These trends are particularly true when you focus on younger audiences.

All of these are facts and I don’t seek to challenge them. What I do challenge is that this is ‘a revolution’, that broadcast TV is ‘dead’, and that this kind of misleading journalism is particularly helpful to inform important policy debates about the future of TV.

What I would like to argue for is a more informed, evidence-based approach to how television is changing globally and particularly here in the United Kingdom. Ill-informed strategic, commercial or policy decisions based on poor data are in nobody’s interests, least of all the viewer.

And let me not tarnish all journalists writing about TV with the same brush. A recent article by Torin Douglas in Television  magazine is an excellent example of a balanced perspective, and there are others out there too. So perhaps it is time for us all to start questioning random data points quite often provided by organisations with (dare I say it) a possible vested interest in grabbing headlines.

Thankfully we are lucky to have several reliable and evidence-based sources of information in the UK broadcasting. Ofcom provide a plethora of independent data and research on TV consumption. BARB is also established as the industry source of TV viewing behaviour. Organisations such as ThinkBox also provide highly robust consumer research on TV consumption.

Review these more reliable sources of data on viewing behaviour and a different picture emerges. It paints a more balanced view of consumer behaviour. Some of the changes are quite profound. Others are more subtle.

It does show younger audiences are watching more and more TV and video content online. However, one story that is never written is quite how much live TV kids still do watch. What is more amazing: that kids are watching less TV than they used to, or that they still watch so much given all the other choices they have today? Depends on what spin you want to put on the numbers perspective I guess.

But older audiences, according to the latest BARB data, are still watching levels of broadcast TV equivalent to a decade ago. And you only have to look at the changing demographics of the UK to begin to consider that the dynamics of younger and older audiences may be working against each other when considering the picture in the round. So, this is already a more nuanced story than perhaps some would have you believe.

One thing is undeniably true. The majority of TV consumption for the UK audience as a whole is still live/broadcast. Despite the clear evidence for this from multiple sources, I recently found myself in a debate with a usually well-informed friend who swore blind that majority of content consumed on TVs ‘must be delivered over the internet nowadays’. Eventually after pointing him towards reliable evidence I managed to get him to agree with a throwaway ‘Well I don’t have the data but was basing this on my own experience’.

A recent Guardian  article referred to 2016 as the year ‘TV was turned upside down’, claiming many of the most talked about shows were on Netflix or Amazon. Well like my friend I don’t have data to prove it, but I suspect that while these may have been the most talked about shows among Guardian  journalists, the rest of us were mainly talking about Bake Off, Planet Earth 2 and I’m A Celebrity.

And therein lies the rub. The last people I would want to survey as an indicator of how people are watching TV in this country are people who work in the TV industry.

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