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In spite of growth in numbers of homes with satellite, and more choice of channels, the general trend is going towards less time spent viewing

In the past two years, the number of homes with satellite television has increased by more than 40 per cent, from 8.9 million to 12.7 million. Meanwhile, the number of satellite channels reported by BARB has risen from ten to 19. The explosion in new channels has been accompanied by fast growth in cable and direct to home (DTH) demand – so there is clearly a demand for more TV choice.

These increases in supply and demand have not been matched by an increase in consumption. More TV choice has resulted in less, not more, TV viewing.

UK TV viewing has fallen from a 1992 weekly average of 26.5 hours to just over 25 hours; in satellite homes it has fallen from 28 hours to 25.5 hours. The viewing cake has got smaller, while the number of channels competing for share has more than doubled.

Continental Research looked closely at viewing levels for April compared with the same month in 1993. During that period the weekly average in satellite homes was 27 hours, 54 minutes; today it is 24 hours, 52 minutes.

As the chart shows, the biggest loser has been ITV (down 105 minutes weekly), followed, some way behind, by BBC1 (down 53 minutes), Sky One (down 44 minutes), Sky Movies (down 30 minutes) and Channel 4 (down 22 minutes). Across the same two years, five new channels secured significant viewing share: TNT & Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Discovery Channel, Bravo and UK Living. All were new to Astra and DTH, if not to cable, across this two-year period.

All of the new channels can be described as niche players – those with a distinctive appeal to a distinctive audience. Bravo, with its mix of “old” films and series, appeals to the 40-plus market; Nickelodeon, spearheaded by Rugrats – a babe’s eye view of the world – has 60 per cent of its viewers aged under 15; Cartoon Network targets children and young adults with popular cartoons such as The Flintstones, The Jetsons and Top Cat; UK Living has a distinct female bias; while Discovery’s viewers are predominantly male.

These new, themed channels have taken eight per cent of all viewing in satellite homes in just two years. Half of their share comes from the terrestrials and the other half from existing satellite channels.

But why, then, has viewing fallen in satellite homes? It could be that the early adopters of satellite TV were heavy viewers and that the new homes are lighter viewers, though this alone would not explain the fall. Other contributing factors are the growth in rented videos (led by the expansion of the highly efficient Blockbuster video chain); greater use of the TV for video and computer games; and changing leisure habits, from more cinema going to more eating out.

It may also reflect greater selectivity when viewers are faced with more choice – the “I’ll just watch what interests me” factor, as opposed to couch-potato mentality. Or it could reflect a fall in programme appeal: less availability of programmes people want to watch on all channels.

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