Cable TV viewing bucks the trend

Research shows homes with cable and satellite increase their viewing time, a break from the overall trend towards watching less TV.

Any discussion of how TV viewing has declined in the UK usually ends up mentioning ten-pin bowling. Researchers cast about for leisure pursuits that explain what people are doing with their time, rather than looking at the box, and for some inexplicable reason ten-pin bowling always gets the blame.

But this week, CIA’s MediaLab has published the reasons why Rupert Murdoch has invested in multichannel television and not a national network of bowling alleys, the so-called leisure environment of the future.

CIA and research company RSMB have spent two years going through the BARB viewing data for those on the BARB panel who started subscribing to cable or satellite television since 1992.

The homes on the panel represent the 3 million households which have stumped up for satellite and cable in those four years.

It found that after six months their TV viewing had increased by an average of 35 minutes a week, up from an average of 21 hours a week. This might not seem like much, but it needs to be viewed in the context that average viewing for all UK TV has declined by three hours a week since 1992.

The research is particularly significant because of press reports in the past that there exists a secret BARB report which shows the opposite – that viewing in multichannel homes declines compared with the period when homes had only terrestrial TV.

The people doing the extra viewing are not, by any definition, downmarket couch potatoes either. CIA’s research found that those buying cable and satellite now – and those interested in a multichannel future provided by digital TV – are from a specific sector of the population.

Unlike those who first signed up for satellite TV in the Eighties, when subscription costs were low, those subscribing since 1992 tend to be young, male and slightly more upmarket than the population as a whole. CIA takes this to mean that the early adopters of digital services will be a similarly attractive demographic segment.

What the research does dispel is the “kid with a new toy” model of viewing in multichannel homes. It had been thought that viewing would rise sharply when satellite or cable was first installed and people would spend more time watching their new channels. This, it was thought, would tail off over time as people got used to what’s on multichannel TV and their viewing would return to normal – and terrestrial stations.

As well as tracking homes’ viewing before and after subscribing to satellite or cable, CIA set out to investigate their long-term habits. It looked at viewing six months before subscribing, the first three months and then for a six-month period seven months after subscribing started. In fact, viewing remained static in the initial period, then gradually increased by about five minutes a day until peaking at an extra 35 minutes a week.

Anthony Jones, head of CIA MediaLab, believes the original stasis in viewing is caused by confusion and indecision when people are first confronted with up to 40 new channels. “With extra choice, people have to make a positive decision to view. At first they just zap, but in time they get to know which programmes they like.”

Cable and satellite change the type of viewing in households, as well as their quantity. In hourly terms, Channel 4 and BBC2 lose about half their viewing – an hour a week to satellite. BBC1 loses just under two hours a week from an original total of nearly seven. But it is ITV that loses out most.

According to CIA’s research, ITV loses more than three hours a week to cable and satellite viewing from an original total of just over nine. You would expect ITV, as the largest channel, to lose the most so this isn’t necessarily a reflection on its programming.

The loss for ITV comes about because in time new viewing habits emerge. “People start to edit out their casual viewing on terrestrial TV,” says Jones.

They get used to finding niche or specialist programming they like on satellite or cable and watch that rather than the “stuff on terrestrial you watch because it is on”.

Extra viewing is also picked up late at night when people take a last sweep through their satellite or cable channels to see if there is anything on and often find something they are willing to watch.

During the day there is extra viewing of satellite and cable channels because they can compete on more equal terms with the programming quality of terrestrial during the day.

Satellite and cable also pick up viewing at weekends. This is both new viewing and that shifted from terrestrial broadcasters. In satellite homes, all TV watching on Sundays increases by ten per cent over other homes. Movies, niche programmes and watching sport seem to replace other leisure pursuits at weekends.

For advertisers, the truly significant aspect of CIA’s research is the implication that once viewers start editing out programmes they don’t really want to watch, they will then edit out – or zap away from – ads they don’t want to see. According to CIA, multichannel viewers are 44 per cent more likely to zap than other adult viewers.

CIA believes there are strategies to get around such behaviour, including more programme sponsorship, block-booking dayparts and high-frequency, low-coverage campaigns.

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