Record viewing figures show TV remains in rude health

Record viewing figures on both sides of the Atlantic have helped the television industry demonstrate the best things in life are free.

Freeview is one of the unsung heroes of the British media, even though its creation was a self-serving accident of history.

The Government was desperate for a face-saver after the collapse of ITV Digital and then BBC director general Greg Dyke saw it as a useful device to try to hold BSkyB and subscription television at bay.

Those who bought Freeview boxes tended to be more loyal to the traditional channels provided by the BBC and ITV.

Last week, Freeview managing director Ilsa Howling announced what is virtually a relaunch with a big push on High Definition and Freeview+ – its personal video recorder.

Freeview HD boxes are on sale for around £139 and there is more than a chance that Freeview, now in more than 10 million homes on the primary set, will be able to encourage the spread of HD in the way it did for digital.

A new marketing slogan is being brushed down, which will go something like: Buy Now. Watch Today. Free Forever.

Freeview HD will be available throughout London for the World Cup and all over the country in time for the 2012 Olympics.

A YouGov survey threw up some encouraging numbers for the likely take-up of Freeview HD. Around one in five analogue homes and the same proportion of Freeview homes say they are likely to purchase within six months.

There is also a hint of a small threat to Sky and Virgin. Seventeen per cent of Sky+ HD homes – now totalling 2 million – and 17% of Virgin homes say they are likely purchasers. At least some of these may be considering trading down in difficult times.

The small number of Freeview HD channels will obviously be a problem for some. To begin with there will only be BBC, ITV and Channel 4, although Five is also expected to join the party.

However, “free” remains one of the most powerful words in marketing.

Freeview has obviously been one of the key enablers of the unexpectedly smooth transition to analogue switch-off. In fact, it is difficult to imagine switch-off happening at all without the service, which is of course also a beneficiary of the process.

In the West County, for example, 80% of late adopters to digital have opted for Freeview, with Sky on 12% and Virgin 8%. In the much larger Granada region, Freeview take-up is running at 72%.

The greatest importance of Freeview is, as Dyke originally envisaged, that it is a bulwark against subscription and supports largely free-to-air television.

Freeview’s new plans came in a good week for free-to air and television in general.

If any further evidence were needed to convince sceptics of the power of TV to assemble large audiences for special events, surely the Super Bowl should provide it. No less than 106.5 million watched the New Orleans Saints beat the Indianapolis Colt on broadcast television. It was the largest audience ever for the Super Bowl but still has some way to go to match the 308 million viewers who tuned in for the last episode of M*A*S*H in 1983.

The CBS advertising roster at up to $3m (£1.9m) for 30 seconds was almost as interesting as the game. For the first time in 23 years,

Pepsi decided to sit this one out and instead increase its spending on social media. In marked contrast Google took part for the first time.

The hat-trick of good news for TV was completed with the publication of the latest Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) Trends in

Television Report. Setting aside minor quibbles about comparing data across different BARB audience measurement contract periods, the headline news is that television viewing is at its highest level since 1992.

Super Bowl
If any further evidence were needed to convince sceptics of the power of TV to assemble large audiences for special events, surely the Super Bowl should provide it. No less than 106.5 million watched the New Orleans Saints beat the Indianapolis Colts

Viewers watched an average of 3.75 hours a day in 2009 and 3.94 hours in the final quarter of the year, a rise of 1.5%.

Other IPA statistics help to provide some of the reasons for the rise. Only 7.4% of UK homes still rely solely on the terrestrial analogue signal.
It is hardly surprising that when viewers get a wider choice of channels they tend to watch more television. PVRs boost viewing and the spread of HD will probably also help.

The latest BARB contract has just begun and we can predict with some certainty that television viewing figures will rise again next year because video-on-demand viewing will be included.

Equally obviously multichannel increases the pressure on the main terrestrial channels. But BBC1 still pulled in a 21% share last year with ITV and GMTV recording 19% – a two-year high.

Surely now at last all those who maintain that broadcast television is dead or dying and that channels have just about had it, should engage their brains before they open their mouths.

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