TV’s curse: number wanging and narrative twisting
Why does the press keep regurgitating so many spectacularly incorrect figures about TV's supposed decline? Dominic Mills lurks behind the lazy research to find out.
I don't ordinarily feel too sorry for the TV industry - top of the media pile and fully equipped with the hubris that befits their status - but sometimes they deserve a little tea and sympathy.
Take last week, for instance, with the release by Thinkbox of its latest set of stats, aiming to put - in an entirely neutral way - some perspective into our viewing habits.
These are the highlights:
- The average viewer in the UK watched a total of 3 hours, 51 minutes of TV a day in 2015, 1% less than 2014, 5% more than 10 years ago
- Average viewer in the UK spends 4 minutes a day watching TV on devices such as tablets and smartphones
- 16-24s watch over twice as much TV on other devices as the average viewer
- TV accounts for 76% of all video consumption in the UK
- YouTube now accounts for 4.4% of video viewing
- SVOD services, including Netflix and Amazon Prime, together account for 4% of video viewing
Now there's lots to get our teeth into, but the overall picture is one of remarkable resilience of mainstream broadcasting. Sure, there's a small decline in overall viewing time versus 2014, and YouTube, Amazon Prime and Netflix are all making ground. But it's slow.
The idea, therefore, that TV is on the wane is patent nonsense.
Yet this is not how the story is reflected by press coverage. The Guardian chose to present it as a triumph for streaming services, describing the popularity of Amazon and Netflix as 'surging'.
To put this into context, average viewing time of SVOD services per day in 2014 was 5.71 minutes; last year it was 11 minutes per day. Some 'surge', eh?
MediaWeek took a similar line, although without showing the same level of giddy excitement.
I think there's two things going on here. Let's call the first 'number wanging', in honour of Mitchell and Webb's spoof game show, in which contestants randomly throw meaningless numbers into the air.
Journalists, famously, can't really cope with numbers and (me included) are so easily bamboozled they have a tendency to pick them at random.
The second, more seditious, is the twisting of the narrative. I don't think this is done with malice, but the accepted wisdom in the newsroom is that new is good and old is bad. What this means is that advances in new stuff - SVOD, YouTube etc - are over-played and the real story (to my mind, at any rate) - mainstream TV's almost-iron grip on our viewing habits - is downplayed.
But the prevailing wisdom says that this is dull, and so the story is miscast.
In case anyone thinks I'm taking a holier-than-thou-stance here, let me say that I too have been guilty of twisting the narrative in the past.
But here's another example from last week, this time about the seemingly inexorable growth of mobile advertising. This is a news story based on a report from eMarketer claiming mobile adspend will top TV adspend this year.
The respective figures, eMarketer claims for 2016, are £4.58bn for mobile, and £4.18bn for TV.
How did they get it so wrong? Well, it's our old friends number wanging and narrative twisting, plus, if you read the barbed comment from Thinkbox's Simon Tunstill underneath, an egregious failure "to look at the past before having a stab at the future." I think this is code for being fuckwit lazy.
Back to the latest TV stats, and the number that really caught my eye was this: while viewing hours dropped 1% from 2014 to 2015, looked at over a ten-year period they were 5% higher.
How can that be, when the media constantly pushes the message that viewing is declining? I think the answer is two-fold: one, technology, in the form of a greater installed PVR userbase, smartphones and tablets; and two, the arrival of VOD (including, but let's not get too carried away, SVOD).
So here's the paradox: while the techno-evangelists would have it that technology is, long-term, destroying TV as we know it, in fact it's strengthening it.
We know from some BARB research last year that for many Netflix and Amazon subscribers, those SVOD services don't mean they watch less TV, they watch more. And from what I understand, there is evidence from Sky that suggest SkyPlus users watch more TV.
The second issue worth looking at it in more detail is that of younger viewers. The accepted 'narrative' has it that it is a generation losing the TV habit. Thinkbox's figures show viewing among 16-24 year-olds watch 7% less TV than in 2014, and 8% less than in 2005.
The lazy assumption is that these habits won't change; as they age they'll continue to watch less TV, while the next generation of 16-24 year-olds will watch even less, and so on, thus implying there is an inevitable spiral of decline for TV.
Hmmm. I'm not so sure. Thinkbox's Lindsey Clay puts this down to the fact that they don't control the TV remote, and therefore turn to their personal screens to watch what they want.
This must surely be correct, but the really interesting thing to see is how their viewing habits change, not only by age, but by lifestage. By far the largest cohort in the 16-24s will be single people, either living at home or in shared accommodation with other singles.
But it also includes young couples, including some with families - increasing as you up the age limit to, say, 35.
Couples behave differently, and their viewing habits are likely to revert to the norm, all the more so as they become young families - i.e. they watch more TV.
Talking to another major media owner, I know that lifestage is a much more nuanced and helpful way of looking at media consumption habits, and undermines many of the lazy assumptions we all make about millennials and Gen Xers eschewing traditional media.
There's more number wanging to come, and more pressure on challenging the accepted narrative.