How Have Our TV Viewing Habits Changed Over Time?

How much television do you watch? Also, how much television do the people around you watch? How do you watch it, and have your habits changed as you’ve gotten older or experienced life-changing events? These are the questions networks and their executives want to ask, and the answers to these questions can also provide insights into not only where the television industry is headed, but also the entertainment industry as a whole.

Whether you have a professional curiosity, simply want to know how you might be entertained in the future, or are hoping to better understand your own habits in the context of nationwide trends, we hope that this information and these statistics can better educate you.

Changes are Recent, and the Changes Are Noticeable

Before we go into some of the fine details and statistics on TV viewing habits, one thing needs to be clarified first: for many decades, viewing habits didn’t change much as all. Experts state that before the digital age set in, people would simply watch what was available in their home at a certain time, or they wouldn’t. The only real statistic to track was how many people were watching TV at all or watching a channel.

VHS tapes changed things to some degree, but ultimately viewing habits weren’t particularly affected until DVRs became commonplace alongside other ways to watch TV on your schedule.

Furthermore, another thing to note is that only in recent decades did many houses have more than one available viewing screen or television at all. Families watched things together or someone had control of the remote, and that was it. Televisions were relatively expensive compared to today, and the further back you go, the more expensive they were.

TV Audiences by Age

Perhaps the most important set of metrics to look at in terms of TV viewing habits are those related to age. As it would stand to reason, younger generations and teens are the ones that will be paying for or not paying for TV subscriptions in the future, and if there are trends in older populations, those too will be key in determining future contractions and adaptations in the market.

We will primarily be focusing on Millennials and Baby Boomers for this comparison, as there isn’t too much data out yet about Gen Z to make accurate determinations, and any generation older than Baby Boomers will fall into the same general habits.

Millennials

Being one of the larger generations and the one that in many ways will shape the scope of the economy and technological sector for decades to come, we want to provide a few facts about them:

  • An interesting fact about Millennials is that they are 9 percent more likely to stream video than watch TV. It should be noted that streaming video is a wide term and doesn’t necessarily mean the use of streaming services. Gen Z is trending on the same path.
  • From the same source, 59 million millennials will watch traditional TV at least once a month. There are about 71-74 million millennials, so it seems that while viewing habits will change, millennials as a whole certainly aren’t cutting television from their lives.
  • To further this point, the Millennials on Millennials report (by Nielsen), shows that on average, traditional TV is responsible for 66 percent of total video viewing time for Millennials.
  • According to Nielsen and MarketingCharts.com, Millennials will often change how they use their screens to use more TV-connected devices once they cease being dependent adults. However, once they start families, they once again watch more live TV. We can likely expect a similar pattern to repeat for younger generations as well.

Gen X

A smaller generation, it can generally be noted that Gen X bridges that gap between the two, with younger members of the generation acting more like Millennials and likely to adopt new ideas and technologies, and older ones falling into Baby Boomer habits.

  • About 52 percent of Gen Xers prefer to watch a show on a weekly basis as opposed to binging.
  • They are the most trusting of television advertising (83 percent trust TV ads), and as such might present an interesting marketing opportunity.

Baby Boomers

Most notably, all trends point towards an increase in television usage over time, and seniors both watch more TV than the average viewer and watch television in the traditional manner, being far less likely to use DVR, streaming services, and other types of on-demand viewing options.

  • According to a Salesforce report, 72 percent of Baby Boomers watched a program at the time of broadcast, as opposed to 42 percent of younger audiences.
  • By the same report, only 23 percent of older viewers watched a tv show or movie via a streaming platform (compared to two-thirds of Millennials and anyone younger).

Device Versus Traditional TV Usage

The most glaring example of changing times is the difference in viewing habits between generations. Even though generational gaps are in some ways arbitrary, reviewing the data can sometimes predict cultural shifts and predict future habits.

Based on Nielsen’s data, there are the following divisions between traditional television viewing time and the use of television connected devices in the third quarter of 2018, with times expressed in hours and minutes.

Outside of the clear trends towards increased use for the younger and older, these stats clearly show that people watch a ton of television. People older than 65 spend more than a quarter of their time watching television. Adults in general on average spend more than a fifth watching their TV or using a TV-connected device. The television comes second only to things such as sleep and work.

Binging Series and Serialization

With many of today’s series, if you miss even one single episode, none of the plot threads make any sense, you start to wonder what you’re doing watching the show in the first place. Even someone non-serialized shows to keep season-long plot threads going to keep audiences invested from week to week. This wasn’t always the case, and this shift has ultimately been the result of both a desire to keep viewers hooked as well as easier access to older episodes of a show.

Based on a 2019 survey, 58 percent of people aged 18-29 binge-watched an entire season of television at once on streaming services. This percentage steadily decreases over each age group to the point where only 25 percent of people aged 65+ have done the same, even though they, on average, watch much more television.

We’re still looking for more information on whether this is a generational change or whether people’s habits shift as they age, but we can expect cable companies and streaming services alike to take notice, pay close attention, and provide content that fits in with what people want.

Shorter, More Esteemed Series

Some of the more memorable series of the last decade or two don’t have 22-26 episode seasons that network television is known for, and instead will mainly focus on creating a set of 8-12 episodes that tell a concise, thorough yet focused, and well-shot story that can easily compete with what the film industry has to offer. While offered more often by premium cable networks and streaming services, on occasion more standard network and cable channels have crafted these shows as well, providing something to get people talking, critics and general audiences alike.

To put it into perspective, the average worldwide season length for a TV show has dropped from 24 in 1950 to about 30 during the late 90s to nine episodes per season as of 2017.

While this isn’t a universal trend by any means, and there are plenty of tv seasons that have many episodes, we will likely see that there are more of these shows in the future, especially as quality becomes all the more important to grab a limited number of viewer eyes.

Discovery and Recommendations

One thing that just about everyone can agree on is the fact that there are simply more programs than one can explore all on their own. With hundreds of channels and the possibility of over a thousand in the future, there is more new television programming than one could watch in a lifetime.

Previously, people would often check out shows that were available in the timeslots they scheduled as TV time or stick to the ones they loved throughout the season. However, with more short series as described above, and busier lives for many, there isn’t much time for that process.

Seven out of 10 TV viewers state that they often use the networks they already watch to find new programs. This makes sense and has remained true for some time. However, more notably, word of mouth is important to Millennials and Gen Xers, perhaps combined with hearing about the content elsewhere. What is also noticeable about word of mouth is that it tends to create more dedicated and involved viewers who will stick with a show for a season or its entire run.

And while one might think streaming is competing with these trends, about 48 percent of SVOD subscribers discover a show via streaming, then watch it live later as it airs.

New Media, the Internet, and YouTube

With the internet eventually came the ability for anyone to become a content producer, and while most online content isn’t worth a second glance, many people are finding niche content on platforms such as YouTube (and some social media networks) that speaks to them in a  personalized and unique way. That being noted, the types of content are so different that the competition is less in terms of programming and more generally in terms of time. Each platform has something entirely different to offer audiences.

Something else to note about the viewing experience: Even though more options have opened up such as computers or phones, even Netflix finds that 70 percent of viewing happens on televisions. People liked the bigger screen experience before, and they continue to prefer it, even when a more convenient location exists.

TV As an Event

Yet we do see certain echoes of that in today’s watching habits. Shows such as Game of Thrones are able to get people talking and get people together, with watch parties scheduled regularly among friends and discussions and online engagement far beyond what one might have seen in the papers years ago. Only certain things would reach those heights in previous years.

Similarly, certain types of reality shows, live or not, have gained status as event viewing. You still likely hear about The Bachelor regularly the day after it aired. Only some time ago American Idol held the nation in a strong grip with millions of viewers, and shows can easily reach this scale once again in the future, especially with the social media aspect they can potentially bring to the table. Ultimately, how shows, marketing teams, and networks tap into this potential will in part determine future viewing habits.

Sports on Television

Something notable among all these statistics, considerations, and observations is that sports programming is, to put it succinctly, different. Whether you attribute it to the fact that watching sports is so commonly event viewing as described above, the live nature of it (alongside the difficulty of missing the results until you can watch it on your own time) makes it so that the viewing numbers don’t change, or something else, sports has held onto its traditional viewing history unlike anything else.

Cable TV and service packages are still the undisputed champs when it comes to getting the best sports viewing experience possible, and while some online options exist, they aren’t yet perfected and aren’t yet competitive (either in price in most cases or the quality of the viewing experience).

Here are a few trends and statistics on this topic:

  • According to a NCTA survey, people are more likely to watch sports in a group live (41 percent) than alone (25 percent). You’ve likely felt it yourself, but sports are often a more fun experience when there are people around you caught up in the action.
  • 63 percent of people would be interested in paying for an over-the-top (OTT) all-sports channel, according to information provided by Digital TV Research Limited. Intense sports fans want sports, they don’t necessarily want as many channels, and they are willing to pay to get precisely what they want. Now that options are open, people want specificity, as opposed to whatever games were available on their basic channels at the time.
  • The same source states that 64 percent of fans live far away from where their favorite team plays.
  • Additionally, 65 percent of the younger fans use a mobile device to consume sports content, although this doesn’t make up their entire sports viewing experience.

The News on Television

Another trend that should be noted is that news viewing (local and national) is often still done through live, traditional televisions viewing. This is often done by older audiences, and might not say everything about how people get their news. Cable news and major events, national tragedies, and natural disasters still all get people turning on their television if they are able.

Here are a couple of notes on TV viewing habits and trends regarding the news:

  • The same NCTA survey mentioned above also stated that 60 percent of people are more likely to watch the news alone.
  • Over the last few years, people have been less likely to watch the network news in the morning, but only slightly. About 69 million people on average watched network TV morning news in 2016, and this number fell to 3.18 million in 2018.

Where Are We Headed?

Based on some of the above trends, it’s quite possible to be alarmist about television, whether we’ll even have it in the future, and whether it’ll be diluted, reduced in scope, or something similar. And it is true that we can expect change and that traditional television will have to adapt to changing viewing habits.

Yet many of the statistics show that we need not be alarmed. The vast majority of people still watch traditional television, and some programs and events still regularly bring people together in front of it. While the nature of cable and television is changing rapidly with each passing year, many of these changes are benefitting the average consumer, providing more options, more control, and a better viewing experience.

These things, combined with the fact that video content is usually quite different from television programming, show that there is room for coexistence and ideally mutual benefits to both, especially as cable companies come into the online space with more confidence in their position.

Conclusion

The world of television is constantly changing, and yet people often neglect to consider that the person watching it is part of that ecosystem. Programs and networks change in response to viewer habits and larger trends, and you should know where things might be headed. Knowledge is the root of all sound decision-making, and however this information has affected you, we hope that it’s proved interesting and helpful.