Youths Are Watching, but Less Often on TV
But more and more young people are tuning in elsewhere.
Americans ages 12 to 34 are spending less time in front of TV sets, even as those 35 and older are spending more, according to research that will be released on Thursday by Nielsen, a company that tracks media use.
The divide along a demographic line reveals the effect of Internet videos, social networks, mobile phones and video games — in short, all the alternatives to the television set that are taking up growing slices of the American attention span. Young people are still watching the same shows, but they are streaming them on computers and phones to a greater degree than their parents or grandparents do.
It has long been predicted that these new media would challenge traditional television viewing, but this is the first significant evidence to emerge in research data. If the trends hold, the long-term implications for the media industry are huge, possibly causing billions of dollars in annual advertising spending to shift away from old-fashioned TV.
Gary Carr, a senior vice president for TargetCast TCM, which buys ad time for companies, said that while the dip was “not cause for panic,” it merited concern and careful monitoring. “Young people are always the first group to be doing other things, trying other things,” Mr. Carr said.
Echoing those sentiments, executives at several major media companies said their proprietary research affirmed that there had been a dip in overall youth viewership in recent months, though they said it had not yet led to a meaningful effect on the ratings for individual channels.
The television industry has been expecting — and dreading the day — that TV viewing peaks, and then either plateaus or slowly declines in the face of encroaching Internet and phone use. According to data that Nielsen will release on Thursday, television viewing as a whole is steady, in part because older Americans — particularly those over the age of 65 — are watching more than ever before. Digital video recorders deserve some of the credit for the uptick, since they let people stockpile shows.
But for three straight quarters, there have been declines in viewing among Americans under 35, even when DVR viewership is factored in, according to Nielsen data analyzed by The New York Times.
Adults ages 25 to 34, for instance, watched about four and a half fewer hours of television in the third quarter of 2011 than at the same time in 2010 — the equivalent of about nine minutes a day. Viewers ages 12 to 17 also watched about nine fewer minutes a day. The demographic in between, those ages 18 to 24, watched about six fewer minutes a day.
Pat McDonough, a senior vice president at Nielsen, said this week that the company was watching youth viewing behavior “very closely,” and acknowledged in an interview that she had seen “a little bit” of a drop-off in youth viewership. She cautioned, however, that there had been fluctuations in the past, and noted that traditional television viewership in 2010 was very high. (This is possibly a reflection of economic circumstances, since television viewing tends to grow when the American economy does not.) The shorter National Football League preseason in 2011 may have also influenced year-over-year comparisons, she said.
As behaviors shift, there is likely to be a scramble to identify winners and losers. Viacom, the owner of Nickelodeon, criticized Nielsen last fall after ratings showed that the channel suffered from a sudden drop in children’s viewing.
According to data for the first nine months of 2011, children spent as much time in front of the television set as they did in 2010, and in some cases spent more. But the proportion of live viewing is shrinking while time-shifted viewing is expanding.
Zach Dulli, a director of operations for the National Council for Geographic Education in Washington, has noticed that his children, Max and Huck, like the TV set, but they like laptops and cellphones more. Now that Huck has mastered the finger swipe to turn on an iPad, Mr. Dulli and his wife, Stephanie, prepare “Baby Einstein” for him to watch on the device. Huck is eight months old.
“To us, TV is separate from the other media we use,” Mr. Dulli said. “To my sons, it’s not.”
To a child, television shows on the iPad are still television, but to Nielsen, it’s not: the company counts computer and mobile streams of shows separately, making it difficult for the television industry to get a handle on changing habits.
On Sunday, for the first time, the Super Bowl was broadcast online as well as on television, but the ads were sold separately and the ratings were reported separately. About 2.1 million unique users watched the live stream at some point during the game, while about 111.3 million people watched on television at any given time during the game. NBC says there was some overlap, but that it was hard to know how much. But the network has said that the game was the “most-watched single-game sports event ever online.”
Accordingly, there is a growing sense of urgency within the industry to make online and mobile viewing as measurable as traditional couch-bound viewing. Ad-buying agencies are gradually moving some client money to the Web to reach the 20- and 30-somethings who are becoming harder to reach with traditional television.
“Television still reaches young audiences in a major, major way,” said Billie Gold, the director of programming research for Carat USA, an ad-buying agency.
That said, just before a phone interview on Wednesday, Ms. Gold ran the preliminary numbers for the first few weeks of 2012, and she saw a dip in youth viewing compared with the same period last year. “This is why we’re incorporating more digital and online video” into our advertising plans, she said. “We know it’s a place to replace some of the young audience that is leaving television.”
Just ask Jay Rishel, a system administrator in York, Pa., whose son Cory, 4, has become accustomed to watching television via Roku, a small box that streams shows through the Internet. On Tuesday night, Cory asked his dad if he had watched television via Roku growing up. When his dad said no, Cory then asked, “So you could only watch DVDs?”
“Since it was bedtime, I didn’t try to explain we had four channels available when I was growing up,” Mr. Rishel, 31, said. “I don’t think he knows what a channel even is.”