Why do I still watch broadcast TV?

Adrian Stroud – June 2009

I recently challenged myself to work-out why I still watch so much ‘live’ TV. I don’t mean news or sport because I can rationalise those genres quite easily. I mean bread and butter programming.
The challenge came about because I was debating just how much more damage all the VOD services and PVRs will do to live TV viewing figures in the long-run. This is important because it is those live viewing figures that contribute the vast bulk of advertising impacts. VOD currently delivers far, fewer impacts per hour of viewing than live TV, so the ‘end game’ for advertising funded TV programming is defined by this question. My guess was that live TV won’t drop more than perhaps 25%, no matter how many VOD and time shifting gadgets like Sky+ launch, but I could not say why. I suspect I’m making the mistake of confusing the technology with the benefits.
VOD and the PVR are the rational way to consume all but the livest of live TV events. So, when VOD has all the content you want and it is available on every screen in the house, why would you want to watch ordinary old broadcast TV at all?

Live TV has one strong thing going for it – ‘missability’. When you turn your TV on, the rational thing to do is to check a few favourite channels to see if something is sneaking past you that you might like. If I find something valuable in this initial foray into live TV I’ll add it to my Sky+ planner. But here is an odd thing, having committed to recording a newly discovered programme and all subsequent episodes; I’ll probably continue browsing likely sources of live entertainment. When I’m in this mode I’m not actually looking to make a commitment to something I really enjoy. I’m probably expecting to be interrupted or be forced to change channel to meet someone else’s taste. The stuff I really like is salted away for some future, quiet, uninterrupted hour that never comes. So missability is a factor for me at the moment but what if just about every TV programme you could think of was available on demand? How can you miss something then?
Misability is not always what drives me to the broadcast channels first. The conditions under which it seems appropriate to commit to a piece of VOD material are quite specific. The kids must be in bed (a deadline that slips further and further into the evening) and a joint decision must be made with Mrs Stroud as to the duration available for shared viewing and of course there is then a debate about exactly what to watch.
By habitually recording things I like and then delaying their consumption to some future ideal moment that never arrives, I could easily end-up watching less programming that I really enjoy than I did when I had to strike while the iron was hot.
Here is another odd thing. Watching one of my ‘favourite’ programmes sometimes just does not appeal as much as watching short bursts of fairly random content. When left alone with the remote control and hour to waste, I’m likely to channel hop. I might leave a programme in a dull bit and give it another chance a few minutes later knowing that it will have moved-on.
The use of Sky+ to time-shift seems to have levelled off at about 15%. This is an average drawn from a very wide spectrum of behaviour so don’t worry if you are not typical. It is not an average like the average shoe size for men is 10, it is more like the average score for a blindfolded darts player will be 10.
Maybe 15% has always been the average amount of consciously planned TV viewing, and VOD and PVRs have simply revealed this underlying truth? Maybe 85% of viewing was always low-commitment and ‘a bit random’ and we were unconsciously quite happy with this. Let’s face it, how could TV have become such a world-wide hit, occupying many hours a day for most people in most countries if ‘fairly random, low commitment viewing’ was not fun?
So the reason I watch live TV is rational but it is not about being live, it is about serendipity and the way it can be randomly sampled – it is a about browsability. When I channel-hop into a programme half way through, I know that is what I have done and that is exactly what I wanted to do. I don’t want to navigate a hierarchical menu system, highlight a title, see the channel indents, pre roll and then sample ten minutes of scene-setting before a drama gets going. I want a random few seconds somewhere in the middle. I don’t even want a ‘sampler’ of best bits edited together. If I go back to the same programme five minutes later I want it to have moved-on by five minutes. If I’m channel hopping while the children are still around I want to know that I’m not going to stumble across something violent, rude or frightening. Of course, when they are safely in bed these become positive selection criteria.
I have yet to see a VOD system that has the browsability of live TV and that encourages the same happy-go-lucky lack of commitment to viewing a whole programme. But surely a VOD system could mimic these attractive features of broadcast TV and offer added benefits? I suspect that the current generation of VOD systems are assuming that our TV consumption is more planned and sensible than it really is.
Rather than thinking about what the end-game is for live broadcast versus on demand, the real question might be how much TV viewing will remain low-commitment, fairly random sampling? It would be surprising if on-demand systems did not eventually meet the need for browsability better than the current broadcast channels. But if they do, will they be able to deliver about fifteen, spots an hour like live TV does? If you have some cash for research I’d love to see what can be done.

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