The State of Traditional TV: Updated With Q2 2017 Data

December 13, 2017

[PLEASE NOTE: Updates to this analysis have moved to a new page, here.] Here we go again! The latest quarterly TV viewing figures from Nielsen are in, giving us 6-and-a-half years’ worth of Americans’ traditional TV viewing habits to examine. If you’ve been keeping track of these quarterly updates, you know by now that youth are watching far less traditional TV than they used to. Is there anything new in this latest study [download page], covering Q2 2017? Let’s take a look.

Before getting to the data and trends, a quick note on methodology. The below data in large part concerns “traditional TV” viewing, which averages out all live and DVR/time-shifted TV viewing (such as video-on-demand) during each quarter. As such, it is a measure of legacy TV viewing on set-top boxes, and does not include viewing via connected TV devices. While time-shifted TV viewing is growing, it still represents only a fraction of total “traditional TV” viewing. For example, among the total 18-24 population, weekly live TV viewing averaged 11 hours and 22 minutes per week in Q2 2017, while DVR and time-shifted TV viewing averaged 1 hour and 21 minutes per week.

Editor’s Note: Given the popularity of this analysis, we have expanded it into a premium report, The State of Traditional TV Viewing, covering a 5-year period from Q1 2012-Q1 2017. The study examines viewing figures and trends for both the total population and TV viewers across all age brackets and race/ethnicities, acting as a perfect complement to this article. The report also analyzes the influence of on-demand viewing, traditional TV’s share of screen time across demographic groups, and traditional TV’s position in the wider video content landscape. The report is now available for purchase here.

Below the analyses of viewing trends, this article contains:

  • Data concerning changing habits as Millennials age, from the Q4 2015 Nielsen report;
  • Research from another recent Nielsen study (the Comparable Metrics Report) that looks at audience sizes and consumption across various media channels;
  • Income and race/ethnicity data outlined in recent Nielsen studies; and
  • Results from other sources that compare linear and streaming TV viewing.

Now, on to the data…

Nielsen’s most recent “Total Audience Report” indicates that Americans aged 18-24 watched a weekly average of about 12-and-three-quarter hours of traditional TV during Q2 2017. What does that mean?

It’s now less than 2 hours per day of traditional TV for this young group, the lowest figure yet.

In terms of a year-over-year change, Q2’s figure represents a sizable decline of 2 hour and 25 minutes per week. In other words, 18-24-year-olds as a group went from watching about 2 hours and 10 minutes per day during the second quarter of 2016 to about 1 hour and 49 minutes per day during the second quarter of this year.

The year-over-year decline in traditional TV viewing among the 18-24 population was the largest since Q1 2015.

In sum, between 2012 and 2017, second quarter traditional TV viewing by 18-24-year-olds dropped by almost 10 hours a week, or by roughly 1 hour and 25 minutes per day.

In percentage terms, Q2 traditional TV viewing by 18-24-year-olds was down by a huge 15.7% year-over-year and has now fallen by 43.6% since 2012.

In other words, in the space of 5 years, close to half of this age group’s traditional TV viewing time has migrated to other activities or streaming (more on that to come).

The interactive chart below offers a visual presentation of traditional TV consumption figures for each age bracket, showing how this type of TV viewing is trending down (sloping to the left) for younger demos, while slightly increasing (sloping to the right) for the oldest group.


A couple of notes regarding the chart: a vertical line chart is used there because it better portrays the varying trends among age groups than a typical horizontal line chart. Also, the trends are exaggerated by making the horizontal axis range 10-55 hours per week rather than 0-55 hours per week.

Here’s what the data looks like as a horizontal line chart with no vertical axis limits applied:

The above figures are averaged among the entire population, meaning that they include those Americans who don’t watch traditional TV. That number is more prevalent among youth: Nielsen’s recent “Comparable Metrics” report indicates, for example, that in Q4 2016, TV’s weekly reach was just 79% among 18-34-year-olds, well below the 89% average for all adults.

Interestingly, the drop-off in viewing among 18-24-year-olds is larger when looking just at persons in TV households (TV viewers). Among 18-24-year-old viewers, the Q2 2017 average of 64 hours and 21 minutes per month was down from 76 hours and 55 minutes per month during Q2 2016, representing a drop of about 12-and-a-half hours per month.

That puts the per-day decline among 18-24-year-old viewers at about 25 minutes, larger than the viewing drop among the 18-24 population overall (about 20 minutes per day). This indicates that viewing losses are not the result just of cord-cutting or a growing cord-never population: 18-24-year-old viewers are also watching less traditional TV.

We examine the declines in viewing among the total population and the viewing population in more detail in our new premium report, The State of Traditional TV Viewing, which is available for purchase here.

What’s the upshot of all these declines? Millennials (18-34 in this case) as a whole spend more time accessing apps and the web on smartphones than they do watching traditional TV.

What About Other Age Groups? (Updated Data)

Of course, there are other age groups of interest when analyzing traditional TV viewing, including teens (a potential leading indicator) and older Millennials (aged 25-34), who might be more apt to watch traditional TV as they round into life stages such as parenthood and home ownership. (More on that coming.)

Again, you can purchase the report for more insights into how these various age groups stack up in viewing, but for now the latest data indicates that:

  • Teens (12-17) watched 11 hours and 47 minutes of traditional TV per week in Q1, a substantial 17.6% drop year-over-year (much larger than in Q1 2017) and a massive 45.5% contraction since 2012;
  • Older Millennials (25-34) watched 18 hours and 23 minutes per week in Q2, a 12.2% decrease year-over-year that was larger than Q1’s drop, along with a considerable 32.2% drop over 5 years;
  • Gen Xers (35-49) watched 26 hours and 59 minutes per week, a 7% decline that continues to accelerate over time (Q1’s drop was 4.8%; Q4 2016’s was 1.6%), and representing a 15.8% contraction over a 5-year period;
  • Adults aged 50-64 watched 39 hours and 35 minutes per week, down 1.8% year-over-year (weaker than in Q1), but relatively flat (-1.1%) over 5 years; and
  • Adults aged 65 and older watched 48 hours and 4 minutes per week, down by 1.2% from the previous year (the first decline since Q1 2015) and up by 6% over 5 years.

Of note is that TV viewing trends were weaker in Q2 2017 than in Q1 2017 for all of these age groups.

Also, let’s stand back for a moment and re-iterate 4 of the above findings:

  • Both teens and young Millennials have seen their traditional TV viewing evaporate by more than 40% over the past 5 years, with teens down by almost half;
  • Teens’ traditional TV viewing time fell by almost 20% in a single year;
  • Even older Millennials are getting in the act, with almost one-third of their traditional TV viewing gone over the space of 5 years;
  • The oldest bracket (65+) watched less TV for just the third quarter in the past 20.

If you’re looking for one chart that says it all (the TL:DR version), here it is:

Those results demonstrate the age-related skew in traditional TV viewing, with declines easing off with each age bracket and turning into a slight viewing increase among the oldest age group.

Looking at the overall picture, live TV consumption by adults averaged 3 hours and 55 minutes per day in Q2, down 14 minutes per day from Q2 2016 after dropping by 2 minutes per day between 2016 and 2015. Clearly, the declines have accelerated of late.

How Does Traditional TV Measure Up With Streaming Video? (Some Data Updated)

So yes, 18-24-year-olds are continuing to watch less traditional TV with each passing quarter, likely due in part to increasing consumption of digital video and more time spent with their smartphones.

It’s worth remembering that Q1 2016 marked the first time that streaming video services were in 50% of US TV households. That was up 8% points from just a year earlier. By contrast, DVR penetration had remained flat at 49-50% for the prior 6 quarters. (More adults in TV households now have access to Netflix than to DVRs, another milestone.)

Consider also a recent report from TDG which found that among dual-service users, adults ages 18-34 would choose streaming services over pay-TV if forced to make the choice. (All age groups over 35 made the opposite choice.)

Keep in mind that Netflix now has more paying subscribers in the US than all of the top cable TV companies, combined, as we exclusively reported earlier this year.

What does Nielsen data have to say about streaming versus traditional TV? According to the data presented by Nielsen, traditional TV is still the single largest video consumption source. It’s also clear that measurement concerns persist, as its Comparable Metrics report notes the various video metrics included and not included in consumption counts. For example, smartphone and tablet video figures do not include content available through applications and the web where video is not the primary focus, such as Facebook. Even so, the methodology does include apps and sites where one might expect most long-form video consumption, such as Netflix and HBO GO… It’s worth keeping those disclosures in mind when looking at the following chart.

Note that the above chart measures video consumption among users of each medium; those 18-34-year-olds who don’t watch video on their smartphones are not diluting the average. Were one to average these figures out among the total population (bearing in mind that this would dilute viewing time for digital devices such as tablets to a greater extent than traditional TV), the gap would be greater.

Indeed, recent research from Nielsen indicates that linear TV accounts for 62% share of Millennials’ video viewing time. That is well below the 82% for all adults, however. (Want that figure for each age group and race/ethnicity? Purchase our State of Traditional TV Viewing study, which is a great supplement to this article.)

This data seems to lend support to the notion that digital video is complementing more than replacing traditional TV, as total video hours continue to grow. The alternative view is, of course, that if almost half of youths’ traditional TV viewing has migrated to other activities, the most likely destination is streaming video. (And research does suggest that streaming is at least partly to blame for Millennials’ decisions to forego pay-TV.) The SVOD vs. legacy TV choice is also examined in our premium report, which makes the data-driven case that viewers are increasingly choosing content over platform.

The online-offline comparison is obviously up for debate as Nielsen itself is in the thick of a vibrant discussion about total audience measurement, and that’s why the prevailing focus of this article is on trends within a single viewing source (traditional TV). Nevertheless, the above data offers some insights as to why the industry is abuzz over digital video and not traditional TV.

The following two charts from MarketingCharts’ upcoming report, the 4th annual edition of our US Media Audience Demographics study (register here to be notified of its release), offer another reason.

Here’s broadcast TV’s audience breakdown, by age:

And here’s the age breakdown of monthly online TV program viewers:

(Note that these aren’t apples-to-apples comparisons, as they measure different base samples and viewing frequencies. They’re nonetheless illustrative of the demographic gap between TV audiences.)

Whether or not one agrees that Millennials are a more valuable demographic than, say, Baby Boomers (these financial stats might suggest otherwise), the online TV viewing audience is probably the choice for most marketers today, if all of the hullabaloo about Millennials is to be trusted.

(Sign up to be notified when we release our report on media audience demographics for more data about the audience composition – age, household income and race/ethnicity – of broadcast, cable TV, and online video viewers, along with audience data for about a dozen other major online and offline media.)

Due to methodological changes that Nielsen has put into place for its latest Comparable Metrics report, we can’t report on year-over-year trends. But it is worth noting the increasing prevalence of TV-connected devices. (Their growth has been documented recently here and here.)

In Q4 2016, TV viewers in the 18-34 bracket watched TV on average during just 4.7 days per week, about one day less than the 5.6 average among all adults. But 18-34-year-old users of TV-connected devices spent an average of 4.1 days per week with them, above the adult average of 3.6 days per week.

In this case, TV-connected devices refers to DVDs, game consoles, multimedia devices and VCRs (and includes time spent playing games on game consoles), so it’s difficult to ascertain to what extent this relates to streaming video via multimedia devices. Still, the latest Total Audience Report indicates that 18-34-year-olds spend about as much time with multimedia devices as they do with gaming consoles, suggesting that a large portion of the more than 11 hours per week that 18-34-year-old users spend with TV-connected devices is spent watching video.

The following are some other takeaways from the Q4 2016 Comparable Metrics report (the latest available) specific to the 18-34 bracket:

  • Radio maintained the broadest reach of any platform (92.3%) among 18-34-year-olds during the average week in the Q4 period, while the smartphone (app + web) audience was considerably larger than the TV audience (91% vs. 78.8%);
  • Weekly reach was higher for smartphone video (62.9%) than for PC video (26.3%) and tablet video (17.8%) for this demographic; although
  • Time spent by the total 18-34-year-old population was higher for PC video (172 minutes per week on average) than for smartphone video (73 minutes) and tablet video (28 minutes);
  • Among 18-34-year-old users of these various media, PC video (654 minutes per week) far outstripped tablet video (158 minutes) and smartphone video (116 minutes) in weekly time spent; and
  • More than half (53.8%) of 18-34-year-olds used TV-connected devices during the average week in Q4 2016, with users averaging more than 11-and-a-half hours a week with these devices.

What About Race/Ethnicity and Income? (Race/Ethnicity Data Updated)

When sorting by race/ethnicity, consumption data in the most recent Nielsen reports reveal that:

  • African-Americans continued to consume the most traditional TV among races and ethnicities on a weekly basis in Q2, almost quadruple the amount of time spent by Asian viewers, who spent the least amount of time watching TV (40:08 vs. 13:04) – with viewing figures and trends among races and ethnicities examined in much more detail in our premium State of Traditional TV Viewing report;
  • Among Black American adult users of each medium, time spent with traditional TV was down by almost 15 hours per month from Q2 2016, while AM/FM radio was relatively flat, and time spent with smartphone web and apps up by more than 50%; and
  • Similar patterns were observed with Hispanic and Asian-American adult users of each medium.

The Total Audience Report for Q3 2015 analyzed media consumption and device ownership patterns by household income, with some interesting conclusions highlighted below.

As one might expect, device adoption is greater among higher-income ($75k+) households than among lower-income households (<$25k), with this true for all devices measured:

  • DVD/Blu-Ray player (85% for the higher-income households versus 67% for the lowest-income households);
  • DVR (65% vs. 29%);
  • Enabled Smart TV (29% vs. 9%);
  • HD TV (98% vs. 83%);
  • Multimedia device (34% vs. 12%);
  • PC with internet (95% vs. 51%);
  • Any smartphone (92% vs. 64%);
  • Subscription video-on-demand (66% vs. 27%); and
  • Any tablet (74% vs. 34%).

As those results demonstrate, the penetration gaps are larger among newer technologies and services.

What’s more interesting, however, is what the examination of consumption among users found: in each case, lower-income media users spent more time with the specific medium than higher-income users. This again was true for all media measured:

  • Traditional TV: 211:14 monthly among the lowest-income users versus 113:41 among the higher-income users;
  • AM/FM radio: 75:28 versus 58:02;
  • DVD/Blu-Ray device: 16:00 versus 7:16;
  • Game console: 42:22 versus 17:58;
  • Multimedia device: 39:09 versus 18:25;
  • Internet on a PC: 51:29 versus 33:38;
  • App/web on a smartphone: 56:19 versus 44:43; and
  • App/web on a tablet: 29:18 versus 27:32.

Overall, TV accounts for a larger share of total media time for the lowest-income households than the highest, with this attributed to lower-income adults watching TV more throughout the day. When looking at time-of-day activity (not specific to users of each medium):

  • TV usage is highest among lower-income adults across the entire day, with the delta largest during the daytime and overnight;
  • Radio listening has the smallest difference between high- and low-income adults throughout the day;
  • TV-connected device usage is actually highest among the mid- and high-income adults during prime-time, but lower-income adults have the highest use outside of prime-time;
  • The lowest-income adults have the greatest usage of digital devices in the evening hours but the least usage until 5PM.

Meanwhile, looking at device adoption among households with income of at least $50k, the study finds that:

  • DVD/Blu-Ray Player and DVR penetration are higher among Blacks and Hispanics than among Asian-Americans;
  • Hispanics (34%) and Asian-Americans (34%) have higher rates of enabled smart TV penetration than African-Americans (26%);
  • Half of Asian households (with income of at least $50k) own a multimedia device, far outstripping Hispanics (32%) and Blacks (28%); and
  • Subscription video-on-demand and tablet penetration are highest among Asian households ($50k+) than among Hispanic and Black households.

What Happens When Millennials Move Through Life Stages? (Not Updated)

An argument can be made that youths’ media habits will change as they grow older and progress through life changes such as starting a family and owning a home. Twin pieces of research released by TDG back in 2013 illustrated this potential phenomenon. The first survey showed that few 18-24-year-olds living with their parents were “highly inclined” to get pay-TV once they struck out on their own, with 1 in 4 saying they were “highly disinclined” to do so. But, in a separate survey of 18-24-year-old broadband users who had moved into a non-college residence, TDG found only about 1 in 10 saying they had never signed up for a cable or satellite service after moving out on their own for the first time.

Nielsen’s Q4 2015 Total Audience Report took a deeper look at the impact of life stages on Millennials’ media habits, segmenting 18-34-year-olds into three distinct groups: “dependent adults” (living in someone else’s home, mostly their parents’); “on their own” (living in their own home without children); and “starting a family” (living in their own home with children).

Nielsen’s data showed that virtually all (97% of) 18-year-olds live in someone else’s home (or presumably in a dorm), while almost 90% of 34-year-olds live in their own home, about 3 in 5 with kids. (If nothing else, this is a solid argument for not treating Millennials as a homogenous group…)

Comparing the technology ownership of these groups yielded some interesting results:

  • Dependent adults (those living in someone else’s home) are the most likely to have DVRs, DVDs, and PCs, though in each case penetration among those starting a family is higher than those living on their own without children; and
  • Millennials who are “on their own” have the greatest adoption of multimedia devices and subscription video-on-demand (SVOD), in each case by a fairly sizable degree.

From those results, one could surmise that as Millennials get their own place, at least some drop DVRs and DVDs in favor of multimedia devices and SVOD services, while the opposite trend occurs when they have kids. However, it’s worth remembering that this data measures different segments of 18-34-year-olds, and doesn’t look at the same group as they grow older. It’s entirely possible that the Millennials examined who have kids are composed more of older Millennials who are simply more akin to Gen Xers in their media habits than the younger Millennials who don’t have children.

Nevertheless, a similar pattern emerges when looking at pay-TV penetration (measured as service from an MVPD – wired cable, DBS or telco): use of these services was highest (88%) among dependent adults, falling to the lowest point among those who are on their own (72%), but then higher again among those who are starting a family (79%).

The presence of children seems to have some impact on pay-TV penetration, as across all Millennial age brackets (18-24, 25-29, 30-34) penetration was higher among those living in their own with children than those living in their own home without children. Again, age may be a greater factor than the presence of children, as it’s difficult to separate these disparate factors.

The pattern, though, translates into live TV consumption also. Looking at 18-34-year-olds’ weekly TV screen usage during Q4, Nielsen finds that live TV viewing averaged:

  • Slightly more than 2-and-a-half-hours per day for “dependent adults” (living in someone else’s home); but
  • Was almost half-an-hour less among those living on their own without kids (2 hours and 6 minutes per day); while
  • Soaring to roughly 3-and-a-quarter-hours per day among those living in their own home with children.

Meanwhile, time spent with TV-connected devices was highest among those living on their own without kids (1 hour and 32 minutes per day), and lowest among those living in someone else’s home (1 hour and 11 minutes per day). And in examining the TV versus TV-connected device mix, 53% of Millennials “on their own” use such a device on any given day that they use a TV set, compared to only about 4 in 10 from the other groups.

Overall, the “starting a family” group most closely resembles the “dependent adults” segment in its viewing. This suggests (but certainly doesn’t confirm) that as Millennials have kids, they fall into similar patterns as they had when they were living with their parents.

For more details on Nielsen’s methodology, access the latest reports here:

The MarketingCharts report on media audience demographics – which not only sizes the audience by demographic but also shows the breakdown of audiences in a way not portrayed by Nielsen (e.g. 29.4% of the monthly online TV program viewing audience is aged 25-34) – will be available for purchase here.

The State of Traditional TV Viewing study can be purchased here.

45th Parallel Design Ad

Explore More Charts.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This