Business Technology

Wednesday 19 June 2019

Adrian Weckler: 'Mobile screen test for television'

Watching TV on handsets and tablets is set to overtake traditional viewing. Stock image
Watching TV on handsets and tablets is set to overtake traditional viewing. Stock image
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

It's official: phones are replacing TVs as TVs. Emarketer's latest industry report tells us what some of us have been arguing for years: phones are now far, far more important than TVs for audiovisual attention span.

Ad agencies, which have been spinning an alternate story for years, are going to find it tougher to colour where people's eyeballs are.

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The eMarketer report says that media consumption on phones and tablets has now overtaken TVs in time per day. But the real advance is in phones, which will overtake TV in its own right over the next year or two.

"We've expected that mobile would overtake TV for a while, but seeing it happen is still surprising," said Yoram Wurmser, eMarketer principal analyst. "As recently as 2014, the average US adult watched nearly two hours more TV than they spent on their phones."

There are two important qualifications here. First, this is a US report. But it chimes with almost every other piece of international research from Nielsen to Ooyala.

Second, this takes into account app activity such as social networking and music consumption.

Thus, it may not be true to say that the daily hours spent watching video content on phones yet matches video on traditional television sets. (Although it's likely that the gap is closing quickly.) But the important thing here is the trend.

The advertising pitch for the physical home TV used to be that it was the central place for home entertainment and - crucially - attention. That's just not true anymore.

Even when people are in front of the telly, an increasing number aren't fully looking at it. They're dualscreening. How often have you sat on the sofa watching a programme with your phone in your hand? To look something up while the programme is on? Or to post something to social media while watching? Or even just to catch up with messages to friends?

As far as I can see, this is now normal.

The just-finished season of Game Of Thrones is the most talked about television programme for many years. Yet a cursory look through social media shows that it is also the most commented on, blow by blow, as the show is under way.

In other words, people are watching it with a phone in their hand, attention divided.

And it's not just kids or millennials. Older people are as likely to have a smartphone in their hand for updates as younger generations.

Was it ever going to be different?

The basic smartphone that everyone now has is at least five inches and capable of fast, instant television on demand. The basic network for most Irish people (in urban areas, where most live) is now 4G, which can stream video instantly or download it quickly.

The basic phone operator package has shifted from a (pathetic) 2GB to around 10GB, with the majority soon to get closer to 20GB or 30GB.

In other words, almost all of us now have large, powerful, smartphones and fast, cheaper mobile connections. Five years ago, this was only the case for a minority of ordinary punters.

Meanwhile, the traditional sitting-room television is becoming more like the cinema, a heightened audiovisual treat forum for when you can consciously carve out an hour or two. This is rarer and rarer.

Episodes of streamed series are as increasingly likely to be watched in bed, holding a phone or tablet up. (Remember the days when people put televisions in bedrooms? This seems to be a distant memory now.) All of this is obviously accelerated by streaming services. Netflix is estimated to have around 600,000 active Irish subscriptions. (The company won't say, but has previously said that Irish take-up is similar to, or even ahead of, UK take-up. And it has acquiesced with a widely-reported figure of 10 million UK subscriptions.) While much of this is viewed on TVs through Sky, Apple TV, Google Chromecast or other streaming accessories, a huge chunk of the content is watched on phones.

And if you think mobile ascendancy has peaked, you're dead wrong.

The arrival of 5G will just accelerate it. While 4G provides a completely adequate platform for streaming video to handsets, 5G will see the bar raised even higher, especially due to raised download caps. In three years' time, caps of 100GB a month should be an ordinary feature. This means punters won't now worry slightly about watching too much on the bus or the street, waiting for home wifi 'just to be safe'. There will be no data-restricted barrier.

As I write this from Shenzhen in China, the trend seems even more obvious. Here, homes are small - typically apartments in high-rise buildings. TVs are large and noisy. As a result, locals are glued to their phones in a way that even I found startling.

And that's even with the barrier on content that they have here. (China forbids lots of the online services that we take for granted in the West.)

So are phones going to utterly dominate our lives from here on in?

I believe they will. But many think there will be a moderating influence.

"Consumers' use of smartphones will continue to make up the majority of their media consumption, but we predict that use will plateau by 2020, as consumers become increasingly uneasy about overuse of mobile devices," says eMarketer.

This is in tune with companies such as Apple, which recently introduced core features to let us control the amount of time we spend looking at our phones.

Yet there is an air of unreality to this whole way of thinking. We all love to run stories about how and why we're spending too much time with our phones. Everyone always publicly agrees. And then everyone goes back to their phone to check what their friends or family are doing, or to get the latest news fix or to watch an episode of something.

Fears of phone overuse are a bit like weight-loss aspirations. Most of us aspire to less, but most of us don't actually follow through on it.

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