Monday 20 May 2019

Ireland is moving away from live TV but no one will admit it

TV viewing is declining compared to other devices. Photo: Deposit Photo
TV viewing is declining compared to other devices. Photo: Deposit Photo

Are Irish people secretly moving away from using TVs without the trend being officially acknowledged?

Last week, Eir made a big bet on the future of its broadcasting business with a deal to buy Setanta Sports. But the telecoms company made it clear that it's not putting all of its eggs into the traditional TV basket.

Senior executives stressed that this is being viewed as much an incentive for the company's broadband and mobile businesses as it is for a conventional sitting room television one.

Money talks and this investment strategy is telling. While official ratings bodies such as the industry-funded Irish Television Audience Measurement (TAM) continue to present live, scheduled television as a largely unmoved institution in our lives, rival figures and statistics show that this may simply not be the case. Ireland, like everywhere else, appears to be shifting away from live television to on-demand, internet-streamed or recorded TV viewing.

According to TAM's figures, the number of ads ("commercial spots") that Irish people see on TV is plummeting. In the last two years, it has fallen by a whopping 25pc in the key demographics of housekeepers with children and those ages 15 to 34. The reason is simple: these people are watching programmes more and more on catchup services and Netflix instead of at the appointed time scheduled by a broadcaster.

Oddly, TAM scarcely acknowledges the trend. Its figures claim that the proportion of viewing that is live has barely changed in the last two years (91pc in 2013 versus 90pc in 2015). And it also claims that the amount of time spent watching TV is virtually unchanged over the period at three hours and 24 minutes per day.

This clashes squarely with the Comreg research which indicates that 5pc of us have either cut down or stopped watching live and scheduled TV altogether, mainly due to new services such as Netflix.

So what is the truth? And how has the number of ads we see on TV fallen so dramatically if we apparently watch the same amount of live telly every day?

One possibility is that the type of live content we are watching is changing. Replacing TV serials with sport, for example, would result in large chunks of viewing (such as a 45-minute half of football) being ad-free.

A slimmer possibility is that the growing use of adblockers - now used by one in five Irish internet users according to Pagefair and Adobe - is starting to kick in when people watch live TV on broadcasters' online players such as those from RTE and TV3. But the more likely answer is that TAM is not measuring the use of Netflix, YouTube and other non-traditional purposes in an appropriate way to provide clarity for advertisers.

For example, the impact of services like Netflix is likely to be far greater on Irish television habits than TAM is acknowledging.

According to recent research from Ireland's telecoms regulator, around 100,000 Irish people now spend over four hours per week watching Netflix. (The figures swells to 150,000 people when all Netflix viewers are counted.)

Unless these people have somehow added on over four hours of screen viewing to their week (on top of their extra hours on Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube), it is likely that they have cut out some live TV to make room.

But a large portion of Netflix viewing is spent on conventional televisions through Apple TVs, Google Chromecasts or smart TV apps. It is not clear whether TAM takes any notice of this activity or whether it includes such viewing in any part of its "TV" viewership figures. A spokeswoman for TAM was unavailable to comment on the issue.

Ironically, more sophisticated research from Nielsen (which powers the Irish TAMs) in other territories makes its Irish research look dated. Last week, Nielsen produced an excellent analysis of modern media consumption patterns in the US market. This included new criteria to "eliminate the confusion" around these subjects.

"How many adults access a platform or content type in an average week?" it asked. "How often do adults access that content (expressed as days per week)? And how long do adults spend engaging with the content?"

By looking at the question this way - and, in particular, consumption per minute - it came up with a few startling truths. The main one is that TV viewing is declining compared to other devices and has been since 2010. Phones, in particular, have surged in use for viewing content, largely at the expense of traditional TV viewing.

While some of that stuff we watch on phones may actually be broadcast-produced content, possibly even live TV, it is a different thing to sitting down in front of a television.

Does it matter whether TV content is live or not? To many people it doesn't. For the consumer, what is the difference in watching the latest episode of the 'The Good Wife' at the scheduled Thursday time of 10pm in your living room or on your iPad in bed on Saturday morning?

But for advertisers, which fund RTE, TV3, UTV and a host of other broadcasters, it makes all the difference in the world. And their visibility has plummeted with Irish audiences in the last two years.

Now the market appears to be making its own determination. Eir's purchase price in Setanta is undisclosed but is the company's largest investment since its €420m acquisition of Meteor in 2005. Eir isn't buying this to become another living room TV provider. It can see the way that consumption is going and wants to create more business for its telecoms services. Ultimately, it probably doesn't care too much whether you watch its content on a phone, an iPad or a TV.

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