How Important Is Online TV?

Watching TV hasn’t meant ‘sitting on a sofa and staring at that box in the corner’ for some time now. While this experience still dominates, the number of people viewing via laptops, mobile phones or tablets is growing. Fast. Income, age and tech knowledge are generally what determine our enthusiasm for the new “third screen” movement. Nevertheless, broadcasters are (as they need to be) fuelling this trend with their own catch-up services.

While our current online TV services are monitored by their respective broadcasting providers--in order to research viewer behaviour--objective online viewing figures remain a mystery across the board. Until now, that is. BARB (the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board) has announced plans to launch a new web TV viewing meter. The device will continue to record household viewing from TV sets, but it will also monitor any online viewing that occurs. The sample will be rolled out to 1,100 homes (around a fifth of BARB’s sample homes) during 2012. This is very good news.

A more accurate picture of the UK’s viewing habits should emerge by next year. But why is this so important to broadcasters? With overall audience figures declining, thanks to competing distractions (an explosion in the number of TV channels, social networking and general online usage, gaming, etc) and younger viewers watching less TV than in previous years, there’s panic in the boardrooms. Massive marquee shows like Britain’s Got Talent or Strictly Come Dancing are prized by networks because they deliver a communal, family viewing experience that can be rare in multiple-set homes with differing tastes. This translates into bigger audience figures, and thus a bigger cheque from advertisers. The importance of ‘brand extension’ is demonstrated by these shows offering online-only content during their run.

With the popularity of personal video recorders enabling viewers to ignore advertising more easily, channels need to demonstrate to advertisers that their messages are being seen. Anybody who’s watched a show on ITV Player or 4OD will know that you can’t skip the commercials shown at the start or in the middle. They’ve even started putting them at the end of a show, but before the theme tune, meaning you hold on to see if there’s more action to come when there’s not. Crafty!

Nowadays, we don’t want to be tied down to a schedule. If we’re not in for a particular show we can either record it or catch up online. A show’s ratings can grow--and even double--once PVR and online viewing are taken into account. The ongoing popularity of illegal downloading shows just how many viewers are literally taking the law into their own hands when it comes to wanting to watch overseas shows when they want.

Outdated methods of monitoring ratings is killing off long-running daytime soaps in the US at the rate of one per year. Executives cite declining ratings and the increase in working women as reasons. Yet viewers argue that time-shifted viewing (people recording their shows and watching them in the evening) and online watching via networks’ own sites would indicate a much healthier audience. One creative outcome of this upheaval is the emergence of indie soaps--web-only dramas often using former daytime talent, and free from network interference.

In the UK, EastEnders’ E20 has been creating a new online audience from its flagship series. Giving a chance to young actors, writers and theme tune remixers, it has breathed fresh life into life on Albert Square by targeting the elusive ‘yoof’ demographic.

Comedians are also turning to the web to allow their creativity to flourish. Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer (who admit they don’t really use the web) recently announced an online sketch comedy called Vic and Bob’s Afternoon Delights. Sponsored by Fosters, the Australian beer firm that recently stumped up the cash for the online-only Alan Partridge series from Armando Ianucci. This partnership will allow them to deliver edgier content than the BBC were after--the broadcaster turned down a new sketch series from the pair in favour of more Shooting Stars. Elsewhere, Lisa Kudrow’s hilarious improvised online show Web Therapy has won awards and is now being packaged for TV on the Showtime network.

With artistic control being wrestled back by artists, it seems broadcasters may find themselves playing catch-up by belatedly monitoring our online habits. All this evolution and choice should be great for viewers, who still just want to be educated and entertained, regardless of where it’s coming from.

How has online viewing impacted on your habits? How do you usually watch your favourite shows?

Comments (1)
Jul 04, 2011
I think this sounds like a really good idea. I know that it could definitely help with shows ratings. I do not have access to many TV channels (No sky or virgin media, only freeview) so watch a large number of shows online. Some less known shows have been cancelled due to low ratings, and if they begin to count the number of online viewings in the ratings then it may help future shows to continue.