Three charts that detail how the most important medium has drifted from our consciousness – young New Zealanders being the hardest hit.
A huge cache of viewership data leaked to The Spinoff shows the immense scale of viewership decline across linear television. The data is in the form of PUTS (People Using Television), and comes from a client of the rating agency Nielsen. They show that ratings peaked around 2010, when the GFC was biting and internet connectivity and products were relatively poor, before embarking on an increasingly precipitous decline.
While it’s been widely known that linear TV audiences have been declining for years, especially among younger and more diverse audiences, it’s been difficult to get hard data to quantify this. This data is year-over-year PUTS averages, taken over the day from 6 a.m. to midnight, and across three demographic groups – the 5+, the most wanted 18-54, and a younger cohort of 18-34.
The youngest demographic is less than a third of the magnitude of its peak, showing how comprehensive the adoption of digital technology has been. But even for the 18-54 bracket, representing an older demographic, the decline was steep, with less than half the number of viewers than at the top of the medium. Even 5+ has gone from an audience of over 700,000 around 2010 to less than 500,000 today. What makes the data even more telling is that our overall population has grown by more than 25% over the same period, from less than four million in 2000 to more than five million today.
This is important because linear television remains at the heart of much of our national communications strategy. The drop in viewership has not been accompanied by a corresponding drop in ad revenue, which has remained largely static. In recent years, the government has become an increasingly important advertiser and its campaigns remain the most visible on television, despite the extent of the audience loss. Likewise, our decentralized public broadcaster NZ On Air still shows a strong penchant for projects with linear TV as the primary platform.
As the government prepares to merge TVNZ with RNZ, the decline in linear TV audiences shows just how big the missing audiences are. On some level, that’s a given – that’s the underlying motivation for the merger in the first place. The big unknown is whether a centralized media player will once again have the kind of audience TVNZ, Three and Sky TV once enjoyed.
Why are notes so hard to find?
TV ratings used to be very easy to find. They were proactively disseminated through our networks and were often the focus of our newspaper articles. The Throng site (RIP) publishes them every day. What they revealed about viewer preferences was tantalizing – it showed the relative success or failure of shows, the popularity of various personalities, and through this, how our TV networks were likely to perform financially.
Then, a few years ago, that started to change. Releases became less specific or focused on share (what percentage of people watching TV watched your show) versus ratings (the total number of people shown). This was directly linked to the rise of alternative ways of consuming video. First YouTube, then Netflix, then Snapchat and Instagram and finally the unstoppable force that is Tiktok, plus a long tail of alternative distractions, all of which have combined to shake the once indomitable supremacy of the big black rectangle in the corner. from the room.
During this time, you would get small glimpses of what was happening in the void of formation. The strange press release always went out, when a particular show or event took hold of the nation. Or when a rival show has threatened to usurp a longtime champion, like when The Project challenges Seven Sharp, or the AM Show has a good run against Breakfast. Networks are usually quite obliging to post notes as well, which helped inform a part of our reports.
Nielsen publishes a weekly set of rankings, for 5+ and 25-54, meaning anyone over the age of five for the former and only those aged 25-54 for the latter. These are collected from a surprisingly small sample of the 900 homes which make up the Nielsen TV Audience Measurement Survey, and have “people counters”, which capture what is watched, when and how many people are watching. These are published weekly, but with a two-week delay, which ensures that their informational value is limited, and as PDF files, which means that it is difficult to combine them into sets of larger data.
The problem is that it lacks the context provided by a longitudinal scan and is isolated to specific shows. What is the fate of the medium as a whole?
I wanted to know, so I asked a friend who has access to Nielsen data. They provided me with a common thread – 21 years of data, spanning the golden age of television before broadband as a medium through to the hyper-online era we now live in. They provided it through three crucial demographics. First, 5+ – the highest possible number, which indicates the total number of people watching TV. But as this number naturally includes a group of older New Zealanders, who are far more TV users (but less attractive to advertisers), they have also provided 18-54 and 18-34, to get an idea of the how young New Zealanders use television.
A few caveats: This data is for linear TV. We also watch a lot of on-demand programming now – TVNZ was rightly proud of 6.1 million weekly streams last year. Yet linear television remains the form on which we spend the most time and money, even though we know little about its follow-up. That’s why these numbers are so interesting. Below are some charts I made detailing the data, along with an analysis of what they show. (Next week, I’ll show how the same audiences have followed the pandemic, when the ratings have ballooned so much).
The mother lode of 5+
The 5+ data looks like a small hill, peaking in 2011, before starting a steady decline. The average age of a New Zealander is around 40, meaning that the 5+ chart is significantly impacted by the large number of older New Zealanders whose behavior has been least impacted by technology. This is the group that still subscribes to newspapers, listens to the radio and owns a Sky Box. So when you see the hill coming down steadily, what you’re really seeing is half the population changing their habits quickly, while the other half isn’t really changing their behavior at all. You’ll notice that for a brief period, viewership growth outpaced population growth – this was driven by the freezing GFC wind, which kept us all indoors staring at our pennies for a few years .
Big money: 18-54
This cohort covers nearly half of our population and encompasses the period from the end of high school through our peak earning years. This one still has that hilly characteristic, but drops much more steeply in the 2010s. This was the period when broadband spread rapidly, and Lightbox, Netflix, and Neon all launched. TVNZ has also started investing significant resources in TVNZ OnDemand, which is coming this week rebranded as TVNZ+, with a flash event to celebrate its launch. That’s quite a change for a platform that wasn’t even mentioned at sales events when The Spinoff was founded in 2014.
We see a choppy rise to a high of around 370,000, dropping to less than half that figure these days. This is significant because 25-54 year olds are the group most sought after by advertisers. He is the one who funds our TV networks with his attention, and who is also the target of most of our state-funded media via NZ On Air. The fact that it has more than halved in just a decade shows how seismic the change in behavior has been. It’s a combination of smartphones, social media, streaming and super-fast broadband that have combined to hollow out the TV audience. It was once the great unifying media source – now a shadow of what it once was.
The future: 18-34
This is where things get very scary. Due to the lack of accurate census data, it is difficult to say exactly how many people there are in any of these cohorts. But 18-34 is the start of our working lives, the period that (in theory) encompasses higher education, career choice, marriage and family formation and (again, in the theory) buying a house. It’s when crucial patterns are established that can remain for the balance of our lives – which is why advertisers are so keen to reach this group.
This graphic shows why TV isn’t the place to do that anymore. We see a peak in the GFC era, as we did with the other bands. But the descent is extremely steep. This group, which encompasses most of the millennials and older parts of Generation Z, is the first true Internet-born generation. Their habits are extremely diverse, shaped by algorithms, social and the very small screen. As a society, we haven’t changed to respond to their evolved behaviors fast enough to keep up – and that’s partly because we haven’t really acknowledged that they’re gone.
This is the great challenge facing the merged TVNZ-RNZ, but also all those who seek to influence the public and know what they live and what they believe. And as these charts show, there’s been a seismic audience shift — a shift we don’t really struggle with until we see the data.