Teens and the tube

Youth are watching as much TV as they ever did - They just don't want to admit it

January 16, 2006
Marketing Magazine
By William D. Ratcliffe

"There's something happening here, but it just ain't exactly clear..." What's not clear to many is whether youth TV viewing is going down or not. Just about every poll about media habits these days reports teens and young adults are watching less television. Invariably, these studies suggest TV viewing is declining as a result of the media du jour: the Internet. The notion that TV viewing is significantly declining among teens and young adults has major implications. What does it mean for marketers looking to engage this group? Do we need to rewrite marketing plans from the ground up?

Not so fast. According to Nielsen Media People Meter behavioural data, national probability samples show steady TV viewing among teens and young adults since 1994. While the data shows that older people do watch more TV per week than youth, the latter's viewing remains in the 15 hours per week range for kids through to young adults (under 25). Such figures hardly suggest TV is a dying medium.

So why do so many other studies say the Internet is eroding TV viewing? Unlike the people meter, surveys rely on memory, which means they are filtered by current popular impressions. The Internet is still relatively new. It is "cool" while traditional media, such as television, is considered yesterday's news. There may be a subconscious tendency for youth to report spending more time doing things that are "cool" rather than admitting to doing things more characteristic of, well, their parents.

Various studies may also fail to consider the impact of multi-tasking: watching TV while using the Internet. When my son comes home from university, he often plays video games while watching TV. Measuring this becomes much more complicated. (Are they alternating between one or the other? Are they really doing both?)

Let's look at recent research to shed some light on what is really happening. An August 2005 study from Ipsos-Reid, "Online News and Information Seeking: What the Future Holds," shows Internet-using Canadians spend an average of 12.7 hours per week (up 46% from 8.7 hours in 2002) online. "This increase appears to have come at the expense of radio as the typical Internet-using adult spends 11 hours per week listening to the radio, down from 16 hours per week in 2002," the report states. (I think it will be interesting to follow the impact of satellite radio, since it promises to be the "cool" new channel.) Canadians, meanwhile, watch 14.3 hours of TV per week.

While the study shows the Internet is popular with youth, Ipsos-Reid questions how much Internet use is really eroding traditional media consumption, let alone TV. "While Internet usage is having an impact on the use of traditional media sources, the perception among Internet-using Canadians is that the Internet is having a more profound impact than their behaviour would indicate. Internet-using Canadians are more likely to say that their use of traditional media sources as a result of Internet usage has decreased rather than increased." The study goes on to say that with the exception of radio, the average amount of time Internet-using Canadians are spending with each medium is the same or higher than it was in 2002. The Ipsos-Reid study concludes that the Internet is at the forefront of the minds of Canada, "resulting in inflated perceptions of its impact on other media consumption."

Internet use doesn't necessarily have to erode other media. Youth, for instance, are using the Internet more often to communicate with friends, and therefore may spend less time on the phone.

I'm not suggesting the Internet shouldn't be part of the marketing mix when targeting youth. But it would be a mistake to assume TV is dying simply because it doesn't have the same cachet as surfing online.

William D. Ratcliffe is past president of Millward Brown Canada.