Decade of rapid change

Key facts, figures from the last 10 years

The media world spins so fast, it’s easy to forget how dramatically the landscape has changed during the current decade. So before ringing out the ’00s, let’s review some key statistics and recap the score.

To grasp how rapidly TV is evolving, 2000 provides a nice (if arbitrary) point of comparison — thinking back to a day before the Supreme Court settled an election, or the world at large had ever heard of Tampa, Fla., radio host Glenn Beck or the then-teenage Spencer and Heidi Pratt. Ah, those were happy times.

Analyzing data from our pals at Nielsen, there’s one bit of good news for the TV business — namely, steady population growth has helped somewhat offset the ill effects of audience fragmentation. In 2000 there were just under 101 million U.S. homes with TV, a number that has swollen to nearly 115 million today. Put simply, a 4 rating reaches roughly as many viewers as a 5 did 15 years ago.

After that, practically every trend mitigates against assembling that expanded pool to watch anything together, other than the annual national TV holiday/advertising orgy known as the Super Bowl.

As of 2008 the number of channels received by the average household soared to 130 — more than double the 61 recorded a decade ago. People in those homes can scatter to watch on one of 2.86 TV sets per home — more than one per person — an 18% increase vs. 2000.

More than half of homes now contain three or more TVs — many of those high-definition behemoths — compared to 41% a decade back and a mere 24% in 1990, before broadcast networks largely abandoned the family-viewing concept and hope that parents would watch TV with their children (remember ABC’s “TGIF” block? Because kids sure as hell don’t). Instead, most modern tykes are off watching any one of a half-dozen cable channels dedicated specifically to them.

No development might be greater, however, than the fact that TiVo was in its infancy as the decade began — indeed, most consumers had never heard of it, despite that cute little anthropomorphic mascot.

Today, more than a quarter of homes have digital video recorders. More than 20% of viewing on scripted programs like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Office” and “Glee” occurs after the day it premieres — percentages that rise markedly when focusing on the more advertiser-friendly 18-49 age bracket. And just to demonstrate how fast that DVR habit is growing, time-shifted viewing surged by 25% in third-quarter 2009 versus the corresponding stretch last year.

Yet despite trend lines that generally keep pointing up, up and away, there are warning signs that our video-glutted brains are dangerously close to becoming full. For example, three-fifths of homes receive more than 178 channels, yet they tune in only about 21 of them — less than an eighth of the options available. Tellingly, homes with access to only about 60 channels at least occasionally watch 16 on average, indicating a breaking point where additional channels yield diminishing returns.

Moreover, for all the images of younger folks glued to computer monitors at television’s expense, Nielsen’s latest “three-screen report” (that is, TV, Internet and mobile) found that 99% of video is still viewed on a traditional TV, although online and mobile viewing is steadily climbing. A recent report found children’s TV viewing at an eight-year high, and consumers in general spend almost eight times as many hours in front of the TV as online.

Not surprisingly, the 18- to 24-year-old demographic viewed TV the least and devoted the most time (roughly six hours a month) to watching video online — while exactly the opposite was true of those 65 and older.

So seniors remain TV’s best customers no matter how dismissively programmers treat them, while chasing hard-to-get youths is to little avail. In terms of emotional maturity, media buying continues to have a lot in common with high school.

Anyway, that’s how the story looks so far. For more exciting media action, get ready for the 2010s, when anything can happen and the scores can quickly change.

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