Viewers tuning into TV in record numbers

Across European TV markets, 2010 was a year when viewing levels reached new highs.

For all the hype around social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, in key territories like the U.K., Germany and France, couch potatoes voted with their remotes and stayed tuned longer.

In Blighty, independent data supplied by audience measurement org BARB showed that people watched four hours and two minutes of linear TV a day, an increase of 18 minutes on 2009.

Similar record amounts of TV were consumed in France, up seven minutes, and Germany, up 12 minutes. French and German auds viewed for 3 1/2 hours a day and three hours, 43 minutes a day respectively.

“A number of factors were responsible for these record audience figures, some country-specific, while others are part of overall trends,” says Screen Digest senior analyst Tim Westcott.

One trend is the fact that most European countries have either completed the switch to digital or are in the final phase of fading out analog transmissions. This gives auds access to multichannel TV, either via free-to-air or pay platforms.

“When people move across from terrestrial to multichannel, they tend to watch more because more content is available,” says David Lynn, who as executive vice president and managing director at Viacom Intl. Media Networks runs such channels as MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central. “Also, thanks to HD and smart video recorders, the viewing experience is improving all the time, and there are higher quality programs.”

Another common factor driving this surge in TV watching is a weak economy, characterized by high unemployment and rising prices. When consumers have less available disposable income, they tend to stay in more and not spend money on dining out or other expensive treats.

However, despite the continuing economic gloom, subscriptions to pay TV firms have generally remained robust, especially in the U.K. where BSkyB and Virgin Media have performed strongly despite the downturn.

Two other elements responsible for the uptick in viewing were the FIFA World Cup, played last summer, and freezing temperatures experienced in much of northern Europe in November and December.

Paradoxically, the Internet may be another contributory cause of the viewing binge.

Two years ago, it was widely believed that online activities would lead to a steady erosion in traditional linear TV viewing. In fact, if anything, the popularity of websites like Facebook and Twitter have provided a hugely effective tool in encouraging people to switch on their sets and remain locked in to one show.

“Social networking sites have amplified the buzz around reality TV shows like ‘The X Factor,’ which people watch while simultaneously communicating with one another via connected devices like smartphones and tablets,” says Paul Lee, U.K. director of technology, media and telecommunications research at Deloitte.

So in a world where the competition for how people use their leisure time continues to grow, can TV maintain the high levels of viewing witnessed in 2010?

The consensus among industry players and analysts alike is that the amount of watching is likely to plateau this year, with the possibility of minor decreases in the years ahead as more domestic TV sets are connected to the internet.

“Broadcasters are good at finding programs that engage with the interactive elements of the modern viewing experience such as voting,” says Vincent Letang, senior analyst and head of advertising at Screen Digest.

“Television is the original social network,” he adds. “Connected devices enhance this experience, especially for live, event shows and the big sports occasions.

“TV will remain a healthy, robust medium for the far foreseeable future although I don’t think we will see 2010’s record viewing figures again.”

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