Audiences take TV on own terms

Cord-cutting theorists have been writing the epitaph for the subscription TV biz during the past year, but viewers actually watched 22 minutes more TV per month on average during the first quarter of the year.

The boost in total tube time was among the findings in a report on the proliferation of cross-platform viewing that Nielsen released Wednesday. Viewers watched 158 hours and 47 minutes of TV per month in the first quarter, up from the same period in 2010, the ratings service said. The most rabid viewers watched as much as 10 hours a day.

Actually, it appears that folks are spending more time glued to screens of all kinds. The number of Americans watching some kind of video on a mobile device grew by 41% in the quarter compared to last year. The amount of time, however, remained relatively small at four hours and 20 minutes per month.

Watching video via the Internet on a computer at work or home? That activity grew by 70 minutes per month to an average of four hours and 33 minutes.

The Nielsen report hits as cable programmers and distributors gather in Chicago this week for the cable biz’s annual confab, where execs are touting all the new ways they intend to deliver shows, movies and sports to accommodate viewers.

At the same time, TV execs continue to agitate to get Nielsen to capture viewership in totality across all the screens; they feel that money is being left on the table because the viewing of shows online and on mobile devices is inadequately tracked. Execs want to be able to make the case to Madison Avenue that it should pay higher rates based on additional viewing of shows on new platforms. And they want a total ratings figure to reflect total audiences, be they in front of TVs or a laptop.

Nielsen has already taken the first step, launching in May an “extended screen” ratings system that incorporates ratings for online viewing into the overall national TV rating for a program, according to Eric Solomon, Nielsen’s senior veep for national and cross platform audience measurement. Nielsen has been spurred by its biggest customers — the major showbiz and media congloms — to modernize its ratings tracking systems to reflect the migration of viewing to new-media platforms.

The first programmer to fully participate is Turner Broadcasting, which is having its shows measured online in the first three days after the initial broadcast. That’s in keeping with the time frame that advertisers allow the nets for incorporating DVR viewing into a program’s national rating.

Solomon characterized Nielsen’s efforts as very much a work in progress, and he acknowledged that measurement systems for viewing on mobile devices and tablets are still not up and running. He said Nielsen is working particularly hard to measure viewing via tablets of fare that cable operators like Time Warner Cable are offering to viewers inside the home.

Solomon underscored that the data released in Wednesday’s report underscores the need for universal cross-platform ratings that will allow networks to generate more ad coin through higher ratings overall.

Amid fears that younger viewers are increasingly dropping their pay TV subscriptions to watch shows instead on services like Netflix and Hulu, Nielsen’s report found that in the first quarter, 91% of TV households in the U.S. still paid for a subscription TV service. Satellite and telco TV subscriber rates are up this year, while cable has lost subs, Nielsen said.

Cable brass have also boasted that their companies are generating more revenues per subscriber, mostly because they’re signing up for additional services like broadband access. Indeed, Nielsen said that about two-thirds of TV homes now have an HD TV set, which requires a more expensive subscription. That’s a 20% increase from the first quarter of 2010. DVR penetration is up 40% this year.

Other findings in the report:

nAfrican-Americans watch the most video content on TVs and mobile devices, while Asians overwhelmingly watched more video on the Internet than any other ethnic group — about six-plus hours per month more than whites and four more than Hispanics.

nWomen watch more TV than men, but men spend more time streaming video online.

nUnsurprisingly, TV viewing increases steadily with age, with those 65 and older watching 220 hours and 49 minutes on average per month.

nWhites had the lowest penetration of smartphone ownership at 30%. Hispanics were at 53%, Asians at 48% and African-Americans at 39%.

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