Complacency at root of millennial exodus from traditional TV

The stack of surveys predicting extinction for traditional TV and especially pubcasting as millennials flock to YouTube, SVoD, gaming and esports continues to lengthen, but there is still time to stem the flow. The exodus is more of a trickle than a torrent and there are examples among both broadcasters and pay TV operators of initiatives capable of keeping younger viewers engaged.

The latest study of gloom comes from UK regulator Ofcom turning the gaze once again on pubcaster BBC, which has an element of irony because the corporation is often accused of focusing disproportionately on attracting younger viewers and neglecting its large constituency among the baby boomers currently aged between about 55 and 75. The BBC is also considered to be dominated by liberals leaning towards a younger demographic and tending to despise the more conservative views of a good number of the elderly audience. Indeed, the Ofcom survey reported that viewers over 65 – and especially elderly women – were unhappy with how they were portrayed in BBC content and coverage, as were lower socio-economic groups. Despite that, viewership among that elderly group is holding up better than any other demographic, with rate of desertion inversely proportional to age.

So, millennials aged 16 to 34 now watch BBC channels on average 72 minutes a week, down almost 7% on the previous year and just half the average for all age groups. This annual rate of decline is not unique to the BBC, but shared widely by pubcasters across Europe and North America, as well as by traditional pay TV. The general trend is that minutes consumed by millennials on traditional TV has declined by around a third over the last five years.

This is not the whole story though and drilling a little deeper we can see that millennials’ engagement may not be falling so much if at all, just that the nature of their preferred viewing is changing for all forms of content. An unkind view would be to say that millennials’ attention spans are dropping so that they cannot engage for so long and prefer snacking, or shorter form items.

A fairer view though might be that the nature of their attention is changing towards greater multitasking, so that their total absorption of content may not be going down at all. Consideration of Nielsen audience data in the US suggests this might be the case, noting that during a recent National Football League (NFL) season, ratings among millennials declined 9%. At the same time, the number watching NFL games actually increased by two points to 67% from the previous season. The decline in overall ratings decline was explained by an 8% fall in the number of games watched and 6% drop in the minutes watched per game, to 1 hour 12 minutes each, by coincidence exactly the same as the average weekly millennial viewing of the BBC.

The same pattern has shown up among Generation X aged 35 to 50 and holds across both groups for all the big US sports, including Major League Baseball (MLB), National Basketball Association (NBA), and National Hockey League (NHL). Overall reach has held up or even risen marginally among younger viewers for these sports, but they are arguably being more discerning, watching fewer sessions and for less time, but staying tuned for the more exciting or pivotal moments.

There is a factor here also in the mode of consumption, which has tended towards mobile devices and especially smartphones less conducive for sustained viewing. There are obvious clues here for how to re-engage millennials that have deserted as well as keep onto those still there, with differences between live sports and on-demand content such as TV series. For sports, the content can be spiced up with statistics, instant highlights and background chat involving the players, which is already being done successfully by a few operators, according to Brian Hughes, SVP of audience intelligence and strategy at Magna Global USA.

For on-demand TV, surveys such as Ofcom’s on the BBC highlight the millennial predilection for bingeing, which can obviously be tapped by legacy broadcasters via their online portals just as much as by the SVoD players such as Netflix. But many pubcasters have been slow to change and the Ofcom report noted another irony in the BBC iPlayer, which in its early days around a decade ago was famed as a cutting-edge catch-up portal way ahead technically of most commercial alternatives.

Yet its evolution stalled and Ofcom noted how its engagement among millennials has been declining steadily, with its reach among 15 to 24-year olds slipping from 28% to 26% over the last year while Netflix’s has soared from 56% to 66%.

This is not just about content, or even perhaps the mode of packaging, but the medium. A recent study conducted by analytics firm ComScore for Google found that millennials preferred online providers for any form of content, even traditional TV series, with YouTube ranked favorite by 35%. It was the convenience and navigability of the medium that appealed.

Of course, pubcasters are now well aware of the millennial conundrum, although some have been more active in addressing it than others.

France Televisions has focused on its streaming services and commissioned content aimed at millennials, such as a series called Stalk featuring the rise and fall of Lux, an 18-year-old hacker, who sought revenge through cyber-stalking against students that humiliated him during his first days at a fabled engineering school. The popularity of this psychological drama has encouraged the broadcaster to produce more content of this genre for millennials and it decided to engage teenagers more directly in production. It has just released an online series called “Mental”, modelled on the Finish production “Sekasin”, addressing psychic disorders in adolescents. It is made in ten 20-minute episodes so combining relatively short format with scope for bingeing.

It should be fairly clear that content appealing to millennials and packaged in the format they like will attract their engagement. The other key point is that the churn from traditional pay TV does not equate to decline in demand for linear content. This was indicated by another recent Nielsen survey finding that when out-of-home (OOH) consumption is taken into account, millennials watch their share of linear TV around sports, news and live entertainment. This is reflected in average age for OOH viewership being just 37, with surprisingly at first sight women accounting for 55%.

The other finding is that millennials are attracted by interactivity and direct engagement, which is one appeal of esports viewing. This has the corollary that millennials respond better than older viewers to linear TV ads that call for some form of action or engagement.

Putting this all together, millennials present opportunities for traditional TV that can be exploited even as this group is reducing its consumption of linear minutes.