Rumors of television’s death are exaggerated

Broadcast and television network executives may be left scratching their heads after the publication of two recent reports about televisions and viewers. The reports show that while the median age for American TV viewers is increasing, people have more TV sets in their homes than ever before. Before you try to get your head around those facts, add this one: Only 42 percent of Americans consider the television set a “necessity.” Let’s look closer at the data behind these confusing facts.

In a report from Baseline, a research firm owned by "The New York Times," the company says that over the past 20 years, the broadcast audience has aged at twice the rate of the general population. According to the report, the median age for viewers of network television programming is now 51. Network executives used to claim they didn’t care about viewers over 50. Wonder what the viewpoint is now?

"It should be a concern, but it doesn’t seem to be a concern at the moment," said Steve Sternberg, the report’s author. “You don’t want to have CBS, ABC and NBC all having median ages in their mid-50s," he said.

Statistics from Nielsen show that only nine years ago, the ABC network’s median age, where half of the audience is older and half is younger, was 37. NBC’s was 42, and Fox’s was 29. The median age of the CBS network’s audience was 45. So, over the past nine years, the median age for an ABC viewer increased by 14 years. For an NBC viewer it increased by nine years and for a CBS viewer by six years.

The bottom line, according to the study, is that television audiences are older than ever before. Now, let’s add to this mix new information about the relative importance viewers put on their TV sets and how many of those sets Americans have purchased for their homes.

A TV set is no longer considered a “necessity”

In a wide-ranging study about the use of technology, Pew Research asked respondents about the importance of different pieces of technology. The questionnaire included common purchases: car, landline phones, clothes dryer dishwashers, etc. The late-August report shows that only 42 percent of Americans still consider the television set to be a “necessity.” Last year, that figure was 52 percent. In 2006, it was 64 percent. This represents a 22 percent drop in the perceived importance of a TV set over only four years.

The drop in the relative importance of a TV set may be based on more than just a younger viewing audience. This change in attitude could be caused by the severe recession we’re enduring. In addition, newer delivery technologies make "watching TV" a generic term, where other displays can be used to view video entertainment.

But if the importance of a TV set is waning, then why do American homes have so many?

Today’s average home has more television sets than people. According to Nielsen, as of 2009, each American home had an average of 2.86 television sets, but only 2.5 people in that same home — more TV sets than people to watch them! And the number of sets per home continues to increase.

In 2000, there were 2.43 sets per home. In 1990, there were were 2.0 TV sets per household, and in 1975, there were only 1.57 TV sets per American home. So, the number of sets per home continues to grow at the same time viewers are older and the perceived importance of TV sets falls. What’s up?

These facts seem to fly in the face of the new opportunities viewers have to enjoy video. With mobile TV, websites, portable players and a variety of over-the-top delivery and displays, sitting in front of the boob tube is no longer necessary to enjoy programming. Despite all the newer geek technology, when a person wants real-time access to a wide variety of entertainment, nothing can replace the good ol' TV set.

The Pew Report concludes saying, “Most Americans say they no longer view the TV set as a necessity. But they keep buying more and more of them, especially the ones with the big, sleek screens and crystal-clear pictures.”

Paraphrasing Mark Twain, “The report of television’s death is an exaggeration.”