Finicky Young Viewers, Funky Online Video Data

College kids are spending 50 percent more for electronic gizmos than for clothing in their back-to-campus budgets this year—a curious indicator of financial priorities in this volatile economic environment. In the National Retail Federation's annual survey of back-to-college spending, college students collectively shelled out more than $11 billion for electronics gear (which works out to about $212 per person, down from last year's $258, but up from $166 five years ago) compared to $7 billion for clothing (also down, but only slightly, from last year).


The back-to-school budget study (conducted by BIGresearch) coincides with several other daunting—and sometimes contradictory—analyses of how young audiences are relying on electronic devices to access their daily quota of video. Clearly those new electronic products (which range from laptop computers and mobile phones to MP3 players—iPod and otherwise—and maybe even TV sets) affect the ways in which college students consume media.

Overall, electronic devices represent about 30 percent of college students' major purchases this year, according to the NRF data. That's another indicator of how vital these gizmos are in student life. And the sum does not include ongoing "operating" costs, such as music downloads (assuming the students actually pay for such entertainment)—another sign of the budget dominance of electronics on campus.

Since most dormitory rooms and college apartments are not yet equipped with HDTV monitors, computers and handheld viewing devices offer popular ways to watch the video (televised or otherwise) that students want to see. Another study last month, the eighth annual College Explorer survey, conducted by Harris Interactive for Alloy Media + Marketing, a marketing services provider, confirmed that 62 percent of students watch television shows online. Barely a quarter of them visit major TV network sites, while 34 percent opt for YouTube and others are trying out other online video delivery and file-sharing sites such as Joost, Hulu and Vudu. Nearly 25 percent of students are now watching downloadable videos on handheld devices, "the small screen," according to Alloy's research.

The shift towards use of multitasking digital platforms is something that Alloy calls "e-visiophonexting." It reveals how quickly students are adopting new preferences.

"For the first time," the Alloy analysis said, "college viewers [are] making an appointment on their digital devices to catch up on their favorite TV shows."


Still other research suggests that the youth appeal of online video is going global. A Deloitte/YouGov study in the United Kingdom, conducted for the Media Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, found that nearly 20 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds considered "Internet TV" as the TV technology that has "the greatest impact" on the way they watch television—more than double the overall level of all U.K. viewers' reliance on online video.

Deloitte's chief U.K. media/telecom analyst, Jolyon Barker, noted that these college-age viewers may revert to their parents' linear viewing patterns as they grow older. But, he also pondered that some practices "will inevitably be retained, and today's youth might find that an hour spent downloading videos is the best way to wind down at the end of the day."

Not coincidentally, Deloitte's U.K. study surfaced at about the same time as the 2008 Communications Market Report, published by Ofcom, the British regulatory agency. It found that the number of Brits watching TV online had climbed from 8 percent to 17 percent of the population between 2006 and 2007—again fueled by young viewers.

None of these findings—or the slew of other research reports about online viewing—should startle anyone who has monitored the growing appeal of Web video (or has resident teenagers at home, witnessing first-hand the attention they pay to their computer and mobile screens). Yet collectively, these quantitative reports provide trend lines about how quickly young audiences are embracing the proliferating viewing alternatives.

According to a new In-Stat report, by 2012, 39 percent of U.S. adults will have purchased or rented online video. By then, 90 percent of U.S. homes will have access to broadband, with 94 percent of Americans watching online video. Although consumer-generated video and the proliferation of video-sharing services will account for much of that viewing, In-Stat expects that "ad-supported professional video from major TV networks will become a strong revenue contributor."

Gerry Kaufhold, the In-Stat analyst who oversees such forecasts, acknowledged the youthful drivers in this drift toward online video.

"What is now seen as a predominantly younger pastime will spread to encompass a wider group of people, in part due to the aging of current online video viewers, but also as a result of word of mouth, spread of services, growth of in-home networks, and new network-connected consumer electronic devices," Kaufhold said.


Today's young viewers may mature into "normal" linear viewers as they age. But their younger siblings are likely to follow similar patterns as they embrace mobile, portable, short-form, small screen and other new media offerings. The constant arrival of content is a reminder of how eager suppliers are to leverage their libraries onto the alternative platforms—recognizing that young audiences eagerly explore new options.

For example, Vudu introduced a "99 for 99" program last month. The Internet video service offers a rotating roster of 99 video-on-demand titles, each priced at 99 cents per viewing. The lineup includes many youth-skewed cult movies such as "Animal House," "Groundhog Day" and "The Big Lebowski," plus the Austin Powers and Star Trek film series. The 99 cent films are only available in standard definition today, even though Vudu transmits high-definition versions of many films—at a higher price (for now).

Such options underscore today's market shift. The confluence of young viewers' electronic capability and producers' content availability auger even greater change tomorrow in the way video (including what is now quaintly called "television") is produced, packaged and delivered. The never-ending challenge is figuring out what this fickle, faddish young audience will want to watch and on which device.

Gary Arlen

Gary Arlen, a contributor to Broadcasting & Cable, NextTV and TV Tech, is known for his visionary insights into the convergence of media + telecom + content + technology. His perspectives on public/tech policy, marketing and audience measurement have added to the value of his research and analyses of emerging interactive and broadband services. Gary was founder/editor/publisher of Interactivity Report, TeleServices Report and other influential newsletters; he was the long-time “curmudgeon” columnist for Multichannel News as well as a regular contributor to AdMap, Washington Technology and Telecommunications Reports; Gary writes regularly about trends and media/marketing for the Consumer Technology Association's i3 magazine plus several blogs.