Where Are They Watching? And Who Are ‘They’?

Far more teenagers watch video on TV sets than on computers—for now.
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Far more teenagers watch video on TV sets than on computers—for now.

According to a survey sponsored by CTAM, the Cable Telecommunications Marketing Association, 83 percent of kids aged 12 to 17 looked at TV “during the past week,” while only about 44 percent watched video on a desktop computer and far smaller segments used portable devices (laptops, portable media players or mobile phones) to view videos.

But don’t get sanguine about that reliance on conventional TV among the younger generation. The CTAM study, conducted by International Communications Research, identified that teenagers who claim to be early technology adopters are up to twice as likely as their peers (or as the “average teen”) to use mobile video devices. And that cohort of tech-savvy kids actually watches less linear television, (www.ctam.com/news/releases/080408.htm).

This CTAM report does not break out how much time the advance guard or even the average teen spends with online video versus cable or other traditional TV. The study does acknowledge that “teens are truly living in a broadband world,” turning to the Internet for entertainment as well as other purposes. Predictably, comedy video clips and music videos rank high on the list of what they watch, just behind user-generated video clips such as YouTube types of content.

In fact, that’s where the curiosity of the CTAM study takes hold. When asked what they watch on “TV,” more than three-quarters of responding teens say they look at user-generated video, a format that is almost exclusively available online.

Viewer-created content is by far the highest-ranking category on CTAM’s list. The association enthusiastically points out that more teens say they watch “news/political clips” (42 percent) than watch “celebrity/gossip clips” (25 percent). The preference for “news” may stem from the definition of what kids consider “news.” As a reference point, none of the students in a college class I teach (all of them in their early to mid-20s) believed that particular preference of political news over celebrity gossip, based on their own experiences—or that of their younger siblings.

Nonetheless, the CTAM study—put into a larger context about the evolving supply and demand for alternative video distribution—forces broadcasters and producers to evaluate who will be in their audiences of the future—and where they’ll watch.

For example, a recent BurstMedia “online ageism” survey of more than 13,000 Web users over the age of 18 found that demographic audience segments perceive the things they find on the Web from very different perspectives. The Web’s youth-orientation shows through dramatically: 76 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds believe Web content is focused toward people of their age, and 74 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds see it the same way.

But there’s a fast drop-off for older viewers. Among 35-to-44-year-olds, barely 55 percent think Web content is age appropriate for them, and the congruence factor plummets to 35 percent in the 45-to-54-year-old age bracket. It’s a mere 23 percent for the 55-to-64-year-old segment, according to BurstMedia.

Those findings—however limited they may be—underscore the prospect that younger viewers may move more quickly to the streaming and on-demand world of Web-based media, while older viewers stick with conventional TV formats. In particular, advertisers are monitoring such developments closely, trying to determine where to allot their future commercial spend.

CONTRADICTIONS GALORE

The FUD factor (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) plays a major role here. Contrarians like to point to the demise in February of Revver, a video-sharing site that split ad revenues with videographers. Revver had become a very high profile user-generated content company. Its sudden collapse, coming amidst the recent deaths of several similar ventures, encouraged naysayers to contend that the “alternative TV model” has not yet been perfected.

Admittedly, many such under-capitalized “good ideas” will continue to stumble. At the same time, the audience fragmentation they spur while alive is significant—if only because the alternatives take away eyeball time from conventional TV. And this distraction comes in spite of the multitasking multiple-media usage patterns of so many (especially young) viewers.

Meanwhile, a variety of equally high-profile efforts continue popping up to encourage more young “viewsers” (a term for interactive viewing/users) to make and watch new video options. In early spring, the American Film Institute unveiled AFI ScreenNation, a project designed for 13-to-18-year-old media makers. In collaboration with educators and film festivals nationwide, the AFI project will provide tools to collect, exhibit, share and archive student video projects (www.screennation.afi.com).

Other factors steering this viewership rearrangement include the experience of Metacafe, a large independent video-sharing Web site. Less than 7 million U.S. viewers logged into the site in a recent month, but 23 million other viewers came to the site, www.metacafe.com, from elsewhere in the world. The global video village has arrived.

This evolution has not gone unnoticed among conventional media companies. Most of the biggest are manifesting their protective instincts with a dose of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” The MySpace and Fox relationship under News Corp. is a marquee example.

Furthermore, Sony Pictures Entertainment plugged $65 million into Grouper, which soon was reconfigured as Crackle Inc., a multiplatform video entertainment network/studio that distributes what it calls “work from the hottest emerging talent on the Web and beyond.” Sony and Crackle say their objective is an “ongoing collaboration… to discover and promote the stars of tomorrow.”

CHOICES GET HARDER, MORE NUMEROUS

The participation of media powerhouses, such as Sony, prompts veterans to shout “protectionism,” as if testing out new approaches is anything less than a scientific crapshoot. In that respect, the comments of Disney CEO Robert Iger were among the most dramatic indicator of the changes ahead.

At a New York “media summit” in March, Iger chastised media executives for eschewing a multiplatform approach to content delivery. He predicted that the computer will replace TV as the “primary source of entertainment for kids.”

It’s just as important to them as the TV set now,” Iger said—strong words from a man whose company runs ABC and the Disney Channel networks, along with “grown-up” outlets such as ESPN. Iger was even bullish about the near term, forecasting that Disney will see $1 billion in digital revenue this year, up from $750 million last year. The Disney CEO was particularly enthusiastic about the role of social media for young audiences.

Disney, Sony, Fox and other producers—large and small—are not walking away from conventional platforms yet. But, from the CTAM study, the BurstMedia survey and countless other research efforts, it’s clear that young viewers are looking beyond the TV set for entertainment and information.

Even Blockbuster is seeking new ways into the living room. Reports about its plans, probably with LG Electronics, for a set-top box to stream movies directly into homes add to the competitive landscape on that front. Blockbuster’s plan, if it is realized, would compete with Apple TV, Vudu, Akimbo and other video delivery schemes.

As a result of all these ventures, the choices may confuse consumers for a while. But as we’ve learned during the past two decades, young media consumers figure out what they want to see—and how they want to see it.