Doubt the power of TV at your own risk

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As Election Day nears, waving off TV would be a strategic mistake of epic proportions.


It’s 2012, and you know what that means--it’s at least the 50th anniversary of people saying that nobody’s watching TV anymore. Oh, sure, people will admit that they enjoy “Downton Abbey” and maybe some local news, but besides that, everybody has moved to online video. At least, that is, if you ask anyone who produces digital research  about the media habits of everyday Americans.

Do not accept these magic beans. They will lead you to a dark place filled with sharp sticks, jagged rocks, creepy spiders, and broken dreams.

According to Nielsen—the company that spends millions of dollars each year to examine the actual television viewing habits of the American public—98 percent of people’s video time is spent with traditional television. That means on a TV set with their remote control. Not on their laptop, not on their smartphone, not on their tablet—on a television set. This comes from actual measured viewing behavior, not from a poll.

What people are actually doing is enhancing their television with more video content on a broader slate of platforms. Nielsen described Americans as “voracious video viewers” who crave “constant content” in their latest Cross-Platform Report. 

A recent article by SAY Media led off with the rather misleading headline of “Off the Grid 2012”, which would tend to imply that Americans—likely voters, specifically—are simply unplugging and walking away from all media. This article then goes on to say that they’re seeing a trend that people are moving away from traditional TV and shifting their viewing to online video. Their conclusion is “much broadcast advertising is wasted” and that “paying for additional media reach via online and mobile while reducing live TV will increase communication efficiency and increase the audience.”   

Wow. That’s a powerful statement. Let’s look at some quick numbers to see if it’s true.

First, let’s look at TV’s reach, compared to online and mobile video. Is there a compelling reach argument that can be made for video sources other than traditional television?

According to Nielsen’s Cross Platform Report, television dwarfs the combined reach of online and mobile. The average monthly reach of television, according to Nielsen: 428,362,000. Online comes in at 147,388,000. The average monthly reach of mobile: 33,526,000.  

So this illusion of improved reach by cutting traditional TV and increasing online video is not panning out. What about people’s relationship with the medium? With so many people having the greater opportunity throughout the day of watching video at work, at school, etc., wouldn’t that translate into people therefore spending more time overall with online and mobile video than traditional television?

That would be strike two.

The average person that’s between age 18 and 49 spends about 156 hours watching their TV set each month, either live or time-shifted. They spend less than 10 hours a month with alternate video sources, combined.  Even Teens—the demographic most notorious for going elsewhere for their video—watch over 100 hours of content on a TV set. They actually watch slightly less online and mobile video than 18 to 49-year-olds.  

So just how would reducing live TV messaging and increasing online and mobile improve upon audience reach and decrease waste for a candidate’s media plan?

OK, so if it’s not a matter of reach and time spent with media, what about each medium’s brand impact?  

According to the 2012 Media Comparisons Study from Knowledge Networks, Internet advertising—not just Internet video advertising, but everything—ranks behind newspapers for what consumers respond has the most impact upon their purchase decisions, well behind television. Television was cited by nearly 40 percent of respondents, while newspapers lagged behind in second place with 10 percent, and Internet was a distant third, at 6 percent.

Incidentally, not all television is the same. A TVB analysis of Nielsen data also proves that local broadcast news serves a more balanced A35+ target demographic than does cable news. Seventy-seven percent of the A35+ demographic among cable news viewers is over age 55. However, 41 percent of the key A35-54 voting block watches local broadcast news versus 23 percent for cable news. As an example, in the Top 10 U.S. markets, buying late local news more than doubles your audience size and balances the voting demographic composition.

So what happens when a political campaign does choose to put money into a television campaign? If the pendulum were beginning to swing so clearly towards alternative video, spending on television would probably not be influencing as many potential voters. What correlation could be drawn by a look at the TV spending for those seeking the Republican nomination?

The Romney campaign (and his allies) spent nearly four times as much on television as three of his closest rivals combined. And he won the nomination. 

What we are seeing is that there are three motivating factors for a campaign to spend money on TV advertising—reach, time spent with the medium, and impact of the message. In each case, television is far and away the dominant force. Ignoring the unrivalled power of television to reach the voting audience would be a strategic mistake of epic proportions.

Granted, we are seeing an increase in viewing on these alternative delivery methods. But the value of these platforms comes in their ability to extend a viewer’s opportunity to consume television content, not to replace it. Much of the alternative use comes from the increase in second screen viewing—concurrently viewing television content with online content through a PC, tablet, or smartphone.

Americans are indeed voracious in their appetite for content. However, we are still a long way away from anything being a serious alternative to the well-established “best screen available” of traditional television.

If you see anything else that claims to have as much impact as television, you’d better check the label.  You might find out that you’re only getting magic beans packed in snake oil.  

Steve Lanzano is the president and CEO of TVB.


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