Is Primetime Still Important?

Common wisdom is that we are in an ‘on-demand’ media world with consumers asking for and insisting on complete control over their viewing experience. The TV schedule is dead. Primetime is irrelevant. Or is it?

First, what is meant by ‘on-demand’ viewing?. That’s part of the difficulty in measuring or analyzing ‘on-demand’ because it can mean a host of things. It can be PVR’ing traditional broadcast to watch later or time shifting to watch from a later broadcast feed or watching regulated subscriptions on demand (e.g., TMN On Demand, Rogers on Demand), non-subscriptions on demand, watching online or using a mobile player (e.g., CTV Go) or unregulated subscription on demand (e.g., Netflix). For the purposes of this blog post, we are not looking at copyright infringing on demand viewing such as torrents but just the legal on demand viewing in its many forms.

Did PVR kill the broadcast TV star?

How much are Canadians watching on demand? Viewing stats are not readily available. As of June 2013, according to the Television Bureau of Canada, PVR penetration in Canada had reached 46.8% as PVRs are now built into many television sets. Despite the growing ubiquity of PVRs, only 6.2% of all viewing in Canada was through PVRs, and PVR owners themselves only watch 12.4% of their content through the PVR. We can draw useful comparisons with U.S. media behavior. In analysis released in December 2013 on viewing patterns in the U.S., Nielsen (which does not include on-demand viewing via OTT services such as Netflix and Hulu) demonstrated an almost 15% year-to-year growth (Q3 2013 vs. Q3 2012) in on-demand usage, particularly with time-shifted viewing (which is the term Nielsen uses for PVR or VOD). ‘Live’ or scheduled broadcast had remained stable.

What these facts suggest is that while on demand viewing is growing, it has not impacted scheduled or live viewing. The viewing pie is growing. This may be because there are more and more options available for consumers, many of which can be enjoyed when consumers are mobile and would not previously have been watching video. Consumers are choosing to catch up on their favorite shows while waiting for their plane rather than picking up the newspaper. This is not cutting into their sitting back time at the end of the day to hang out on the couch and watch TV.

Technology, and social media in particular, has provided some new drivers to live television. A March 2013 study by Nielsen (US) and SocialGuide found that Twitter activity was one of the top 3 influences (along with prior year ratings and advertising spending) of live TV engagement. There were clear correlations between increased Twitter volumes and increased television ratings. While Twitter may not be driving traffic to live TV (it is a correlation and not necessarily a causation), it certainly has an impact on whether consumers choose to watch a show live (with their Twitter friends) or on demand completely on their own. A lot of people reached out to their community through a variety of social media platforms when a regular character on “The Good Wife” died. The last few minutes of an episode of “Remedy” were so beautifully crafted that a collective *gasp* was released on Twitter. Those are but two examples of how shows are no longer discussed the next day, around the water cooler, but rather while the broadcast is being aired. People do not want to miss out.

Good old primetime is still important

However, social media still do not replace traditional promotion and scheduling, the tried and true tools of television audience development. A study released on March 24, 2014 by the Council for Research Excellence on social media and TV found that more people (39.7%) were prompted to watch a new show because of a TV ad or promo than something they read on social media (6.9%). The same study informs us that TV scheduling (watching a new show merely because it was on after a show they were already watching) accounted for 10% of the decision-making.

Primetime promotion is so important that Netflix chose to heavily promote the second season of “House of Cards” on broadcast television during primetime. So while binge viewing seasons of a show is a growing trend, it is significant that mainstream primetime advertising has driven traffic to arguably the most successful original on-demand series.

Consumers may be moving to an on-demand world but we’re not there yet and may in fact never get there completely. Most consumers still like watching scheduled broadcast television. It is curated for them. Promotion gets them interested in new shows or upcoming episodes and reminds them to watch. Good—and consistent—scheduling puts similar shows together to keep audiences on a service.

What does this mean in practical terms for the Canadian industry? Scheduling Canadian programming, particularly programs of national interest, during primetime is still important in order to make these programs available when most Canadians are watching television. It is also important to have them available on multiple platforms for catch-up or later viewing, but primetime is still what drives the vast majority of viewers.

The media landscape may be evolving in the direction of an on-demand world but the above stats demonstrate that it is not there yet. Traditional promotion, traditional scheduling and traditional viewing still meet the preferences of most Canadians.

Kelly Lynne Ashton
Trained as an entertainment lawyer, Kelly Lynne Ashton has been working in the Canadian film, television and digital media industries for over twenty-five years. She has worked as a business affairs executive in several Toronto television production and distribution companies, including Atlantis Films Limited and the Owl Group of Companies. Kelly Lynne then entered the world of digital media to act as Senior Producer at children’s web studio Big Orbit Inc. While at Big Orbit she also developed, managed and marketed the online youth research company Reactorz. She has also worked in government relations and media policy as Director of Policy at the Writers Guild of Canada. Kelly Lynne is currently bringing together the different strands of her career in the Canadian media industries - legal, business, marketing and research - and providing consulting services to clients in all areas of the industry including evaluation services for various funds, authoring research reports and programming industry conferences. Kelly Lynne obtained a Certificate in Leadership and Inclusion from Centennial College and now provides clients with diversity and inclusion consulting services.
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