NBC's ratings dive may be a harbinger: deluge of content may be overwhelming viewers

In the midst of new SVOD service launches, a “Golden Era” of television content, and more availability to viewers than ever before, analysts are beginning to see a troubling trend in ratings: they’re going down.

“By any measure you choose (total viewing hours, pay-TV households, Nielsen ratings, even Netflix subscriber growth) the US TV viewing audience is flat or declining,” said analyst Joel Espelien in a TDG blog post.

As FierceOnlineVideo noted last week, traditional television ratings for NBC’s Olympics coverage were down across the board, and they stayed down throughout the Games. The network said it had a total audience delivery of 27.5 million, down from 30.3 million in 2012.

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Analysts assumed that those viewers were livestreaming the events in other ways and on other screens – through the NBC Sports TV everywhere app, on the NBC Olympics website, or perhaps spoofing their location using a VPN to watch a less-commercial-filled, no-tape-delay version of the Games on international streaming sites like BBC.

And that ultimately was correct, with NBC reporting it had more than 50 million streaming viewers across devices. Over half of those streamers were under 35, the network noted.

But Espelien sees a deeper trend emerging as NBC and other networks swing toward the fall season -- viewers aren’t simply going elsewhere to watch the same content; they may not be going anywhere. They might even be, dare I say, going outside and visiting friends, having cookouts, taking long walks on the beach -- in short, doing other things besides watching their screens.

“Adult viewers watch 35-40 hours of video per week (including both legacy and broadband video sources),” Espelien said. “A big chunk of this (I’d argue at least 80%) is already spoken for by news, sports, and returning shows that people already know and enjoy. This leaves (at most) 7-8 hours a week available for new shows. For most people, digesting 7-8 new shows a week is still way too much cognitive load – their attention span for embracing truly new shows is more like 2-3. And this is among people who like TV.”

That’s bad news for the fall television season, which will see more than 123 new shows debut across broadcast and cable networks.

It could also spell trouble for SVOD providers like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, which rely on viewer appetites for additional content they can’t get on traditional TV. It could also put a damper on newer SVOD services including NBCUniversal’s genre-targeted offerings like Seeso and hayu.

A new IHS Markit survey is predicting that international Netflix subscribers will overtake U.S. subscribers by 2018, and total subscribers for the service worldwide will cross the 100 million mark. That number is currently at 79.9 million worldwide, said Irina Kornilova, senior analyst at IHS Technology, but “by 2020, Netflix will have 75 million international subscribers.”

While that’s good for Netflix, it suggests that U.S. subscribership will, as some analysts have predicted for a couple of years now, flatten out at best. That could be exacerbated if viewers are inundated with content.

“We too often forget, however, that the TV audience is a limited resource that can only absorb so much content. Supply, with respect to new shows, is running way ahead of demand,” Espelien concluded.

For more:
- see this NBC release
- see this TDG blog post
- see this IHS release
- see this Adweek article

Related articles:
NBC Olympics event availability, more devices translate to higher streaming audiences, but TV ratings suffer
Akamai, Microsoft lead Olympics streaming support for NBC Sports
'Too many networks' means Comcast, NBCU, others may trim away TV channels

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