min read

Understanding TV viewing preferences in the digital age

by Rachel Bonsignore , 23.08.2016

Today, the definition of "television" is much deeper than the physical device it was originally named for.  No longer confined to a self-contained, standard-issue product, “TV” now refers to content that is accessible to us via an endless combination of devices, platforms, and services.  The landscape is more complex than ever – we can watch TV on phones and through video game consoles, and make calls or summon personal assistants through our TV sets.  Antennas are a relic of the past, and we don’t even need a cable subscription to watch our favorite shows.  The most popular online video content is often much shorter than a traditional 30-second broadcast spot.  And although the fall TV premiere season is around the corner, the idea of a “TV season” is becoming fuzzier with each passing day.

One thing is certain, however – our interest in TV-like content isn’t going anywhere.  According to Nielsen, Americans now consume an entire hour more of media per day than just a year ago.  So what are the new opportunities for this evolving industry?

Address shorter attention spans

It’s no secret that our multi-tasking culture has made it harder to pay attention to just one thing – in fact, experts estimate that our focused attention spans have decreased from 12 to 8 seconds in the past 15 years.  According to GfK Consumer Life, Americans are more than twice as likely to watch short video clips as movies/TV shows via streaming services on their smartphones in an average month.

And as a sign of these times, Snapchat passed Twitter in daily users earlier this summer.  Consumer appetite for shorter bursts of entertainment is only going to intensify, creating a mandate for advertisers and content creators.

Pepsi has responded to this trend by developing five-second broadcast ads to support its latest emoji campaign, appealing to the viewer’s dual desire for more visual communications and fast, dynamic content.  And it was recently announced that major network shows like “The Voice” and “Saturday Night Live” will be producing original shows for Snapchat.  What will your brand do to adapt?

The rules of real-time

Despite the flexibility of viewing times that the new TV landscape affords, live programming has not completely lost its appeal.  Recent findings from GfK Consumer Life show that two in three Americans consumed video content live or in real-time in the last 30 days, well ahead of those who time-shifted with streaming or recorded content.  And when they’re in the mood for sports or news but don’t have anything specific in mind, more than half of consumers turn first to their favorite TV network or channel.

While the success of broadcast scripted programs continues to be a challenge, real-time content such as sports, competition series, and musical specials are still a safe bet.  And while this is good news for TV programmers and advertisers, it still takes effort to capture consumer attention – whether it’s embracing new technologies like virtual/augmented reality or enhancing the social media experience during live viewing “events.”

Adapt to new viewing behaviors

At the recent Television Critic’s Association press tour, NBCUniversal unveiled new research confirming that TV viewing is consistently pushed back among many viewers.  Delayed consumption is the new normal for scripted programs, as most viewers find it unnecessary to watch new episodes of shows when they first air.  Instead, they prefer to pick their own preferred time even when live viewing fits into their schedules.  Many would also watch more TV if an entire season was available to them at once instead of the standard five episodes that on-demand channels typically offer – this has actually become a deal-breaker for most.

GfK Consumer Life data supports this preference – over half of Americans watch TV programming when it’s convenient to them on a streaming service (54%) or DVR (51%) monthly or more often.  With traditional advertising models still based on three or seven days within an episode airing, brands and broadcasters need to evolve their offerings to meet consumer demand.


As streaming services, technology disruptors, and other unpredictable shifts continue to push the TV world into uncharted territory, brands and content developers need to act quickly to capitalize on changing consumer preferences.  Understanding their desires to view more “snackable” content, enhance the live viewing experience, and watch on their own terms is essential for the future of TV.

Rachel Bonsignore is a Senior Consultant for GfK Consumer Life.  She can be reached at rachel.bonsignore@gfk.com.