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MBPT Spotlight: Are The Broadcast And Cable Networks in the Midst Of a TV Ratings Death Spiral?

Commercial ratings—the metric used to calculate how much TV time costs and thus how much money broadcast and cable networks can earn—were down again last month, a decline of about 12% for both year-over-year. That’s the fifth month in a row the industry has seen these kinds of double-digit declines, so not good news. But I’m not quite sure why any of this comes as a surprise to the industry.

Some have suggested that Nielsen, the company whose ratings measurements have, over time immemorial, become the industry standard, is just having a really hard time figuring out how to count viewing that doesn’t actually take place on a TV set, as use of mobile devices have multiplied. So it’s gotten really hard!

It’s finally occurred to some industry pundits that the changes in commercial ratings are due to shifts in viewership habits. Gee, you think? You think TV viewers have been consuming content differently à la mobile devices, but a perhaps more important question would be, does the industry actually think this pattern just started?

While this must be frustrating for the industry to watch this happen and not be able to address it or try to fix it, this has been a long time coming, particularly given that the marketplace moves at the speed of the consumer and has been supercharged by all that mobile technology.

According to the Brand Keys 2015 Customer Loyalty Engagement Index, when it comes to how viewers are consuming TV content, nearly 50% of the 36,605 consumers we polled indicated that they had some sort of subscription video streaming service. Why is that? The short answer is that the subscription video streaming services are seen to better meet consumer rational and emotional expectations as regards their Ideal consumption of TV shows.

On an overall basis, broadcast networks rate 79% when it comes to meeting the emotional needs and expectations of viewers, cable networks rate 82% and video streaming rates 89%. The differences that currently exist between the three are significant, statistically and behaviorally. When it comes to the Ideal paradigm/situation to “watch TV shows,” there are consumer behavior drivers and diagnostics behind all this, which, unfortunately, are more accommodating to video streaming, particularly given the consumer shifts in viewership habits and platforms.

The two biggest emotional engagement drivers that control consumer viewing behavior deal with a desire for a wide range of original entertainment and issues related to connectivity and multi-viewing options.

Fees do come into play too, but, unfortunately, because streaming video is currently seen as better meeting consumer expectations, the perception of the price-value equation ends up favoring streaming video. And as consumer behavior correlates very highly with how well a brand meets consumer expectations, we weren’t surprised with the broadcast and cable declines, although we continue to be surprised that the “experts” are surprised.

For video streaming, here’s how actual viewers ranked their own services á la their very high expectations:

  1. Netflix
  2. Amazon
  3. iTunes
  4. Google Play/Hulu
  5. Crackle/YouTube
  6. Veoh/Vimeo/Vudu
  7. Iwatchonline
  8. Blockbuster/Cinema Now

One aspect of the video streaming paradigm that has to do with a truly emotional and differentiating value—the ability to not only provide a wide range of original content, but providing the viewers with an opportunity to “binge” on new shows, a relatively new value to the category—has become critical.

It was recently reported that several streaming video services—Amazon, Hulu and Yahoo—have been looking to feed consumers’ ever-increasing cravings for binge viewing and, in this instance, have been fighting over the rights to Seinfeld’s 172 episodes. As currently calculated, that works out to a 75-hour binge. Sony is reported to be looking for more than $500K per episode. Netflix is reported to have passed on that opportunity.

Here’s where a real brand issue comes into play. Netflix has increasingly become associated with new, highly creative original content such as House of Cards and their newest offering Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Netflix is upping the entertainment and consumer engagement ante by releasing nine new shows this year alone. Watch for other video streaming services to do that and look to add as much content (old and new) as they can.

It seems that when it comes to TV show viewership, “New is the new black!”

Passikoff is founder and president of Brand Keys, the brand research consultancy that specializes in predictive consumer behavior, loyalty and engagement metrics. He has more than 35 years of agency and client experience in all phases of strategic brand planning and is the creator of the Brand Keys Customer Loyalty Engagement Index.