MBPT Spotlight: Popular Live TV Events Quench Thirst for Old-School Water Cooler Days

Take a look at the below:

  • Billboard Music Awards, May 18, 2014—hit a 13-year ratings high.
  • The Oscars, March 2014—43 million viewers, third consecutive year of ratings growth.
  • Super Bowl XLVIII, February 2014—most-watched TV event in U.S. history, 111.5 million viewers.
  • Grammy Awards, January 2014—28.5 million viewers, second largest audience since 1993.
  • Golden Globes, January 2014—20.9 million viewers, highest viewership in 10 years. 
  • The Sound of Music Live, December 2013—18.5 million viewers, NBC’s most-watched Thursday since the ER finale in 2009.
  • Miss America, September 2013—ratings up 18% vs. 2012, with 8.43 million viewers.
  • Tony Awards, June 2013—average audience up 20% over its 3 hours and 7 minute telecast.

See a pattern?

The media industry has been rightly obsessed with time-shifting, non-traditional viewing and cord-cutting, trends that predict the behavioral shifts of tomorrow. The news is gloom and doom as cord-cutting, for instance, has become more than a statistical blip. However, as we look at these trends, we shouldn’t lose sight of the counter-trends smacking us in the face. One obvious example among many is the record-breaking appeal of live TV events.

It’s a trend we’re calling Crowd Viewing.

Sure, consumers today insist on personal control and instant gratification. Their IWWIWWIWI (“I want what I want when I want it”) demands are at the heart of massive business shifts across every industry. With mobile an ever-growing part of life, time- and place-shifting are rapidly increasing. However, this overwhelming ability to access whatever they want as individuals, whenever and wherever they want it, often leaves consumers feeling short changed in two core human hungers: shared experience, and the satisfying shock and surprise that comes with “being there when it happened.” When it comes to TV, this is what is making live events more appealing than ever.

Just because people know today they never have to worry about missing something (consumers tell us that they can find pretty much anything online if they put their mind to it), doesn’t mean the experience of watching something later will be satisfying. If you’re Googling that program your neighbor or coworker is talking about, you already feel behind—you know the punch line, and the experience will never be as sweet. People long for yesterday’s water-cooler moments, when they gathered to replay the play-by-play, each with their own opinion. Since today’s “water cooler” is often virtual, immediacy is even more important if you don’t want the punch line blown.

A look at the ratings trends for the majority of live events over the past few years points clearly to the consumers’ desire to experience some shared events in real-time. Sure, there are other factors that drive these ratings increases—better hosts, more shocking or star-studded performances, etc.—but when what was arguably one of the most boring football games of all time can became the most watched television event in history, you know something is going on. 

Whether it is Carrie Underwood singing “The hills are alive…” or Ellen DeGeneres making a real-time plea for the most re-Tweeted selfie, consumers want to be there “live.” Sometimes we want to watch with the rest of the world.

Perhaps many of us miss how satisfying and simple it was when Thursday night meant we all watched The Cosby Show together. We didn’t have to think or exert any effort—we knew where we were supposed to be from 8:00-8:30 p.m.

Speaking of The Cosby Show, while live events are often the strongest example of crowd viewing, because they hold the added promise of “what might happen when everyone is watching,” the same principles of shared experience and water-cooler camaraderie can apply to the telecasts of scripted dramas. 

Just take a look at the season four finale of The Walking Dead. On March 30, 2014, 15.7 million people showed up in real-time, making it one of the highest rated episodes of a television show ever to air on a cable channel. People didn’t want to have to avoid spoilers on Facebook and Twitter; they wanted to be there when Rick went Hannibal Lecter on Joe’s throat, not hear someone else say, “You didn’t see it?!” By the way, if I just spoiled something for you, I’m sorry, but you should have been there.

Does this mean that every network needs to invent and dole out some meaningless awards in the hopes that viewers will gather ‘round for the shared experience? Definitely not. But it does mean they need to think carefully about the must-see content they have to offer and make strides to communicate the moments when crowd viewing is essential. It means that more focus, and potentially funding, should be funneled toward the live events they already have, which are ripe opportunities to tease other offerings and to satisfy partners. 

As Karen Mlynarczyk of L’Oréal USA said about their sponsorship of the upcoming live event Fashion Rocks, “In this day and age, not much is DVR-proof. We are definitely interested in appointment TV, live TV, because it encourages stronger viewer engagement and drives social conversations.”

It also means that we as marketers should all do a better job of keeping an eye out for the counter-trends hiding in the shadows of today’s buzzwords, and remember: Sometimes we can see a brighter future if we study our reflection.

O’Keefe Wright is a researcher and strategist specializing in media and consumer culture. In her role at Open Mind Strategy (www.OpenMindStrategy.com), she consults major brands on positioning, product development and marketing across various demographics. Prior to joining OMS, she led research and planning divisions at MTV and EMI Music and has received recognition for her expertise in the millennial market.