TV viewers are looking at the smartphone, so are audience researchers

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CRE / Council for Research ExcellenceA mobile-TV viewer pays closer attention when viewing video on a smartphone as opposed to a larger device.  This may not surprise you.  What may surprise you is just how much we have been able to learn about the attention the viewer pays to that smartphone.


The Council for Research Excellence (CRE) commissioned a study, with the Boston based research firm Chadwick Martin Bailey, which we called “TV Untethered.”  We sought to learn more about video consumption on mobile devices (smartphones, tablets and computers) – especially relative to how these devices affect and relate to viewing on a TV set.

The CRE’s Media Consumption & Engagement Committee, of which I am now Chair, oversaw the extensive study that was spearheaded by my CRE colleague Joanne Burns, Head of Research for Fox’s 20th Television.

How extensive an effort?  The two-prong study encompassed nearly 6,000 participants and more than 393,000 TV viewing occasions. The initial quantitative phase monitored TV viewing on mobile devices utilizing a custom designed mobile journaling app. The second phase consisted of qualitative research exploring users’ motivations and behaviors via in-home interviews in three geographically and ethnically representative markets – Atlanta, Phoenix and Kansas City.

Among the most interesting findings was that mobile-TV viewers performed unrelated multi-tasking during only 14% of the occasions when they viewed TV programming on smartphones.  This compared to 27% for tablet viewing, 31% for computer (desktop and laptop) viewing and 34% of the television-set viewing occasions, according to the study participants.

At the same time, viewers watching TV content on a smartphone also were more likely to engage in online activities related to that show – such as looking up show information, or posting about the show on social networks.  Such activity occurred during 21% of the television set viewing occasions, 27% for tablet viewing occasions, 31% for computer viewing occasions and 39% of the smartphone viewing occasions.

We also learned just how much mobile viewing actually takes place at home: 82% for both tablets and computers (laptop and PC) and 64% for smartphones.

Why?  Convenience and self-curated multi-episode marathons drive mobile viewing; ad avoidance is not a primary motivator.  Forty-nine percent of participants cited “more convenient” as their top reason for viewing video on a mobile device; 13% cited “watch multiple episodes” only 5% cited “fewer ads.”

Among other things, we learned:

  • The majority of viewing occasions are via online subscription services (54% of tablet viewing occasions, 64% of smartphone occasions).  In fact, use of providers such as Netflix and Hulu also account for 49% of computer viewing occasions.  By contrast, 80% of TV-set viewing occurs when programming airs live;
  • Mobile devices let people watch different shows at the same time (e.g., one person watching the television, another watching separate programming on a tablet) which opens the door to a new definition of “co-viewing”;
  • Viewing on mobile devices happens most frequently during overnight (17%) and late fringe (12%) – times of traditionally lower conventional TV HUTs.  The implication is pointing toward growth in overall viewing hours;
  • Mobile TV viewers are often heavy overall TV viewers and are more likely than non-mobile TV viewers to be TV show opinion leaders and to use social media to talk about TV.

Mobile-video consumption remains a small proportion of total television consumption, across demographics.  Still, nearly 41 million Americans today are watching video on mobile devices, according to Nielsen.

More people are watching more professionally produced TV – everywhere – and increasingly on smartphones.  TV audience researchers need to emphasize the need to design future measurement to capture online and in-app viewing.

The full report on the “TV Untethered” study findings can be found (under “New Research”) on the Media Consumption & Engagement Committee page at the CRE website.

— Laura Cowan, Research Director, LIN Media/Chair, Council for Research Excellence’s Media Consumption & Engagement Committee