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What do you really know about millennial viewing habits?

Millennials are without doubt one of the most highly discussed disruptive force discussed by content owners, broadcasters and platform owners, but just how influential are they? Adrian Pennington reports.

With viewing habits so clearly disruptive to convention, millennials have become the most high-profile and arguably critical target for content owners, pay TV broadcasters and platform owners. Yet if business strategies are to be based on reaching them, a deeper understanding of consumption patterns is surely essential.

“The way we think about consumption is not just based on demographics but on behaviour,” says Gareth Capon, CEO at real-time video platform Grabyo. “It’s not good enough to consider millennials as, on average, watching less linear and more time-shifted. Many older people broadly exhibit that behaviour, perhaps because they are travelling longer to work, while within the millennial category itself there are behavioural segments.”

There’s no strict definition of a millennial although most analysis places their birthdate in the mid-1980s aged under 35. They are also known as Generation Y, with those born from the mid-nineties as Gen Z, the first digital native cohort arriving into a world with internet connectivity and smart devices.

Linear viewing is believed to have decreased from Gen X (over 35s) down, and few would contend Capon’s observation of a “measurable relationship between decreased TV viewing and the younger age group over the past three to four years.” Ironically, Gen Alpha (today’s pre-schoolers), while very young, are more likely to watch linear programming, because they don’t have device control.

Regular viewers of online video are “considerably more likely” to be millennials and much less likely than the average online video viewer to be over 35, according to analyst Ampere.

Ampere’s research shows that 70% of younger millennials (18- to 24-year-olds) are watching online video daily and more than 60% of older millennials do the same.

By contrast, daily engagement with digital native content (made for a distribution platform other than traditional TV) drops off sharply for Gen X “and by the time we get to the Baby Boomers, less than 30% watch online video daily,” says Ampere research director Guy Bisson. “Remember that even 30% is still a significant potential market.”

The overall viewing mix among daily online video viewers is also skewed away from more traditional linear engagement, suggests Ampere. “Part of this is explained by the age balance of daily online video viewers,” says Bisson. “But it’s also clear that a fundamental behavioural shift is contributing, as daily online video viewers watch more non-linear content across all platforms, including traditional pay TV. There’s also a massive skew to the very youngest viewer for viewing on a mobile device (tablet or smartphone).”

If the trend toward digital is accepted, the argument that millennials spend all their time online, or that mobile is the most effective device, is not case closed.

Lobbying body Thinkbox spent a great deal of energy last year fighting Google’s claim that YouTube reaches more 18- to 34-year-olds on mobile than any UK commercial broadcaster. It countered that 94% of video advertising is seen on TV, “in full and with sound” compared to 0.6% on YouTube, a figure rising to just 1.4% among 16- to 24-year-olds.

“Google ignores the fact that 18 to 34s spend vast amounts more time watching TV, and are so deeply engaged with TV they talk and tweet about it,” responded Thinkbox chief executive Lindsey Clay.

BARB supported the view in its TV Player Report, which is part of the ratings agency’s plan to merge online and traditional panel viewing data. Results of the latest TVPR last June pinned weekly online views at 1.18bn minutes, a figure dwarfed by 90 billion minutes of TV consumption.

“Certainly, there’s a growth in viewing to mobile but the overall volume of viewing on mobile is 1.5% and it’s not growing at such a rate that it will suddenly be 5% this year,” asserts CEO Justin Sampson. “We are a long way off from online dominating viewing habits.”

“The lion’s share of revenue, power, market share and influence will remain with linear for the foreseeable future but to say there’s no change is to bury one’s head in the sand."

“In terms of time spent, linear is still crucial regardless of age group,” agrees Bisson. “The lion’s share of revenue, power, market share and influence will remain with linear for the foreseeable future but to say there’s no change is to bury one’s head in the sand. When you examine subgroups, particularly younger millennials and younger Gen Zs, the behaviour change is much starker. It doesn’t mean younger viewers are not watching linear. The point is that this group are also able to be reached on digital platforms which target them in a more refined way.”

Matt Rennie, managing director at Channel 4/ Bauer Media’s music property The Box Plus Network, is at the sharp end of the business, putting into effect decisions based on feedback from its own user group research.

“Our target audience are 16 to 24s who enjoy good content, are mobile first but who are also ambivalent about the screen they watch on. One striking thing that emerged was how context plays an important role in the type of content they watch. If waiting for a bus they will be snacking on content and using social feeds, whereas if they’re on board for a half hour they will consume longer form content.”

Even among digital native platforms there are nuances. In Ampere’s view, the youngest viewers “skew heavily” to Snapchat and Instagram, while slightly older millennials and Gen X favour Facebook Video. “YouTube, by virtue of its very heavy use and reach, as well as the fact that it is already the ‘old man’ of digital native distribution, has a much more even spread across age bands,” reports Bisson.

The implication is that a one-size-fits-all video strategy is not sufficient. That’s because, compared with just two years ago when Youtube was the only online video platform of note, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter now have a strategy for video, whether surfacing video on Snapchat’s Discovery channel or building video into Instagram stories.

“Social media platforms are fulfilling a dual role as a recommendation engine and as a video destination in their own right,” says Rennie.

Of all types of content, live is least impacted and still largely consumed in a scheduled way, partly because of the high value of live, especially sports, properties.

Even here, however, there’s evidence to suggest that linear viewing levels of the Premier League and NFL are declining among millennials.

Simulcast consumption of live sport is, according to Capon, not being tracked properly in figures from Sky, BT or Facebook which “doesn’t always deliver pure demographic viewing numbers”.

Nevertheless, instead of deserting sports, he feels a portion of the youth prefers to engage with instant clips of sport or short highlights.

“Even that debate is too narrow,” he says. “Instead we should be asking how sport competes for attention with the huge array of choice available online. The debate is not whether streaming is cannibalising viewers from broadcast, but whether the likes of the Premier League can command greater attention than someone wearing a Chewbacca mask.”

As an example, new tennis format Tie Break Tens launched online in October, amassing 850,000 viewers on Facebook Live from a starting point of just 2,000 Facebook likes using the social following of Andy Murray and tennis brand Head.

“You couldn’t launch a TV channel from a virtually zero starting position without paid promotion and get 800,000 watching but social gives content owners a new mechanism for viral discovery and person to person discovery,” explains Capon.

Social media has been dubbed the electronic programme guide to the millennial generation. It’s how they find and navigate content which can be linear or on demand, long or short form.

“As broadcasters and content owners launch more on demand and catch up content over IP, the line between linear and nonlinear, streaming and pay TV is increasingly blurred,” says Rennie.

New TV sets unveiled by Samsung and others at CES in January featured smart interfaces allowing viewers to watch video from a wide variety of sources. Hisense’s new range includes an integrated web browser.

“There’s a generation of people who are growing up without this idea of appointment to view and who simply expect to have a different experience with media than the generation before,” says Capon. “They expect every platform to be on demand platform, to click and play and not have to wait and to interact with it.”

Ultimately, though, digital native content is still about embracing the audience.

“Traditional TV has evolved over many decades around people consuming it from a stationary box in a living room,” says Tom Hoffman, global VP of digital & social at Fremantle Media, quoted in Ampere’s research. “The misconception is that we create content for the box, but that is only half the equation. We create content for the behaviour of the box watchers, and there are a lot more boxes, and a lot more behaviours.”