October 18, 2016

When They Go Low, We Watch Cat GIFs

Relax, this is not going to be a political post. We here at TDG do write about the media, however, and ignoring the current campaign seems to me like passengers on the Titanic trying to avoid talking about the iceberg. Rather than talking about the candidates, however, I’m intrigued by the effect on video viewing. I hear two different, and seemingly contradictory, views on this. The first is that viewers are watching the news to the exclusion of all else. The second is that viewers are tuning out and watching cat GIFs on the Internet.

What’s really going on? Two things.

1. Linear Viewing Is Increasingly Fragile
The TV industry is based on the idea of segments and audiences. Obviously, there is some truth to this. Different people have different interests, and birds of a feather tend to flock together. At the same time, however, individual people watch all kinds of different shows. The same person who watches the news also watches the NFL game. Or not.

The headline so far this TV season has been the big declines in ratings for all of the major NFL timeslots, including Monday night, Thursday night, Sunday night, and even Sunday day games. At the same time, news channels like CNN have seen big ratings gains year-on-year, mainly by covering the election 24/7.

Does one explain the other? Maybe. In terms of individual time slots, I think the argument is actually kind of weak. It’s not like there’s been some breaking election news every Monday night at 8 pm EST that just compels people to turn away from the football game and switch to live breaking news. Just the contrary, election news is available on-demand and around-the-clock in every format and on every possible screen. Even if people are closely following the election, do they really need to do so in prime time while the game is on?

What should be happening is that all the election buzz should cause people to watch more TV, either by watching cable news after (and in addition to) the game or by second-screening during the game itself. After all, in terms of jobs-to-be-done, NFL games and CNN election coverage seem like pretty different ways to pass the time. Sports and politics overlap (Colin Kaepernick, we’re looking at you), but they are not the same thing. There is a reason why ESPN and CNN have happily co-existed all these years, no?

Here’s what’s even more puzzling. Even if viewers had a fixed total bucket of video viewing, and even if they were adding more news coverage to their viewing ‘diet’ as a result of the election, wouldn’t they drop the lowest value shows first? In other words, wouldn’t viewers optimize overall viewing by saving the NFL game and dropping that rerun of Kevin Can Wait? Apparently not – so much for the rational choice theory of TV viewing.

The bottom line: linear TV viewing is a declining pool of viewing hours. Unique events (like the first Presidential Debate) can still pull in a large audience. The bar is very high and getting higher, however, and everything’s competing with everything else. Live sports remain popular, but in no way get an automatic pass. The NFL is not exempt from quantum media. Boring regular season games between bad teams are going to continue to struggle. My prediction is that the NFL will see a small ratings bump post-election, but will remain down significantly for the year. The larger post-election impact will be felt by the cable news stations. Linear ratings are likely to plummet once the campaign circus packs up and leaves town.

2. Broadband Video Viewing Is An All-Weather Phenomenon
Cat GIFs do abound on the Internet. So do political blogs, and fantasy football communities. The point is simple: broadband video seems to thrive no matter what is happening in the world. Hurricanes in Haiti…people watch online. Nothing but Kim Kardashian ‘news’ happening…people watch online. A good chunk of the population is obviously exhausted with the Presidential election, but we are still seeing tons of views on political sites across the left-right spectrum. I see no evidence that Breitbart is hurting for traffic. At the same time, there are undoubtedly plenty of folks who just couldn’t care less. These people may want to steer clear of CNN.com for another few weeks, but there’s plenty of other broadband video content for them to choose from. My guess is that Netflix viewing in October is holding up just fine.

We live in an attention economy. Candidates, grumpy cats, and touchdowns all beckon to us from flickering screens. On November 9, the candidates will be gone (well, one of them anyway), but the battle for video viewing will continue and linear ratings will continue to fall. Those cat GIFs aren’t going anywhere.

Stick with TDG and stay ahead of the curve.

Joel Espelien is a Senior Advisor for TDG and serves as an advisor and Board Member to the video ecosystem and technology companies. He lives near Seattle, WA.

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