Throughout the world, we’re in the holiday season, from Christmas to Winter Solstice and Chinese New Year, a period brimming with opportunities for families to gather. Through the years, for many, television has become a vital part of that experience. In the UK, seven of the 20 most watched television programmes were shown in December and China’s Spring Festival, shown across New Year is the most watched piece of television in the world.
In recent years, however, the growth of services like Netflix and Amazon Prime have led many to speculate that the end of the big televisual moment, watched by millions, is coming. To an extent, they have a point. The most watched piece of regular programming ever was the final episode of M*A*S*H, screened in 1983 to 50.4 million viewers in the USA. Within the top 20 most watched broadcasts of regularly scheduled shows, the most recent is Seinfeld’s final episode, shown in 1998. In the UK, even bumper Christmas audiences haven’t kept viewing numbers high – the latest in the UK’s top 20 most viewed shows was in 2001, and that was revival of Only Fools & Horses, a much loved 1980s TV show.
No doubt the rise of over-the-top viewing has contributed to shrinking singular audiences, time shifted viewing grew from an average of 17 minutes per day in 2010 to 27 minutes a day in 2015 and continues to grow. However, viewing figures on OTT programmes don’t replace those once seen on television. Where Seinfeld finished with 40 million viewers on a single night, Netflix’ 2016 hit Stranger Things gained just 14 million viewers across its first 35 days.
The reality is that it isn’t OTT that’s changing viewing habits but choice. Holiday viewing is no longer refined to just a couple of channels on a single television screen, but to a huge range of options to be watched anywhere, at any time. That means that holiday viewing is no longer ‘whatever is on’ but as personalised as any other part of the holidays. In the UK, Ofcom research suggests that 70% of UK adults (31m) will watch TV using free-to-air OTT services this December, while 72% of people in Hong Kong and 61% of Singaporeans use more than one digital device at one time. The holidays won’t see fewer people switching on, they simply won’t be doing so in one place or time. They’ll be scattered across different services from free-to-air to Netflix, and across different platforms from the family television to their mobile as they travel between gatherings. It won’t just be on demand, live events are flourishing at any time of year – The top three most viewed programmes ever are the last three Super Bowls, with 2015 peaking at 115 million viewers. The Royal Wedding in 2011 hit 24 million in the UK and about 300 million worldwide. The Spring Festival Gala continues to grow as a live viewing experience on New Year’s Eve from 638 million viewers in 2001 to 705 million in 2014. All evidence suggests that it will, once again, be the world’s most watched event in 2016.
What on the face of it looks like a ratings challenge for broadcasters and TV providers is in fact a technical one. Huge numbers of people will still tune into watch holiday TV but providers are moving from delivering that programming through one method; broadcast TV, to delivering live and on demand to mobiles, TVs and laptops across fixed networks and mobile, in HD, 4K and HDR. They have a complicated technological task in providing the same high quality experience to viewers, however and whatever the viewer wants to watch. The technology and delivery methods they would once have relied on are evolving to meet the needs that this complexity creates. Broadcasters and payTV providers in the most developed TV markets long moved away from satellite or cable only delivery methods to include IP, but as more endpoints and viewing types appear, they are growing their dependency on the internet as a delivery method and continue to develop increasingly sophisticated infrastructure to handle this demand. This runs from new connection points around the world to protected fibre paths. These infrastructure level innovations are rapidly becoming the key tools for providers to stay ahead of the competition and ensure viewers receive the quality of experience they’ve come to expect, even as their demands become ever more complex. No matter the content you have consumers won’t wait for it to load if they can get something quicker elsewhere. A fact even sharper during the holidays when more original content appears than at any other time of year. 2013 data from OSN showed that average viewing hours per day rise from 3.1 to 5 during Ramadan in the Middle East and North Africa but 38 per cent prefer to watch on their phones at their own leisure. If a provider’s infrastructure can’t serve the right experience on mobile, a huge bump is viewership is lost.
2017/2018 holiday period won’t see a let up in the number of people settling down for holiday viewing, but it will see more new devices and likely even new ways to view. That makes the challenge for providers to not just create the content that people want to watch but ensure they have the infrastructure to support that content. With each new holiday, this needs becomes ever more of a challenge and requirement to keep broadcasters competitive.
How do you watch television over the festive period? Let us know in the comments below.