The battle for the passive viewer

Rob Gallagher/Ovum
21 Sep 2015

For all Netflix’s progress, some in the media industry remain confident that its on-demand approach will never fully satisfy those human needs that drive viewers to watch broadcast TV. They may have a point, but they should still be aware that more radical forms of video that appeal to similar desires could pose a parallel threat.

Netflix has – and will continue to have – a significant impact on linear viewing. You only have to look at how it has popularized so-called “binge-viewing” – watching episode after episode of a TV series in a single sitting – to understand that.

But while the service is extremely effective at keeping people watching, getting people to start watching in the first place remains a challenge. Yes, viewing sessions are long, but various data suggests that if people can’t find something to watch within five minutes of logging on, they log off.

This is partly why some media executives remain confident about broadcast TV’s staying power. Its always-on array of channels appeals to people in those moments when they “just want something – anything – to watch”, the argument runs. In other words, they don’t want to make choices in the ways that Netflix’s on-demand service forces them to.

It’s no wonder, then, that Netflix invests a reported in $150 million on improving content discovery and recommendation every year. But, despite the advances it has made, it still seems some way off providing stress-free viewing that broadcast TV offers. The threat instead could come more from video services that offer a more passive experience.

Take YouTube. Earlier this year, the Google-owned company revealed that viewing sessions on mobile phones had reached an average of 40 minutes. Aside from increases in the quality and duration of individual videos, it’s probably also due to features which appeal to passive viewing.

These include subscriptions to numerous channels, autoplaying recommended videos one after another, and the ability to browse the service while continuing to watch a video in the corner of your screen.

YouTube is not alone. Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat have all built a feature into their services which blurs the boundaries between on-demand and passive viewing: autoplay. The power of this feature is clear in the rapid rise of Facebook and Snapchat to challenge YouTube in terms of videos, within years.

Of course, daily viewing times for YouTube and the social media sites are still way below the hours people watch traditional TV and Netflix for (though it would be interesting to see what YouTube viewing times are like on smart TVs).

But if broadcast TV’s “secret weapon” is its appeal to a certain kind of viewing, its backers should take this threat as serious in the longer term.

Ultimately, both traditional TV and Internet firms are competing for attention, and the likes of YouTube, Facebook, and Snapchat are getting better at it by the day, especially in the field of video.

Rob Gallagher is director of research and analysis for media and entertainment at Ovum

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