Debates about the evolution of television and broadcasting, and the place of television in the lives of young people, matter to those in and around the media business – indeed, it is perhaps the fiercest and most topical debate in the industry at the moment. 

Those within this cohort, much sought-after by advertisers, are often at the forefront of new ways of consuming media, so it’s important that their habits and motivations are properly understood.  That’s not always the case, and busy newsrooms can – on occasion – misrepresent (or misunderstand) the latest research.

What follows is an attempt by Decipher to set the record straight, based upon the latest research and thinking available to the UK TV industry. These are the five “facts” that we all need to keep ramming home.

FACT 1 – As a proportion of total average daily video time, live TV accounts for roughly half of UK 16-24s’ video consumption

Recent research from Thinkbox has provided the most up-to-date and revealing window on how 16-24s are spending their video time each day, and how this compares to the population at large. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, while the general population spends on average 4 hours and 20 minutes consuming video each day, 16-24s consume less (3 hours and 30 minutes on average). Total UK video consumption

Some of this is the obvious TV shows.

For example, 4.6m (69%) of 16-24s watched the most recent series of The X Factor (2014) and over 4m (62%) of 16-24s watched the most recent series of Britain’s Got Talent (2015). 

But some of this is still traditional, less obviously ‘youth’ orientated – for instance over 1m 16-24s tune in to watch Coronation Street (a popular UK soap opera) every week.

It is true that live channel viewing amongst 16-24s is less that the general population.  But this has always been the case.

Whereas 67% of the general population’s average video time per day is directed towards live TV, 49% of 16-24s’ average video time each day is towards live TV. 

However, when adding in playback TV (i.e. PVR’d content – 9%) and broadcaster VOD (7%), the proportion of television-related activity among 16-24s still rises to 65% of their total average video time per day – far outweighing YouTube (7%), online “adult” video (7%), and subscription VOD (4%).

When set in the context of 16-24s watching 70% of their video via the TV set, and television itself reaching 87% of 16-24s each and every week, TV remains a substantial, indeed the biggest slice, of the video pie, both for the 16-24s and for the general population at large and for 16-24s the video watching pie is big and continues to grow.

FACT 2 – Watching broadcast television, as a claimed monthly activity, has remained unchanged amongst 16-24s over the last twelve months in the UK

According to Decipher’s Mediabug research, over the last two waves – or twelve months – watching broadcast TV has remain unchanged among 16-24s, as a claimed monthly activity, with 86% tuning in at least once monthly. 

This is admittedly lower than the 25-34s (89%), the 35-44s (88%), the 45-54s (92%), and those aged 55+ (88%). 

That said, we aren’t seeing among 16-24s the flight from broadcast television, and the consumption of television content, that’s being reported in the press

Small, subtle differences in behaviour (see below), yes, but across all age groups live broadcast remains the most frequently used way to consume television content.

FACT 3 – There are subtle differences in how 16-24s consume non-live forms of television content, relative to other age groups

Another revealing insight coming out of our Mediabug research is in how 16-24s consume non-live television content. 

Again as a claimed monthly activity, both the 16-24s (79%) and 25-34s (74%) prefer use of online catch-up services (for example, the online versions of BBC iPlayer and All4) to recorded (PVR’d) television, preferred by the older age groups. 

PVR use is most frequent among 25-34s.  Use of catch-up TV VOD services (for example, the catch-up provided via platform set-top boxes by the BBC and ITV), is actually a more frequent activity among 25-34s (52%) and 35-44s (51%) than it is among 16-24s (49%). 

Though there have been small shifts in the associated percentages, this hierarchy of behaviours has remain unchanged over the last twelve months.

UK VoD users Decipher Mediabug

FACT 4 – There are important social and cultural factors at work that determine how much television and video 16-24s consume, and how and why they consume it

Returning to Thinkbox’s recent research, the body’s work with Platypus Research recently shed important light on often overlooked, interlinked social and cultural factors which shape and influence 16-24s’ television and wider video consumption.

The first is “time and space”. 

14-24s have more free time than the rest of the population, and so have a broader spectrum of video-viewing – ranging from highly immersive viewing (for example, television drama) to boredom-busting.  Television plays an important role across the piece, as do SVOD services such as Netflix for some. 

Online video services such as YouTube are considered closer to the “boredom-busting” end of the spectrum than truly “immersive viewing”. 

Notably, this age group is often constrained in terms of access and control to the main television screen (either at home with parents, or with friends/siblings in shared accommodation), explaining why 14-24s are more likely to watch video on devices such as tablets and smartphones.

The second is “identity”. 

The period between 14 and 24 years of age is a formative one in terms of identity, and those within this bracket are keen to connect with people of a similar age (to whom they can relate, and from whom they can take guidance). The emergence of vlogging has, to some degree, helped to satisfy this need. 

Short-form video content serves a desire to learn among this age group well, but so too does television – at a more aspirational and directional level.  One anecdotal example from the research was the ability of Channel 4’s One Born Every Minute to drive applications for midwifery courses.

The third and final factor is “social maintenance”.  Television (still) plays a very important role in maintaining and enhancing physical social maintenance, bringing friends and families together, and allowing people to find points of commonality.  Indeed, ITV’s Primal Screen study found that 80% of 16-24s viewed television as the number one medium for bringing families together.

Virtual social maintenance, a newer phenomenon accelerated by the rise of social media, sees many 14-24s seek to be active in the virtual world to maintain the persona they want to portray. Short-form video plays an important role here, as it is “traded” and shared (almost as currency) between friends.  So too is television important in this respect. 

Social media allows for 14-24s to virtually share the experience of watching a favourite television programme as a form of social “badging” and self-expression.  

The effect of this, when viewed in the context of a series like ITV’s The X Factor (the most recent series of which was viewed by 4.6m, or 69%, of 16-24s), is considerable, along with the often overlooked 1m weekly viewers aged 16-24s watching Coronation Street.

X Factor 2014 judges

FACT 5 – The UK and the US markets are fundamentally different. There is no easy “read across” between the two

On our blog back in February, our own Nigel Walley made a robust case for how the UK and US television markets differ, and why this matters. 

It is unwise, yet all too easy and all too tempting, for commentators to say with certainty that because 16-24s in the United States consume television or video more widely in a particular way that this will definitely become a reality in the UK. 

Evidence of this, for better or (most likely) for worse, surrounds us.  One unfortunate, if comically titled, article in Friday’s Times (“iPad Generation Told to Watch TV as Punishment”) casually suggested that, though the survey under discussion was conducted among parents in the United States, “British families are likely to be heading in a similar direction”.

Unfortunately, perhaps predictably, even in the writing of this piece, the industry’s more wayward talking heads have been having their say, even despite the evidence provided above to the contrary (see “Death of the TV: Why We’re All Streaming Now” from Friday’s Times). 

What can’t be denied in all of this is that the 16-24s, and those just a few years younger, present the television industry with searching immediate and longer-term questions, even if the current reality is far less stark – dare I say it, more positive – than many doomsayers make out. 

Young viewers have historically always been a difficult crowd for television to please and to retain, and cementing both satisfaction and loyalty in this ever more converging environment of alternative services, alternative devices, and alternative distribution methods will be of the utmost importance. 

The question of whether newer, evolving consumption habits will “stick” as our 16-24s move through their adult lives (and to what degree) remains one of television’s great unanswered questions. 

Until we find out, the least we can do for both the industry and for ourselves is choose our words a little more carefully.

Matt Walters is a Senior Consultant at Decipher, a media consultancy specialising in the consumer and commercial implications of emerging media technologies.  The above article is a modified version of the original, which can be found here

Since it was founded in 1998, Decipher has worked on projects for a wide range of clients including ITV, the BBC, Sky, UKTV, Sony and Viacom. 

Before joining Decipher in October 2014, Matt spent four years at Ofcom – the UK’s communications regulator – where in his most recent role he specialised in video-on-demand and wider forms of online content.  You can follow him on Twitter @matthew_walters


Main image courtesy of Kevin Simpson via Flickr used under a Creative Commons license.