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December 15, 2019

Seasonal Variations in TV Viewing

One of the most common questions we are asked is if we have any research on seasonal variations in TV viewing. While this was once a topic we covered annually, the report was last published in TV Dimensions 2016, and is reprinted below. As we reported at the time, a uniform seasonal viewing pattern was firmly in place by the mid-2010s; since then the overwhelming popularity of services like Netflix, Hulu and others, with their year-round series launches, plus the tendency of many (linear) TV programs to extend their seasons by going on hiatus periods, have only reinforced this effect.

During TV’s first 20 years, it was evident that there were extreme differences in viewing levels on a seasonal basis, especially (but not exclusively) in primetime. Audiences were typically 40-50% higher during the cold weather months of January and February than in the peak warm weather months of July and August. In contrast, fall and spring viewing rates were much closer to the overall 12-month norms.

A number of factors, aside from weather conditions, contributed to such sharp seasonal fluctuations. First and foremost was the long standing practice of airing first-run entertainment fare in the fall-spring season, followed by reruns in June, July and August. The advent of “second” and “third” seasons in the late-1960s and 1970s began to alter this situation, as new programs were increasingly being launched not just in mid-September, but almost any time, including the summer. There was also a reduction in first-run episodes ordered by the networks for their primetime lineups. In TV’s early days, program sponsors were accustomed to paying for 39 original episodes of a series, then reusing 13 of them to amortize their total yearly production costs. When the networks took control of program content, these ratios began to change. First-run episode orders dropped from 39 to 36, then 32 and 26, while reruns began to appear with much greater frequency during the “regular” fall-spring season. With new shows popping up at all times of year and reruns becoming more common in the winter, the result was that TV’s appeal evened out, with the summer months gaining at the expense of the cold weather periods.

Finally, the abundance of program content available in all dayparts, thanks mainly to cable, has tended to create a more level playing field, giving viewers increased incentives to watch TV on warm weather days. The accompanying table shows how overall TV set usage varied by quarter, from the late-1950s to the mid-2000s. As can be seen, the impressive highs and lows are now gone, and a more uniform pattern prevails.

TV Ads Work…Even When They Don’t

Lest there be any doubt that TV ads still reach consumers, the recent Peloton “controversy” tells us that some ads still cut through the clutter. Unfortunately, in the case of the Peloton ad, the response was certainly not what they hoped; even those who might say that there’s no such thing as bad publicity couldn’t turn a blind eye to Peloton’s plunging stock values in the wake of the ad debacle. Although the drop was initially due to Wall Street analysts’ concerns over Peloton’s business model, the negative response to its infamous ad certainly contributed to the loss. Clearly, ads have power, even when it’s a disaster.

Turning to a broader view, in its 1st quarter 2019 report, TVision Insights, which maintains an ongoing panel of 5,000 homes to measure eyes-on-screen attentiveness, released a ranking of the top primetime commercials in terms of their average second eyes-on-screen ratios relative to the normal performance of other ads in the same breaks. The accompanying table summarizes the findings; clearly ads can break through and reach consumers. All the better when it’s not because people hate your ad.


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