Media companies should track a new metric: How many people are spending 30 minutes a week with them

Key Points
  • TV ratings are have been dropping for the last decade, particularly for linear non-sports programming
  • Meanwhile, digital services are capturing an increasing amount of our time.
  • If media companies want to be relevant, they should measure how many of their audience spend at least 30 minutes a week with them.
Kathrin Ziegler | Getty Images

We are constantly bombarded with stimuli fighting for our attention. So it's not surprising that traditional media is feeling the incursion of the new media for that attention.

In the last 10 years, Fox's broadcast ratings are down 50% from an average 4.0 rating for its prime-time shows to 2.0 last year. They're not alone.

A decade ago, we didn't have Facebook, Twitter, , Amazon or Google's YouTube fighting for our attention in a meaningful way. These services have siphoned off our attention from traditional broadcast and cable TV.

Yet, ironically, this secular decline in TV ratings make attention more valuable than ever. In 1983, the M*A*S*H series finale attracted an average audience of 105.97 million. Advertisers paid up for that, spending (in today's dollars) the equivalent of $1.9 million for a 30 second ad. February's Super Bowl drew 117 million (including streamers) and was able to charge $5.5 million for the same length of ad.

For any media company (old or new) to increase its value over time, I would argue it needs to know its Weekly Attention Score.

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A weekly attention score would answer what percentage of our total viewers watched us at least a half an hour in the last week? Also: is this number going up or down over time?

Last weekend, I sent out several Twitter polls to my followers to get a sense from them on what captures their weekly attention these days.

Twitter polls are inherently unscientific and these only ad a few hundred people responding, which makes them prone to manipulation or bias. However, I still find them interesting. I have 24,000 followers. They tend to be tech-savvy, wealthy, and mostly in the US (at least according to Twitter's analytics). Therefore, I like polling my followers -- assuming I can devise questions that are more fact-based and less open to manipulation -- as an early-warning measurement of interest level today in this group which might sugest where interest levels will go in a few years in the general public. With all that as a caveat, take these poll results with a grain of salt.

Rather than asking my followers how many hours a week they spend watching traditional linear TV versus streaming services, I instead asked a binary question about if they spent at least 30 minutes a week watching the following services. Here is a snapshot of what I got back in response.

I first started by asking about how much time people spend watching broadcast TV.

I was frankly surprised the numbers were so high, so I added a follow up question about what people were tuning in to broadcast TV for when they were?

No wonder these networks are spending so much on live sports rights. According to these results, the biggest reason why these networks are still capturing our weekly attention is sports. Interestingly, the second most popular reason is not the primetime show line-up, but the national news. I guess it's not a coincidence that Shonda Rhimes just decamped to Netflix.

I next asked about attention for the grand-daddy of US Pay TV:

I'm not sure if these results were inflated by the recently completed 7th season of Game of Thrones. I was actually surprised that HBO did as well as it did. Maybe my followers are big fans of Ballers. Regardless, these results are good news for HBO CEO Richard Plepler and HBO's new owner AT&T.

I then turned to interest in basic cable channels.

Taken together, these last 3 questions demonstrate that basic cable channels are not deriving as much weekly interest as the big networks. That's not surprising. However, we know that the biggest reason why people are tuning in to those networks are sports, and ESPN happens to be the most popular cable channel in this grouping.

TNT is the second most valuable cable channel in terms of what cable and satellite companies pay to the network in affiliate fees (after ESPN), yet there is a enormous gulf in weekly interest in these results between ESPN and TNT. It would be interesting to know how TNT's weekly interest rises or falls during NBA season. It could be yet another data point on the importance of sports.

To me, this suggests most cable and satellite companies will continue to pay up for ESPN. Even if the gap between ESPN's per subscriber affiliate fees and TNT's seems high at first glance, look at the difference between weekly attention according to these results. For the cable/satellite providers, the weekly attention ESPN brings to their service is likely well worth it.

And now for some of the streamers.

If my followers are the leading edge of what's to come, linear TV's days are numbered. Just look at how much more my followers are spending on weekly consumption of Netflix and YouTube compared to traditional TV "channels." It should only continue to go up.

So some conclusions of these unscientific Twitter poll results:

  • Live sports and news continue to grab attention.
  • ESPN should be able to continue to attract affiliate and ad revenues even if ratings decline because of the importance to cable/satellite companies as well as advertisers of the large audiences ESPN can attract.
  • The days of prime time TV dramas and comedy shows are probably numbered. All dramas are moving to on-demand streaming rather than appointment viewing.
  • If sports ever did migrate away from the big networks to the class of new digital players like Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon, the networks would be in trouble.
  • Mobile and streaming services like Netflix and Youtube will continue to ride the wave of increasing attention.
  • Specialty channels like HGTV have done well to carve out a unique little niche for themselves.
  • HBO has clearly broken through to command a regular weekly audience.

Any media company needs to understand its Weekly Attention Score and whether it's trending in the right direction. If you continue to offer something that people want to consume every week, you offer enormous value in this world where everyone is drinking from the firehose of data.

Commentary by Eric Jackson, sign up for Eric's monthly Tech & Media Email. You can follow Eric on Twitter @ericjackson .

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