Lies, damned lies and statistics about TV consumption

While in no way wishing to accuse the mainstream press of being ‘the enemy of the people’ (I’ll leave that to others more powerful than me), there is a tendency of some parts of the media to jump to conclusions about the future of broadcasting based on dubious statistics.

Only last week, the usually reliable Wall Street Journal  published the following headline…

‘YouTube Tops 1 Billion Hours of Video a Day, on Pace to Eclipse TV’

The first part of this headline comes directly from YouTube and I have no reason to dispute it.

However, the second half I struggle with. The article said that in the US around 1 billion hours of broadcast TV content are consumed every day (according to Nielsen), which does seem to indicate that maybe YouTube is about to eclipse TV.

Except the YouTube stat is for global consumption – not just in the US. YouTube didn’t publish its consumption data for the US, but evidence in the UK suggests that YouTube currently represents 4.4 per cent of all video consumption (across TVs and mobile devices). So still some way from eclipsing mainstream TV consumption.

This is an example of something I’ve observed increasingly in recent months: headline-writers picking a statistic about online video consumption and using this as a clear example of the ‘death of broadcast TV’.

There is a textbook approach to how to write these headlines, which is as follows:

–    Pick one of the fashionable new providers of online video (e.g. YouTube, Netflix)
–    Find a stat that ideally involves billions of something or other (e.g. 1 billion hours of
YouTube consumption)
–    Conclude that this must mean TV is dead

A similar technique was used in a Times  article a few months ago which claimed…

‘Streaming upstarts steal traditional television’s crown. Britain is turning into a digital couch potato economy, with four in five of us subscribing to at least one streaming service.’

You can see that the approach is once again familiar: name new upstarts, reveal stat, conclude TV dead.

Well like the WSJ  article, this would have been revolutionary stuff, except it isn’t true.

The article was based on a piece of research from YouGov in conjunction with a company that is in the business of subscription management. The 4 in 5 number was the number of people subscribing to a service of some kind – not just to streaming services (where the relevant stat is about 2 in 5 of us). I could continue with many other examples of this approach to misleading conclusions from random data in the mainstream media, but I hope the point is by now well made.

And before anyone says it, I’m not in denial about the impact of technology on TV. Broadcasting is changing. More people are watching TV online than they were five years ago. Netflix, Amazon and YouTube are all growing as they expand their global reach. These trends are particularly true when you focus on younger audiences.

All of these are facts and I don’t seek to challenge them. What I do challenge is that this is ‘a revolution’, that broadcast TV is ‘dead’, and that this kind of misleading journalism is particularly helpful to inform important policy debates about the future of TV.

What I would like to argue for is a more informed, evidence-based approach to how television is changing globally and particularly here in the United Kingdom. Ill-informed strategic, commercial or policy decisions based on poor data are in nobody’s interests, least of all the viewer.

… read on at

Originally posted by Jonathan Thompson at Digital UK
7th March 2017