TV’s curse: number wanging and narrative twisting

TV’s curse: number wanging and narrative twisting

Why does the press keep regurgitating so many spectacularly incorrect figures about TV’s supposed decline? Dominic Mills lurks behind the lazy research to find out.

I don’t ordinarily feel too sorry for the TV industry – top of the media pile and fully equipped with the hubris that befits their status – but sometimes they deserve a little tea and sympathy.

Take last week, for instance, with the release by Thinkbox of its latest set of stats, aiming to put – in an entirely neutral way – some perspective into our viewing habits.

These are the highlights:

– The average viewer in the UK watched a total of 3 hours, 51 minutes of TV a day in 2015, 1% less than 2014, 5% more than 10 years ago

– Average viewer in the UK spends 4 minutes a day watching TV on devices such as tablets and smartphones

– 16-24s watch over twice as much TV on other devices as the average viewer

– TV accounts for 76% of all video consumption in the UK

– YouTube now accounts for 4.4% of video viewing

– SVOD services, including Netflix and Amazon Prime, together account for 4% of video viewing

Now there’s lots to get our teeth into, but the overall picture is one of remarkable resilience of mainstream broadcasting. Sure, there’s a small decline in overall viewing time versus 2014, and YouTube, Amazon Prime and Netflix are all making ground. But it’s slow.

The idea, therefore, that TV is on the wane is patent nonsense.

Yet this is not how the story is reflected by press coverage. The Guardian chose to present it as a triumph for streaming services, describing the popularity of Amazon and Netflix as ‘surging’.

To put this into context, average viewing time of SVOD services per day in 2014 was 5.71 minutes; last year it was 11 minutes per day. Some ‘surge’, eh?

MediaWeek took a similar line, although without showing the same level of giddy excitement.

I think there’s two things going on here. Let’s call the first ‘number wanging’, in honour of Mitchell and Webb’s spoof game show, in which contestants randomly throw meaningless numbers into the air.

Journalists, famously, can’t really cope with numbers and (me included) are so easily bamboozled they have a tendency to pick them at random.

The second, more seditious, is the twisting of the narrative. I don’t think this is done with malice, but the accepted wisdom in the newsroom is that new is good and old is bad. What this means is that advances in new stuff – SVOD, YouTube etc – are over-played and the real story (to my mind, at any rate) – mainstream TV’s almost-iron grip on our viewing habits – is downplayed.

But the prevailing wisdom says that this is dull, and so the story is miscast.

In case anyone thinks I’m taking a holier-than-thou-stance here, let me say that I too have been guilty of twisting the narrative in the past.

But here’s another example from last week, this time about the seemingly inexorable growth of mobile advertising. This is a news story based on a report from eMarketer claiming mobile adspend will top TV adspend this year.

The respective figures, eMarketer claims for 2016, are £4.58bn for mobile, and £4.18bn for TV.

Only they’re spectacularly wrong. Last year, TV adspend was £5.27bn, and this year growth will be around 7%, taking the total to some £5.6bn.

How did they get it so wrong? Well, it’s our old friends number wanging and narrative twisting, plus, if you read the barbed comment from Thinkbox’s Simon Tunstill underneath, an egregious failure “to look at the past before having a stab at the future.” I think this is code for being fuckwit lazy.

…read on at

Originally posted by Dominic Mills at Mediatel Newsline
14th March 2016

Hear also Matt Hill of Thinkbox discussing the complexity of measuring viewing behaviour: asiCast 23