The whole world isn’t watching


It feels almost trivial to talk about how much TV white North Americans watch versus minority groups. When we have hashtags like #blacklivesmatter in the US, and nearly 1,200 “murdered and missing” aboriginal women in Canada, who’s watching what may seem unimportant.

We know that attitudes around race are largely shaped by the media, and coverage of racial issues by the news media are the key (and sometimes the only) source of information for millions of North Americans. In 2015, the extent to which any medium becomes even more of an echo chamber or filter bubble is important: for society, for educators, for regulators, and for public policy.

In the US, all Americans over the age of two watched 5.5 hours of live or time shifted traditional TV per day in Q4 2014, according to Nielsen. The comparable figure for Black Americans was 7.3 hours, or 33% higher. The number for Hispanic Americans was 4.4 hours, or 20% less than the population as a whole. And the figure for Asian Americans was 3.3 daily hours, or 40% lower, and 55% lower than Black Americans.

Nielsen by race

Race is a breathtakingly sensitive subject, and very few people write about the figures above. But Nielsen is doing a real public service by publishing these figures: I can’t find racial demographics for TV viewing for any other country in the world!

Including Canada. But I do have some data on TV habits by language, from BBM Canada. Did you know that all French Canadian over the age of 18 watched 4.7 hours of live plus time shifted TV per day, compared to 3.9 hours per day for English Canadians, or 20% more in 2012/13 broadcast year? And if I use the latest numbers, my own guesstimate is that the gap has widened for the 2014/15 measurement period, and French Canadians are now over 22% ahead.

Canada TV Viewing English French

It would surprise me if there weren’t similar viewing differences by race in Canada as there are by language…or maybe even wider disparities? The reason I mention this is the decision on Friday by Rogers Media to close down a number of Asian news (and other) broadcasts on their Omni family of stations.

Although not a racial divide, younger Americans are also watching less TV than average: 18-24 year olds watched 42% less live or time shifted TV than all viewers 2+ in 2014.

If I put this all together, I get the following conclusions/questions:

  1. Not everybody watches the same amount of TV: some races, linguistic groups or age groups watch more or less.
  2. Broadcasters are making programming decisions based on those audience figures, as you would expect.
  3. The gaps that I am seeing (across all of race, language and age) are not stable, but are getting wider. In 2011 Asian Americans watched 50% less TV than Black Americans; it is now 55% less. English Canadians watched 7% less TV than French Canadians in 2004/5; it is now 22% less. And American 18-24 year olds watched 27% less TV in 2011; it is now 42% less.
  4. This is not bad for the TV industry. Although there are audience shifts, total viewing hours are pretty stable. The ability for advertisers to reach large and desirable audiences remains high. In fact, because TV is increasingly shifting towards smaller bases that watch more, it is becoming constantly more targeted, which is a good thing.
  5. But it does mean that the era of TV as a “big tent” which had near ubiquitous reach across all ages, races and languages is diminished. I am not talking about the usual “everyone watched the final episode of M*A*S*H” argument. In a 500 channel universe, fragmentation is old news. What I am referring to is a change in the ubiquity of the medium itself: to some growing extent, TV is no longer the fire the tribe gathers around to share information and create a common culture.
  6. Are we moving to new world where young people have one less (big) thing in common with older citizens? Where Black Americans watch TV news with one slant on police violence, and Asians, Hispanics, and non-Hispanic White Americans get an entirely different perspective, because of different media consumption habits?
  7. What does this mean for regulators and educators? And also for public sector broadcasters (PSBs)? I can’t fault a private sector company for moving scarce programming dollars to where the audiences are…but do PSBs have a moral obligation to deliberately try to broaden the TV filter bubble?

In 1968, anti-war demonstrators chanted “The whole world is watching” as they were gassed, beaten and arrested. And they weren’t exaggerating: young and old watched the TV news, black and white, Democrat and Republican.

What happens when the whole world isn’t watching any more? Instead, our own “demographically tailored” news medium shows us only what an algorithm determines we’d most like to see?


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