In our increasingly digital world, linear TV and news viewership has been falling for some time. This trend is particularly steep among 16-34 year olds; in fact many millennials (c.25-34) feel streaming services are better value than pay-TV, and would even ditch their pay-TV service altogether to ‘build their own bundle’ with a combination of SVOD.

It is unsurprising that both TV and SVOD viewing have soared over the past few months, but there are some interesting changes that have taken place among young viewers in particular:

  • Resurgence in linear TV 67% of young viewers are watching more linear channels compared to this time last year.
  • Mainstream over youth-centric channels – Perhaps surprisingly, it seems young people haven’t been turning to channels targeted to their demographic, such as E4 and ITV2, who both reported a fall in viewing vs. this time last year. This is a particular fall for E4, who had the youngest audience profile back in 2018.   
  • Greater trust in PSB news coverage Two thirds of 16-34 year olds are relying on PSBs for news and information, and that they’re trusted more than other providers; 62% now value information from PSBs more than before lockdown. 
  • Appetite for light, nostalgic content – comedy, old classics and game shows have been particularly popular among young viewers during lockdown.

Today, we explore what’s been driving these changes, and crucially, considerations for broadcasters now that lockdown is easing, and behaviours risk shifting back to pre-lockdown patterns.

  1. A trusted source

As well as linear TV adding some much needed structure to people’s day, this increase in linear viewing among young people has been bolstered by news content. In a time when everything changes so quickly, social media and unregulated online sources can spread dangerous rumours and contribute to widespread anxiety. After a near abandonment of TV news sources (last year, 2 mins per day was the average for 16-24s), 82% of 16-34 year olds now trust it the most for information about the virus, feeling safe in the knowledge that they have regulations and reporting guidelines to adhere to. Channel 4’s evening news programme drew in double the amount of this media-savvy group during the first week of lockdown, compared to the same calendar week in 2019 (with many also tuning in to their factual programming around COVID-19 such as Coronavirus: How To Isolate Yourself).

  • Entertainment and immersion

In addition to trustworthy news and COVID content, young viewers have also been seeking some light relief from a heavy world, and therefore, comedy has become a go-to.

A recent study found that the most common types of content sought out on any platform by Gen-Z were funny (63%) and wholesome and feel-good (52%), with light-hearted (41%) and “literally anything that distracts me” (35%) close behind. Again, Channel 4 has performed well in this area: Friday Night Dinner clearly fits the bill as it set a comedy record by achieving a 49% share of young viewers since the start of lockdown, followed closely by Celebrity Bake Off (47%) and Gogglebox (46%). Interestingly, they’ve also been turning to comedy classics, explored in our next point.

With more time on their hands, viewers have also been delving into series and services they can immerse themselves in. Based on our previous research, this is likely driven by focusing on something that isn’t boredom, anxiety or negativity – and ‘getting lost’ in the content. From other research we’ve conducted, it also saves viewers making difficult decisions about ‘what to watch next’, resulting in a quicker and more satisfying TV viewing experience. BBC iPlayer reported over a billion requests since lockdown, with Killing Eve and Normal People the most popular series. It’s also been reported that 56% of millennials have signed up for a new SVOD service, with Netflix and Hulu their most popular choices (this is in the US – we’ll have to wait for our next round of ScreenThink to find out the picture in the UK!).

  • A communal experience

With families, couples and housemates spending more time together than they would have thought possible, it perhaps seems logical that co-viewing has increased; however in her contribution to an RTS panel, Rachel Shaw of the BBC explains how it increased more than anticipated. Co-viewing was “the preserve of big sporting events and entertainment show finales” but has extended to content from The Repair Shop to Normal People. It has increased by 37% (compared with a rise of just 15% for solo viewing).

Regularly watching TV as a group has inevitably meant some ‘compromise viewing’ has become necessary to find a programme that suits most watching, and the “driver for video choices has changed from ‘me’ to ‘we’”. Classics such as The Vicar of Dibley, Only Fools and Horses and Gavin and Stacey reached UKTV’s top 10 linear shows for 16-34s; yes, some of this might not always be the young person’s top choice, but the fact that they’re willing to watch other type of content with their family or friends shows the power and draw of shared viewing. It’s a mix of pleasure and comfort, as well as a trip down nostalgia lane when it comes to comedy.

Given that BARB reports over 50% of 16-34s TV time is ‘unidentified’ (watching content from services like Netflix or YouTube, or gaming), perhaps we can surmise that young people have been spending their TV time in two buckets: co-viewing with family or friends on mainstream channels and VOD services (at the expense of youth-oriented channels), or on SVOD – with or without family. While Gen Z have been unable to socialise with friends in person, they’ve been turning to apps like Netflix Party and House Party to watch shows together and share their thoughts digitally.

What’s next?

With lockdown easing, we are seeing aspects of our lives return to something that resembles ‘normal’, but will young people’s viewing habits follow suit? The big questions circulating around broadcasters are how they can maintain this swell in linear viewing among younger viewers, and maintain their trusted status. But early indications already suggest that the shifts in behaviour are starting to reverse. To end our mailer, we take a moment to think about considerations for broadcasters moving forward to help retain youth engagement:

  1. Much of our previous work has highlighted the need for content to take an authentic view of being a young person in Britain today; as Shaw says herself, “it’s beholden on us to… offer them content that is meaningful to them”. Normal People and I May Destroy You are good examples of this. The former shows the anguish and highs of navigating young love and coming of age, while experiencing mental health issues, and the latter explores the issue of consent, at the same time as the intersection between gender, race and living in London. Broadcasters need more of this going forwards.
  2. Another route to reaching and resonating with audiences is ‘of the moment’ online content to fit around the long-form offer. This has proved relatively successful for E4, who have released a new range of content created in lockdown such as Remote Comedy from The Paddock, featuring comedians performing from their homes (reaching 30k+ viewers on its top performing videos), and Grime Therapy, starring Grime artists talking about their mental health (yet to be released). Both series of short episodes running across social media and YouTube channels, designed to reach young people where they spend a significant amount of their time.
  3. The combination of linear and VOD to support the release of content can be a powerful one. BBC iPlayer ‘day 1 drops’ have doubled, and when partnered with a linear schedule, can result in big successes (for example, Normal People gave BBC Three its best online week ever). This could be a compelling argument for bringing back BBC Three as a channel, especially as it gives young people the option to binge pre or post TX.
  4. It’s worth noting that it’s not sustainable for audiences to sign up to more and more SVOD services; there’s only so much one can spend – and this is especially the case for young people. In the long-term there is hope for PSBs to retain a share of viewing, especially given that 90% of young people agree it’s important we have free TV service.