Screen Wipe: Why Social is Killing TV (and What We Should Do)

Originally written in February 2017

To use TV and social to maximum effect requires us to understand that TV and social do not complement one another but compete against one another. Far from being the drivers of a new age of integrated advertising campaign, the salient fact about social media today is that it exists – at its broadest – as a disrupter of TV, sapping the strength of the medium advertisers have historically relied upon to build brands and polarising the way people everywhere consume content. Whilst the effects of these changes will eventually render those traditional brand-building methods less potent, it provides advertisers an opportunity to match popular behaviour like never before.

Historically, the success of TV – today the consensus number one driver of payback and brand growth in both the long- and short-term – has been a subject of debate amongst industry experts. For certain thinkers, it was – and is – about the emotional richness of the platform, the storytelling potential of audio and visual together, in front of a captive audience, improving (at its best) the experience of TV viewing; for others, the medium was primarily about reach, and its effects primarily worked on the sub-conscious, ads working without any active cognition and driving broad association rather than rich, emotive experiences. In truth, TV has been omnipotent because it offers both: the amount of TV viewing that ever achieves meaningful emotional power has always been more limited than stations would admit, with viewers spending much of their time flicking between shows and continuous time spent on individual channels low, but at the extremes – the handful of shows people watch attentively all the way through in huge numbers – the medium does provide an unmatched depth of experience. TV’s basic strength, its scale, has been driven by habitual consumption, a basic need for stimulation and distraction – any distraction – which led to huge amounts of low-engagement, low-quality viewing (what Robert Heath has called “low involvement processing”), with fragments of deeper, more meaningful consumption mixed in. Brands could get prestige storytelling and salience on a single platform without changing mode or method.

Meanwhile, social media, as a vehicle for advertising, has seen its purpose and usage shift since emerging in the early 21st century. Initially seen by advertisers as a new mode of brand communication, built on conversation, the almost universal futility of that approach has since led the platforms themselves to instead position themselves as much closer to traditional channels, offering huge scale alongside the most sophisticated targeting and data options ever seen in broadcast media. The result of this has been an explosion in ad revenue for those social platforms and a steady increase in their effectiveness for brands; as attempts to use the channels for anything other than brief, well-targeted, highly relevant messaging declined, their success went up. As it turns out, social media isn’t particularly reliable for anything other than a simplified version of traditional advertising; the nature of people’s consumption – which remains mostly passive most of the time, and is increasingly fragmented – precludes anything deeper.

However, whilst they have evolved as advertising platforms, both channels have recently seen their consumption evolve, with traditional TV viewing in decline on both sides of the Atlantic and social in rude health. Whilst the decline in TV viewing is played down by many industry commentators, it is clear that the changes in consumption amongst younger audiences are significant not just in a statistical sense but in what they suggest for the platform: in the US, Nielsen is reporting 38% decline in the viewing of traditional TV by 1824s and a 27% decline for 2534s, which is decline large enough to suggest a genuine change in behaviour rather than a statistical blip – especially when the amount of long-form video content consumed away from traditional TV is actually increasing, and becoming more immersive. In parallel, the amount of time we spend on social platforms is increasing in totality but becoming more and more superficial: the mobile-led social platforms of today see less time spent per visit but more overall visits, with people checking in little and often. Social is becoming the default distraction media of multiple generations.

This evolutionary shift, the decline in traditional TV viewing alongside a rise in immersive long-form video content elsewhere and a dramatic increase in the amount of time we spend on superficial social media experiences, is reminiscent of how our consumption of the written word changed after the digitisation of newspapers. Newspapers, as Kevin Delaney, editor-in-chief of Quartz, has previously point out, were traditionally built around a standard size of article, between 500-800 words; as news migrated online, what digital editors saw was a polarisation of consumption, an increase in quick, superficial reading, where articles of only 200 words would be the most the reader wanted, alongside a less frequent but still popular longer form mode of consumption where readers would immerse themselves in thousands of words. This, of course, is eerily reminiscent of TV today, which, like newspapers before it, historically offered content in default blocks of 30 or 60 minutes, strictly rationed as broadcasters chose; the digital liberation of that content has shown that the weekly or daily rations, the infrequent 30 to 60 minute chunks, aren’t what viewers would always choose. Instead, the popularity of more immersive “binge” viewing has increasingly become the default mode of consuming the very best content, and the least attentive viewing, for distraction or information, is increasingly provided by the hyperactive social feed, which benefits from almost infinite supply – more than 1.25bn photos and millions of videos uploaded every day.

What is accelerating this polarisation is two factors: one, the production arms race led by the biggest for prestige content, which elevates viewer expectations out of the reach of individual domestic broadcasters, who have to handle production budgets and often maintain channel portfolios which sprawled out of control at the height of the linear TV boom in the early 2000s; two, that social platforms have benefited from the smartphone boom to intercept even more attention, becoming more habitual, and now, sensing opportunity, are investing in content and sharing technology to improve their own experience. In markets like the US and the UK, where mobile use is high, this means TV viewing statistics are propped up by growth in viewing time from the over 65s in particular, who are least likely to use social platforms or smartphones (and an increasingly large share of ageing western societies).

In many ways, this is the classic disruption model described by Clayton Christensen: an industry sees its incumbent businesses challenged by a cheaper upstart whose product initially appears insufficient for mass adoption, but as its quality improves it shifts the middle of the category with it, altering expectations and forcing the incumbents to focus on an ever shrinking number of affluent, dedicated customers with ever more expensive product to maintain the margins to which they’ve become accustomed. Here, the basic product of TV stations was mass distraction, and the reason social was dismissed as a threat was because it always appeared adjacent at best and amateurish at worst – after all, why would anyone want to look at the out of focus pictures of their uncle when they could be watching slick TV content? Yet as the content on social became more sophisticated – better pictures, moving pictures, professional content, targeted content – and its access more seamless than TV, its ability to distract en masse has crept up on the TV stations. Meanwhile, TV stations have been focused not on fighting for its core business, mass distraction, but competing at the top of the market, throwing more money into the infrequent immersive experiences, funding more drama, bidding unheard of sums for sports, aggregating millions of hours of content to allow those with a weekend or an afternoon to watch an unlimited amount. Consequently, as TV stations focused on the high end and not their basic purpose, they’ve seen a decline in viewing, whilst social has seen an increase in usage even as individual interactions become quicker. The polarisation of TV has started, like newspaper consumption in the digital world, except over two media channels. And whilst sceptics can point to TV viewing remaining high, this ignores that disruption is a process, one starting at the fringes: the erosion of viewing from younger viewers might be dismissed now as a blip, but you could once have said the same thing about digital music, starting amongst a young core before in time reaching a mass market and, with it, destroying the physical music sector in the blink of an eye.

For brands, the implications of this shift are huge: to use the media to their maximum effect, TV and social needs to be seen not as complements but as competitors. TV’s strength – it’s dual provision of scale and infrequent emotional power – is splitting in two, its everyday power to distract gradually being eroded and its incumbent businesses focusing on the high-end. Advertising on TV, predicated on the assumption that a single 30” ad would suit a majority of viewing contexts, should in time be polarised with it: firstly, given the increasingly superficial nature of most mass media and the dominance of social media consumption as the default form of distraction, the majority of advertising exposures should in the coming years reduce in length drastically, taking a lead from the preferred content on social platforms. This means, in the first instance, a focus on low cost imagery, animations and video fragments and an insistence on branding as the first thing you see in every exposure; the 30” format, like the 500-word newspaper article or weekly half hour episode, is likely doomed to become a relic of a past media era. Agencies need to quickly become more comfortable with animation, endorsements and short-form video as the default units of mass communication.

Secondly, as viewers everywhere begin to shift towards truly immersive viewing experiences for the highest quality content, brands are often shut out – either by choice or by technology – and need new ways of leaving the sort of emotional imprint they need to grow. For whilst shorter modes of communication through social can be effective at simple communications task – brand salience, for example, and the reinforcement of key associations or messages – we know that communications must also help win over sceptics and those who have little knowledge of a brand, helping frame core appeal or change minds, which is a much harder cognitive task. However, the decline of TV here might be a blessing, because whilst brands have historically relied upon the power of storytelling to win over captive TV audiences in moments of maximum attention, both psychology and advertising theory shows that this was never particularly effective: us humans, beset by inclinations to trust first impressions, peers and our own experience, are often less persuadable by something as flimsy as communications than our industry presumes; our beliefs, through what scientists call “motivated reasoning”, then shape what we subconsciously choose to see, with the brain ignoring things that contradict established preferences. As such, TV advertising in a classic sense has always been better at reinforcing appeal amongst those favourable or open to your brand and bad at convincing those who think otherwise, yet nonetheless relied upon as a solution for the latter. But as TV weakens, we have an opportunity to change the way we think about winning over new customers, and lean instead on the methods that can more reliably change minds – direct, positive experience of a brand or product (behaviour being easier to change than opinion), advocacy and the combination of design and access that can build more, better first impressions.

This polarisation is made more significant because of the cost implications that surround channel choice. Because of its historic strength, demand for TV airtime remains high in most markets, and with a decreasing supply of available impacts advertisers can buy, particularly for young audiences, the cost of the media remains very high; the cost of social, because it is seen as a digital channel where individual impacts are lower quality and therefore less valuable, is much lower. Yet the high cost of TV ignores the low-quality of most TV viewing experience, and as such most advertisers are paying not for meaningful engagement but moderate engagement at huge scale; the increasing ability of social to provide an equivalent experience, especially with the cost saving, undermines that role and provides advertisers with a cheaper alternative. Furthermore, the use of average time viewed per day – a metric that suggests TV viewing in most markets remains healthy – is a misleading statistic, inflated as it is both by the increase in viewing from older viewers and the increased number of older viewers as a percentage of the population. Brands buying into TV, therefore, are spending ever more money per viewer reached, and seeing a bigger share of investment go towards a narrower portion of the population – whilst they could be saving money by diversifying spend to replicate the sort of low-quality mass engagement most of their TV budget had always delivered.

TV and social are therefore locked in competition, and it is a dynamic that will in the next three years redefine how brands think about advertising as the effects of that disruption become inevitably more pronounced. Social media, offering infinite, on-demand distraction, free of charge, has already begun to erode the core strength of TV – which historically, was built around mass, low-engagement distraction – and provide brands a cheaper, more flexible way of driving brand salience on an ongoing basis. Meanwhile, at the other end of the engagement spectrum, TV’s emotive power – less common than our industry has ever acknowledged but still a potent tool for advertisers – is being eroded by on-demand services offering more immersive, more personal experiences of the content people genuinely care about. This means TV as we know it – unless incumbent players can grapple with this dual threat – is locked into a steady decline.

The solution for brands, therefore – and the optimum use of TV and social – is to prepare for the end of TV as the pre-eminent brand-building channel. Diversify budget and change the standard units of advertising used, aiming to replicate the sort of mass-market, low-engagement experience TV has always offered – so you’re ready for a world in which it doesn’t. Meanwhile, think harder about brand experience, the use of advocacy and of design in order to win over new shoppers, leaning less on TV-led storytelling – always a less powerful tool than we care to admit – as the medium loses its most prestigious consumption moments to advertising-light platforms. In doing so, not only might we be able to achieve brand salience at a lower cost than when relying on TV, but we can also achieve more effective ways of recruiting new shoppers than in years past. Social is slowly killing TV, but the effect – if brands recognise it – could be liberating rather than terrifying.

Charlie Ebdy