Declining kid TV viewership spurs speculation

In the fourth quarter of 1998, kids TV viewership was down 9% from the previous year's fourth quarter, according to Nielsen's Persons Using Television (PUT) ratings-a statistic that's calculated by monitoring 'people-meters' attached to TVs in 5,000 sample homes in the...
February 1, 1999

In the fourth quarter of 1998, kids TV viewership was down 9% from the previous year’s fourth quarter, according to Nielsen’s Persons Using Television (PUT) ratings-a statistic that’s calculated by monitoring ‘people-meters’ attached to TVs in 5,000 sample homes in the U.S. (when the tube is turned on, each viewer in the room presses a personally assigned button on the meter, allowing Neilsen’s number crunchers to record what members of different age demos are watching). The PUT results sparked questions about the future of kids TV, as well as skepticism about exactly what that number really reflects.

As programmers devise ways to stem the erosion in the kids market, cable and broadcast TV executives express varying degrees of alarm at the 9% figure. ‘It’s just a fourth quarter phenomenon,’ argues Nickelodeon’s VP and general manager Cyma Zarghami. ‘Based on my instincts, I think it’s going to come back.’ Nickelodeon asserted its corporate health in 1998 by putting five new animated series into production for launch in fall of 1999, investing hundreds of millions of dollars (US).

Like Zarghami, few cable programmers are likely to panic over the PUT findings, as cable saw widespread ratings growth this fourth quarter over last. Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau’s (CAB) analysis of Nielsen data shows that basic cable’s fourth quarter numbers hit record highs in 1998. However, the four major broadcast networks-ABC, NBC, Fox and CBS-experienced audience erosion in all categories, so the drop in kids was seen as one indicator of an overall decline.

Indeed, Nielsen’s overall ratings for kids blocks among kids ages two to 11 for fourth quarter 1998 versus the same time period in 1997 indicate that the networks declined more than cable; ABC was down 9%, Kids’ WB! was down 23%, CBS was down

14% and Fox Kids was down 19%. Alternatively, Nick only declined 2%, and three channels saw increases. Disney Channel increased by 50% (thanks to a drastic growth in the channel’s subscriber base, which swelled by 44% this year), and Cartoon Network rose 8% (thanks in part to a 17% increase in subscribing homes). Since Fox Family Channel did not target children before this year, its kids viewership rose 300%.

Although kids outlets acknowledge that both Nielsen and PUT ratings indicate a decline in viewership, many point out that these percentages fail to take into account mitigating factors, such as the disparity between kid viewership of children’s shows versus adult fare, which was noted by both Zarghami and Griffin Bacal president Paul Kurnit. While kid viewership of adult TV has dropped, ratings for kids blocks amongst the two to 11 set has held steady, say both Zarghami and Kurnit. ‘The decline in kid viewership of adult TV is consistent with a decrease in adult viewership,’ notes Zarghami. ‘Kids may merely be reflecting what their parents are doing, which is watching less TV.’

Fox Family Worldwide’s Steve Leblang, senior VP of research, says PUT measures a broad demographic (kids ages two to 11); a closer look reveals significant differences among more specific demos. According to Fox Family Worldwide’s research, viewership among six- to 11-year-olds has declined only 3%, while the preschool segment has felt a much steeper drop. ‘There’s a greater decline in usage levels of two- to five-year-olds-that’s down 14%,’ says Leblang, who attributes the drop to an increase in the home video usage. ‘Ninety-seven percent of homes have a VCR, and there seems to be an increased use of tape playback for kids this age.’

Zarghami refers to the findings of ‘Kid’s Beat’ TV usage study from TN Media (December 1998), which conclude that from September to November of last year, there was ‘an increase in kids viewing of kids programs, and [a] simultaneous decline in viewing of non-kids programming.’ The study shows that weekly kid viewership of kids programs during this three-month period totaled 6.62 hours in 1998, up from 5.45 hours per week in 1996. ‘Kid’s Beat’ concludes that the increasing number of TV sets per household, plus the wealth of kids programming on multiple cable networks and in prime time, contribute to kids abandoning adult programs in favor of kids blocks.

While Kurnit agrees that the main area of decline in kid viewership was for adult shows, he points out that over the past year, kids have come to watch about one hour less of television per week. ‘You’ve got to put that in context, however,’ Kurnit notes. ‘TV is still the number one form of kids entertainment, and they’re still watching over 20 hours per week.’

Disney Channel’s senior VP of marketing, Eleo Hensleigh, says some industry alarm over PUT’s fourth quarter findings stems from the fact that this is the first time in recent memory that kids viewership numbers have gone down. In addition, the fourth quarter results are scrutinized more closely than other ratings because Q4 reflects how new fall programs have fared. Shows that drive toy product must perform during the holiday period, says Barbara Thompson, senior VP and marketing director at L.A.’s Foote, Cone & Belding. ‘It’s an important time period.’ However, Thompson holds that agency media directors do not yet have definitive fourth quarter numbers with which to make a thorough analysis of where the declines are and how severe.’

Disney’s own in-house tracking studies explored what straying kid viewers were doing with their time, they found computers to be television’s biggest threat. And a 1998 Nickelodeon On-line Attitude and Usage Study shows that while only 12% of kids are on-line today, that number is expected to increase to 47% by the year 2002.

‘I don’t know that kids themselves would suggest that computers compete with TV,’ Kurnit says, adding that a wide array of factors-even general lifestyle changes among children, such as increased sports involvement-are affecting the decline in TV watching. ‘Kids and teens are also sleeping less, there’s so much for them to do,’ Kurnit says. A University of Michigan study found that kids’ leisure time has dropped from 40% per day in 1981 to 30% in 1997.

Kidvid, which also occupies the tube, may pose more of a threat than Internet usage because many kids with computer and Internet access watch TV while they’re logged on. ‘Kids are multi-tasking,’ stresses Kurnit, and Zarghami adds that, ‘kids ages five to 11 have a great capacity to do more than one thing at a time.’ Leblang’s findings confirm that as many as one-third of all kids watching TV are occupied simultaneously by other tasks (telephone, computer, etc.).

Zarghami notes that it will be difficult to gauge the exact threat of the computer until more detailed leisure time studies with kids have been conducted. To that end, Nick conducts an on-line research program with 150 kids nationwide, gathering information concerning what this techno-savvy group is doing with their time.

Programmers threatened by the encroachment of the computer have been quick to search for ways to incorporate cyberelements in their programming. For example, Disney Channel’s Zoog Disney block, airing weekends from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., aims to attract kids by incorporating a strong Web site component, which can be visited simultaneously while viewing the block.

Nickelodeon’s short-format program Natalie’s Backseat Adventure, after introducing kids to the character and her family’s cross-country move on-air, allowed kids to log onto the Net and track her journey across several states, as well as ‘talk’ to the character on-line. This ‘pitch and catch’ technique between on-air and on-line allows one medium to ‘throw’ to another, Zarghami says, noting that the program had an unexpectedly high number of on-line hits.

Both Disney Channel and Nickelodeon programmers agree that creating shows with on-line components creates ‘aggregate viewership,’ by encouraging kids to spend more time with the network-a brand-building factor increasingly valued by advertisers who buy into a combination TV/magazine/on-line package at Nickelodeon, says Zarghami.

‘It’s all about the cumulative number of impressions,’ Zarghami notes. ‘A lot of leading advertisers are going to start to move in that direction.’ Hensleigh predicts that a ratings system that takes into account the aggregate time kids spend with a show and its on-line component is not far off.

One tried and true way to combat erosion is to create shows that will break through and generate kid word-of-mouth, which is acknowledged to be one of the most powerful tools in creating a hot kids block.

Breakthrough creative is still perceived as one of the best strategies to win back kid eyeballs. ‘Disney’s One Saturday Morning put Disney back on the [kids TV] map, proving good entertainment will always attract kids,’ Kurnit concludes. Hensleigh concurs: ‘I think the solution is always going to be characters and stories that audiences can relate to.’

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