Lost in TV land

I'm watching an episode of The Sopranos right now. And I'm not watching this season of Sex and the City.
Normally, neither of these two things would seem all that remarkable, except for the fact that I've already seen the entirety of the current season of Sex and the City, and the episode of The Sopranos that I'm watching isn't set to air on The Movie Network - or on HBO, the originating network in the States - for a full two weeks.

I’m watching an episode of The Sopranos right now. And I’m not watching this season of Sex and the City.

Normally, neither of these two things would seem all that remarkable, except for the fact that I’ve already seen the entirety of the current season of Sex and the City, and the episode of The Sopranos that I’m watching isn’t set to air on The Movie Network – or on HBO, the originating network in the States – for a full two weeks. And this season’s Sex and the City – the one that is airing on Bravo right now and will end in November – well, I finished that last month.

Ah, you’re saying, how’s that possible? And more to the point, why I am telling you?

Well, like a lot of young people, I have my own version of video on demand: I watch a lot of television on my computer. And the Internet is having as profound an impact on television as it’s having on music: more, to some extent, in that the Internet is increasing young people’s consumption of music (if not paid-for music) but decreasing the amount of television that they watch.

Let’s call a flat-bladed digging implement a flat-bladed digging implement and really investigate the relationship that a typical young person has with television (people younger than me, even, and I get increasingly terrified every time I write that). Here are three simple rules that we’ve noticed over the course of the work that we’ve done here at Youthography:

Young people are watching less television. Period.

Let’s start with this one. Young people are simply watching less television than they were even a few years ago. According to BBM, in fact, TV watching by teenagers decreased by over three hours a week (almost 20%) from 1996 to 2000, the five years during which the Internet went from nerds-only to mainstream.

According to a national study fielded by Youthography this year, young people (aged 13 to 24) claim to watch almost 10 hours of television a week (consistent with BBM metrics) but claim to spend over 13 hours a week online. The truth of the matter is that time online detracts from time in front of the TV: they’re staring at one screen less and the other more.

Television is still the cost of entry, especially for big brands.

As an advertising medium, however, television is still boss. There is an element of legitimacy to TV that the Net simply doesn’t have yet. It’s too fragmented, too niche, and fraught with fly-by-night advertising for everything from miniature webcams to the World’s Largest CasinoTM to Debt! Reduction! Now! – things that you simply don’t see on television. And to some extent this undermines the advertising of the entire medium.

Television advertising, however, is more expensive (thereby weeding out the bottom-feeders), and while less interactive than the Web it often offers a purer, stronger brand-building opportunity. Big branding comes from the big medium and, so far, this makes television king. According to the last national survey that we ran, television was second only to word of mouth (32% to 36%) as a medium that young people say makes them act on buying something. Internet advertising was far, far down the list.

TV on demand is a reality that is already here for a small percentage of the youth population, and will be a reality for, well, everyone.

So getting back to me (it was only a matter of time, I’m afraid) and the way that I’m watching a lot of television these days: I’m downloading it. And the more young people that we talk to, the more we hear that they’re doing exactly the same thing. The file-swapping services that you’ve heard so much about (Napster, KaZaa and the like) work for the transfer on any type of file (not just MP3s). This is the model of future television distribution, as much as online is the model for future music distribution (paid or not).

And it’s simple, really: young people are spending more and more time at their computers, anyway, so why not watch TV there to begin with? And why not watch it when you want it?

There are entire programs that have never been available in Canada that young people have watched exclusively on their computers: MTV’s Jackass, for instance, is only available on the digital-cable MTV channel, but sits in the hard drive of more than one teenage boy who can’t get enough of people, umm, hurting themselves on camera. That Sopranos episode I mentioned? Leaked to the Web, two weeks before broadcast, and I happened to stumble across it.

Already 34% of young Canadians who are online say they download video, which is probably the same amount who downloaded music three years ago – and we all know how ubiquitous that is now.

All of which points to a greater trend: young people are increasingly taking control of all of their media, and television is no exception. Between cheaper production costs, increased channels of distribution, competition between service providers, and the development of the Internet, young people now expect to see, listen to or surf what they want, when they want, and how they want it – and nothing is going to change this back.

Television is no exception: they’re creating it, whether or not they’re producing their own shows for school or pleasure, or auditioning for Popstars or The Lofters, or even just hopping onto Speaker’s Corner for a minute. They have control of this medium and they’re refusing to give it back.

And if you think about some of the more high-profile developments within the industry, they’re all about giving the watcher more and more control, too. Personal video recorders (such as TiVo), video on demand, and even time-shifting (which gives users of digital cable or satellite TV the opportunity to catch their favourite shows at a different time as they are broadcast from a different time zone) are all examples of service providers giving more and more of this control to the viewer – control that the young viewer isn’t likely to relinquish.

So as advertisers, what to do? Well, branded content and product placement is obviously on the increase. And if you’re a big brand, we recommend becoming enough of a sponsor of strong youth properties that you can negotiate a chunk of the program’s Web site for the entire season, and get your message out that way, too, since young people are spending more time at the Web sites of the shows that they like the most.

You could even offer them something in exchange for viewing your TV spot online: five minutes of footage from next week’s episode, for instance, streaming right after your 30-second ad.

But the big idea here is actually an old idea, and it’s the hardest thing in the world to do: create more great commercials. Sure, sure, that sounds so simple – but the truth is that the Internet is a huge opportunity for great television ads since young people actually send them to each other, thereby combining television and word of mouth (the two biggest purchase drivers for young people).

As a rule, young people don’t hate advertising. They simply hate bad advertising, but they love the good stuff and they love to share it.

One of the members of our youth community recently sent me two Molson Canadian spots – from the U.S. – that I had never seen before because they haven’t run in Canada. Still, they were good ads, and they showed up (endorsed by a friend!) in my inbox one morning. I opened them right away, I watched them each twice, and I sent them to another 10 friends right after.

That’s the sort of use of the Web that TV-based marketers should be using right now…because in the near future, you’ll simply have to.

Max Valiquette is president of Toronto-based youth marketing consultancy Youthography. He can be reached at max@youthography.com.