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New Nielsen Research: Digital Still Fails to Deliver on Advertising ROI Promises

If you’ve glanced at a marketing or technology blog in the past few years, you’ve probably heard some of the commotion surrounding the supposed TV-toppling power of new media. You may have seen the claims that consumers were going to abandon their TVs in droves and just stream their shows online. Or the predictions that cable subscriptions were going to plummet and take TV advertising revenues with them.

Well, five years into the Hulu age of digital video streaming, it’s time for a reality check: Despite all the hype, digital still hasn’t delivered. For all the attention that streaming media may have received, the oft-portended digital disruption hasn’t happened. Folks are still tuning in, and TV remains the best way to reach the consumers you want, no matter your target.nielsen-resarch

That’s the long and short of the new Cross Platform Report from Nielsen Research. Released in June 2013, this report from one of the country’s leading market research firms examines viewing trends across most media platforms. Take a quick look at the data and the main conclusion comes across loud and clear: consumers still vastly prefer live TV to other forms of entertainment. In fact, in the first quarter of 2013, U.S. viewers spent an average of 4 hours and 39 minutes watching live television—a number virtually unchanged from 2009, and a minute more than in the first quarter of 2012. When DVR playback is figured in, the total comes to more than five hours, right where it’s been for each of the past five years.

Nielsen Research’s own analysis makes the case for TV’s staying power in the clearest possible terms. “Traditional TV viewing has grown year-over-year among the total U.S. Population,” the researchers indicate, pointing to particularly robust growth in individual market segments including African-American households. Far from entering a digital-driven death spiral, TV “remains vibrant and continues to thrive,” the Nielsen research concludes.

These findings might come as a shock to obsessive readers of tech blogs, where new trends can sometimes be magnified until they blot out market reality. But to the crew at Vision Media, there’s no surprise at all. That’s because for all of their appeal, digital devices just haven’t convinced people to give up the convenience, comfort, and effortless programmatic variety of television. In fact, just half of TV viewers report watching any video at all over the Internet, and a paltry 16% indicate that they do so on their smartphones. The increasing proliferation of these devices hasn’t changed TV viewing habits dramatically up till now, and given consumer preferences it seems unlikely to do so at any point in the medium-term future.

Of course, none of this is to say that new media platforms and devices aren’t changing the way that consumers interact with TV. Social media platforms, for instance, have offered new avenues for viewers to connect with their favorite programs and charterers, while DVR and “over the top” devices have given consumers a wider range of options for format and timing. Yet while these new technologies do carry a certain disruptive potential, they also have the capacity to rejuvenate the live TV experience—which just may explain why television has retained its remarkable hold over the American psyche.

The implications of these findings are significant, especially for advertisers looking to get the biggest bang from their next marginal dollar. Digital technologies may be worth an exploratory buy, but TV remains the beating heart of American popular culture, and increasingly precise market segmentation capabilities coupled with an unbeatably broad viewership continue to make television the smartest home base for your campaign. And despite digital’s best efforts, that isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

Stephen Reed is the CEO and founder of Vision Media. Based in Redmond, Washington and established in 2002, Vision Media specializes in local and national media buying, strategy and consulting.