May sweeps are in full swing and producers are pulling out all the stops—plot twists, all-star guests and didn’t-see-that-coming cliffhangers—to compete for viewers in the overcrowded TV market.
Fans of reality shows like American Idol, The Amazing Race and Dancing with the Stars will find out if their favorites come out on top. Primetime dramas like Nashville, Grey’s Anatomy, The Mentalist and NCISwill kill off beloved characters (only to resurrect them in a “shocking” fall premier). And popular comedies like The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family will marry belly laughs and happy endings.
A decade ago, when anybody with an aerial on the roof, a set of rabbit ears or even a well-placed coat hanger had access to the broadcast airwaves, network TV shows could regularly expect 20 million viewers to tune in to big season finales. Now that TV is digital—and delivered not only to the 60-inch screen at home but also to mobile devices any- and everywhere—who is watching?
In a new nationwide study, Barna Group asked adults 18 and older what shows they watch—and if they’re watching at all.
Three quarters of Americans say they watch some TV every day—but the amount of time they spend watching varies greatly. Adults are almost evenly split between those who watch one to three hours (51%) and those who watch four or more hours per day (44%). A large minority watches five or more hours of television per day (30%).
Friends was the sitcom that brought Gen-Xers and Boomers together more than a decade ago. In 2014,The Big Bang Theory is the sitcom that brings Millennials and Gen-Xers and Boomers—and even a significant number of Elders—together. Thirty percent of all adults regularly watch the show about four uber-nerds navigating life, love and theoretical physics. Gen-Xers and Elders are slightly less likely to tune in than Millennials and Boomers, but more than one-quarter of each generation segment are TBBT watchers.
NCIS also enjoys cross-generational appeal, with 40% of Elders, 31% of Boomers, 17% of Gen-Xers and 17% of Millennials tuning in regularly. To a lesser extent, CSI attracts a range of ages: 29% of Elders, 23% of Boomers and 17% of Gen-Xers watch on a regular basis.
The Mentalist and Dancing with the Stars round out the top-five list for both Elders and Boomers. One in five adults in these generations watch The Mentalist, and about one-quarter of Elders (24%) and 18% of Boomers regularly watch DWTS.
The two younger generations are both partial to The Walking Dead, with one-quarter of Millennials (26%) and nearly one in five Gen-Xers (18%) watching regularly. Millennials also watch American Horror Story (20%) and Game of Thrones (16%), while Gen-Xers prefer Duck Dynasty (16%).
The same shows are popular among practicing Christians as are popular among the general population. Their tastes most closely resemble the Elders, according to their top-five list: NCIS(25%), The Big Bang Theory (23%), CSI (20%), Dancing with the Stars (16%) and Duck Dynasty(15%) are the shows practicing Christians watch regularly.
In 1980, more than 50 million Americans tuned in each evening to one of the network newscasts (Pew). Today, the Internet has edged out television as Americans’ primary source of information, with 54% of adults saying they rely on the Internet every day and 52% saying they rely on network TV. Half of all adults (50%) say they rely on cable TV on a daily basis. More than two out of five Americans (43%) rely on their smartphone; slightly fewer rely on social media (39%) or radio (40%). One-quarter of adults rely on a daily newspaper (25%), and fewer count on books (17%), magazines (8%) and e-books (7%) to stay informed.Among younger generations, the proportions that look to network and cable TV for daily information are dramatically lower than among Elders and Boomers. Like the average number of hours watched each day, reliance on network and cable television increases with age. Seven in 10 Elders (70%) rely on network TV for daily information, and only slightly fewer (65%) rely on cable TV. About three out of five Boomers rely on network TV (61%) and cable TV (57%). Among Gen-Xers, less than half rely on network (46%) or cable (47%), and slightly more than one-third of Millennials turn to network (35%) or cable TV (34%) for information.
What the Research Means
America is still watching TV, but how and why they are watching is shifting—particularly among younger audiences. Roxanne Stone, a vice president at Barna Group, says this trend is indicative of a general à la carte mentality among Millennials. “Younger generations have grown used to finding their news in a variety of sources throughout the day—and most of those sources are online. With Twitter, Reddit and a wide choice of news apps, it’s not surprising that Millennials and Gen-Xers are no longer relying on cable or network TV as their primary news source.
“Beyond television as a source for news, people are also watching their favorite shows via a wider variety of means than traditional cable and network TV,” Stone continues. “They are downloading programs like Mad Men on Amazon the day after it airs; they are streaming Game of Thrones on HBOGo and binge watching seasons of Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards the day Netflix releases them. These new technologies and devices put the viewer at the center of the entertainment hub in unprecedented ways. No longer are consumers limited to ‘what’s on TV’—people can literally watch whatever they want, whenever, wherever and on whatever device they want.
“One effect of this, as seen among Millennials, is that viewership becomes more spread out. Fewer Millennials watch the top shows among their generation, and there is a smaller gap between the number of viewers of their top 10 shows than is true for other generations. This underscores an increasing fragmentation of the television audience.
“Still, as a medium, television entertainment exercises massive influence on Americans’ discretionary time, attention and imagination. Even among Millennials, half turn on their TV everyday and three-quarters turn it on at least four days a week. Less than one in ten never turn it on. While television doesn’t generate the collective cultural moment it used to, there are still common touchpoints and ‘water cooler’ conversations happening around TV shows. These shows—many of them exploring key social trends—continue to offer significant opportunities for deeper conversations and cultivating cultural discernment among Christians.”