Broadcast doesn’t have a ‘fragmentation’ problem. It has a TikTok problem

Broadcast doesn’t have a ‘fragmentation’ problem. It has a TikTok problem
The media 'buffet': are consumers diets destined to shift from meals to snacks?
Opinion: 100% Media 0% Nonsense

TikTok is not simply a substitute of viewers’ attention from traditional media formats. The rise in demand for ‘snackable’ content presents a much bigger cultural shift, writes the editor.

When you look at your remote control or your smartphone, do you see a “buffet” of media choices?

This was the exact analogy made by Ofcom’s research chief last week as the regulator unveiled its latest annual Media Nations report. Of course if you’re reading this column you know this report is a big deal, but, in case you need context, it’s “basically Christmas for media planners”, according to media agency EssenceMediacom’s strategy chief Richard Kirk.

Read The Media Leader’s report for a snapshot of the findings and read the full thing here, but in essence it’s yet more bad news for broadcast linear TV, which is falling even quicker than it was before. But, notably, streaming services also saw declines in subscribers, almost certainly because people have been cutting back on luxuries such as pay TV amid spiralling inflation and rising interest rates.

Attention: competition or reinvention?

Frankly, there was nothing that jumped out of the report as a killer statistic that shows some surprising trend in media that we weren’t already aware of. But, with the benefit of a few more days thinking about Media Nations’ findings, I think one trend is being grossly underappreciated.

That is: it’s not so much that media owners are having to deal with a fragmentation of audience as more online players challenge fewer offline incumbents. Instead, what’s becoming quite clear is that all media is being threatened by the ubiquity of short-form, or snackable content.

Short-form video (which Media Nations classes as videos shorter than 10 minutes) was watched daily by nearly four in 10 (38%) of online adults in Great Britain aged 15+, from late 2022 to early 2023.

Let that sink in for a second. Nearly four in 10 people you know are watching short-form videos every day. And let’s face it, if you work in media or advertising, it’s probably more like nine in 10 (we need to have a serious conversation about how disconnected advertising people have become from the thing they’re trying to sell every day, but that’s a whole other column).

If you strip out people aged 15-24, the number of people watching short-form every day doesn’t rise that much: 68% of 15-24-year-olds claimed to watch short-form videos daily. Nor does it dwindle all that much for those aged over 65: over one in seven (14%) of this older cohort claims to watch short-form content every day.

It’s at this point that someone from ITV or Sky is reading this and rolling their eyes, perhaps because they think a) social media content is mostly rubbish; or b) time spent on TV is still much bigger (2 hours 38 minutes for broadcast TV), or c) the big broadcasters’ VOD services, namely BBC iPlayer and ITVX, are seeing double-digit are showing strong growth.

That all may be true, but the “competition for attention” story is more dramatic than users switching from ‘linear’ telly to on-demand online streaming. Frankly, that has already been happening for a while and the fact that Netflix and Disney+ have both launched cheaper subsctiptions options with ads should remind you that a) the plateau already came last year and b) consumers are much more price sensitive and the streamers can’t rely on price increases to keep growing.

Yes, we’ve had YouTube for nearly two decades. But we didn’t have TikTok. And TikTok’s user experience is extremely effective at getting people to watch ‘just one more video’ — it’s preference-weighted algorithm is like crack cocaine for the young, attention-deficient mind, with an endless cycle of short-form videos, which generally last for between 15 to 60 seconds.

And yes, I don’t use the comparison with crack lightly: TikTok is highly addictive. The ‘For You’ page is designed for you to scroll through an endless amount of targeted videos. There is no waiting time in between each video, all users need to do is swipe to watch the next one. Compare that to YouTube, where users only watch a short amount of videos that are often longer in duration and contain ads.

Is it any wonder that Tiktok said this year it would introduce a one-hour a day limit feature for young people, in an effort to improve their wellbeing?

You are what you watch

TikTok is not simply a substitute for makers of TV and movies. It’s a potential destroyer. It’s a social experiment in real-time in which we’re giving everyone a highly addictive short-form video machine, which they can access any time they want by reaching into their pocket and taking out their phone, and seeing if they still have a taste for watching a two-hour movie or a 10-episode TV series. (Again, this is for another column, but TikTok is owned by Bytedance, a Chinese company. If you believe that any Chinese company is not influenced by the Chinese government — especially a media company — then you haven’t been paying attention).

So we’re not really talking about a “buffet” of media choices, are we?

Because I don’t know about you, but when I go to a buffet, I do a lap and make a mental note (sometimes a physical note if I’m feeling shameless) of what are the most expensive and/or delicious-looking options. Yes, lobster and beef fillets; no thanks pasta and soup.

If today’s media landscape really were a buffet, you’d have some very big counters on one side of the room, where you could eat some big, expensive looking meals but have to put up with interruptions (unless you pay a surcharge to eat uninterrupted).

On the other, you’d have a load of beanbags where food was just thrown at you relentlessly — who knows where most of the food is made, a lot of it tastes horrible, but some of it is great and it’s all so easy to just sit there are swallow it until I either feel full or feel sick.

It’s at this point I need to point out a feature I published last week which was a fascinating insight into how media leaders in our industry think about different types of YouTube content and whether it’s fit for TV. The main takeaway is: most is not ‘fit’ because of existing regulations around advertising and product placement.

But maybe, if we accept how radically media consumption is changing before our eyes, namely that viewers are moving from meal eaters to ‘snackers’, then there is no more need for restaurants or fancy hotels that serve buffets. Just a load of vending machines and microwave meals.

Omar Oakes is editor of The Media Leader and leads the publication’s TV coverage. ‘100% Media 0% Nonsense’ is a weekly column about the state of media and advertising. Make sure you sign up to our daily newsletter to get this column in your inbox every Monday. 

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