Cable and digital transmission methods have increased access to more networks and media choices, and digital video recorders and video-on-demand are changing the way television and its advertising will be viewed forever.
UniSA's Ehrenberg-Bass Institute has conducted extensive research into TV viewing patterns in the 21st century, with some telling findings, according to Institute director and Professor of Marketing Science, Byron Sharp.
"TV program and network ratings have dropped because viewers have more channels to choose from, and even though extra channels have led to a slight increase in TV viewing, these channels steal viewers from existing channels, resulting in lower audience reach because viewers are spread across more programs," Prof Sharp said.
"What seems amazing though is that old channels still dominate, even in cable and satellite homes, though ad-supported cable channels are growing audience share. People are habitual and they do display some channel loyalty."
Overseas research shows that having more choices of media does little to erode TV viewing. Levels have remained remarkably stable across decades, with average weekly viewing in the UK of 25 hours and in the US of 30 hours.
"TV viewing is high and while people are consuming more media, TV accounts for about half of this consumption. For TV networks, the battle is still for ratings - from live viewing, playback and video-on-demand," Prof Sharp said.
But how loyal are viewers and what are the marketing implications?
According to Prof Sharp, surprisingly, there is channel loyalty, but program loyalty is weaker than we think and loyalty for particular genres, such as sports or soaps, is very weak.
Prof Sharp says that viewers tend to overestimate their loyalty.
"When someone says `I always watch that program,' they mean when I am watching TV, and not watching something else!" he said.
"Television networks have a widely held view that some of their programs are `appointment viewing' for most of their viewers, or at least are regularly programmed into their video recorders for viewing at more convenient timeslots.
"For prime time TV programs like CSI, marketers expect that typical viewers would see about six episodes in 10. Viewers themselves estimate they'd see five out of 10. The reality is that the average viewer of such programs sees only about three episodes in 10. That is the average, so a few are seeing more and many viewers are watching only one or two episodes.
"Somewhat paradoxically, this lack of `religious viewing' is good news for advertisers," Prof Sharp said. "It means that each program delivers new audiences, and so TV can deliver cumulative reach into the entire population."
The fragmentation caused by extra TV channels and more media choices makes a few mass media, such as high rating programs, stand out even more than they used to. There are also more brands chasing wealthier consumers. This has led to marketers bidding up the price of advertising in the few remaining mass options like high rating TV channels and programs.
TV's attraction for marketers remains its ability to deliver high reach quickly. At any point during prime time about 30 per cent of the Australian population is watching commercial free-to-air TV. High rating programs in particular are special because they reach very light viewers and clever schedules remain of great value. Prof Sharp says the marketing challenge is how to get real reach (beyond the clutter and avoidance) for minimum frequency.
Technologies like digital video recorders encourage fast forwarding through advertisements (but many still get seen), greater recording and the watching of more TV, enabling top rating programs to boost their ratings further. But uptake of digital video recorders continues to be slow and they will eventually be overtaken by video-on-demand, which will further encourage the playback of missed episodes of top rating programs.
Businesses who use TV advertising are now demanding a more reliable, more relevant measurement of programs and their advertising reach, according to Prof Sharp.
"Research at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute builds such fundamental knowledge about buyer behaviour, insight and benchmarks that can be used again and again."