This post is part of our ongoing project of SMASH Reflections, authored by our inaugural class of Fellows.
By Sophie Gomani
As I listened to Nielsen’s SVP Audience Insights Peter Katsingris speak at the Science Media Awards Summit in the Hub (SMASH) last month, it was interesting to discover just how rapidly Americans are changing their viewing patterns from TV to online platforms.
Today, as multimedia devices are in more than a quarter of TV households with viewers now replacing old TV models with smart TV’s, millennials are spending on average of about 10 hours connected to multimedia devices for any given day. As a youth and a journalist, I also find myself drawn to online platforms and often ask if whether growth of online channels means the beginning of the end for TV network viewing.
In my country, Malawi, the TV industry is still new and the reach is very low. For several years after Malawi attained democracy in 1994, the country had only one national TV network. It was only until three years ago - when Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority started issuing TV licenses to those in the private sector - that new channels started emerged.
At the moment, Malawians heavily rely on digital satellite TV channels offered by a South African based company, Multichoice. However, due high poverty levels in the country, most people cannot afford to pay for monthly subscription fees.
In Malawi, the use of multimedia devices is growing, but mostly in cities and towns. The same cannot be said for those living rural areas where a majority do not own a TV and have very little access to the internet. For many Malawians, Radio remains the biggest source of information.
However in America, Katsingris explain that the TV reach is still strong In fact statistics reveal that overall TV viewing in households still remains at an all- time high. The only difference is that people are now in front of the TV for fewer days.
Today, individuals, organizations and companies from over the world are able easily share content and interact with global audiences through online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Snapchat.
Furthermore, the emergence of online channels such as Amazon and Netflix have also made it simple for people to access media content on their own schedules rather than abiding by TV Network programming.
Even thought TV viewership is very different in Malawi compared to America, I must admit that it did not come as a shock to learn that American viewers are moving to online platforms, especially when you look at how technology has advanced over the years.
What also did not surprise me is that the major shift from TV to online is happening largely among millennials ages 18 to 34, which Katsingris said is largely due to change in lifestyle, technological development and growth in digital platforms.
Even network executives have openly admitted that this is indeed a challenging time for them and has forced many of them to re-define their media strategy. When it comes to science programming, DocumentaryTelevision.com's Peter Hamilton said before the online revolution, most networks had drifted away from their brands and most science programs were being replaced by character driven series.
However, he said the emergence of on-demand channel like Netflix and Amazon with their big budget science documentaries and A-List talent at executive level have given a boost to Science programming.
So how are Science program producers responding to the online video revolution?
Well, rather than try to fight the online video revolution, most networks such as National Geographic Channel, BBC, PBS and Science Channel have started to embrace online platforms.
Senior Executive Director for NOVA, Paula Aspell said she understands that young people are not watching TV programming on their TV’s, and therefore it is important for networks to try and give audiences media content on a platform that they want.
“Luckily, there seems to be a real drive for science content that is really appealing to people,” she explained.
However, she stressed that it is important for networks to avoid giving up what they have for the sake of online ratings; instead they need to take the time to study their mission statements and understand what their audience expects of them. Another step that networks are taking is to develop big budget science documentaries, such as the high-profile MARS series by the National Geographic Channel, with the aim of drawing in more viewers.
At the pace at which technology is advancing, one cannot help but start to believe that a time may come when all media content will be accessed via online platforms. And although TV viewing still remains high in countries like America, it would only be wise for all TV producers embrace the change.
About the author: Sophie is Malawian radio journalist and producer with over four years experience working in Malawi’s print and broadcasting industry. She specializes in stories and programs that focus on rural development through the promotion of sustainable agricultural innovations. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism and Media Studies obtained at the University of Malawi, The Polytechnic.
As the curators of the Science Media Awards Summit in the Hub (SMASH), we believe storytelling is a common thread in our shared human experience, and that new media allows us to convey the wonders of scientific discovery in new and compelling ways.