Image: Toby Morris
Image: Toby Morris

TelevisionJune 16, 2022

20 years of TV ratings that show the immense scale of audience decline

Image: Toby Morris
Image: Toby Morris

Three charts that detail the way the most important medium has drifted from our consciousness – with younger New Zealanders most heavily impacted.

A huge cache of ratings data leaked to The Spinoff shows the immense scale of audience decline across linear television. The data come in the form of PUTS (People Using Television), and come from a client of ratings agency Nielsen. They show that audiences peaked around 2010, when the GFC was biting and internet connectivity and products were relatively poor, before setting out on an increasingly harsh decline. 

While it’s widely known that linear television audiences have been fading for years, particularly among younger and more diverse audiences, getting hard data to quantify that has been difficult. These data are year-by-year PUTS averages, taken across the day from 6am to midnight, and across three demographics – the big 5+, the most desirable 18-54 and a young cohort of 18-34. 

The youngest demographic is less than one third the scale of its peak, showing just how comprehensive the adoption of digital technology has been. But even for the 18-54 bracket, representing an older demographic, the decline has been steep, with less than half as many viewers as at the medium’s peak. Even 5+ has come back from an audience of over 700,000 around 2010 to less than 500,000 today. What makes the data even more eye-opening is that our overall population has risen by more than 25% over the same span, from less than four million in 2000 to north of five million today.

This matters because linear television remains at the core of so much of our national communication strategy. The decline in audiences has not been matched by a corresponding decline in advertising revenue, which has largely stayed static. In recent years the government has become an increasingly prominent advertiser, and its campaigns remain most visible on television, despite the scale of audience loss. Similarly, our decentralised public broadcaster NZ On Air still shows a strong bias towards projects with linear television as the primary platform. 

As the government prepares to merge TVNZ with RNZ, the shrinking audiences from linear television shows just how large the missing audiences are. On some level this is a given – that’s the underlying motivation for the merger in the first place. The big unknown is whether a centralised media player will ever again have the kind of audience reach once enjoyed by TVNZ, Three and Sky TV.

Why are ratings so hard to find? 

TV ratings were once very easy to come by. They were proactively released by our networks, and frequently the centre of stories in our newspapers. The website Throng (RIP) put them out every day. What they revealed about viewer preference was tantalising – it showed the relative success or failure of shows, the popularity of various personalities and through that, how our TV networks were likely to perform financially.

Then, some years ago, that started to shift. Releases became less specific, or emphasised share (what percentage of people watching TV watched your show) over ratings (the total number of people that represented). This was directly related to the rise in alternative ways of consuming video. First YouTube, then Netflix, then Snapchat and Instagram stories and latterly the unstoppable force that is Tiktok, plus a long tail of alternate distractions, which all combined to chip away at the once indomitable attention-holding supremacy of the big black rectangle in the corner of the room. 

Through this time you would get little glimpses of what was going on in the formation vacuum. The odd press release would still come out, when a particular show or event gripped the nation. Or when a rival show threatened to usurp a longtime champion, as when The Project challenges Seven Sharp, or the AM Show has a good run against Breakfast. Networks are generally pretty obliging about releasing ratings too, which helped inform some of our reporting.

Nielsen releases a weekly set of ratings, for 5+ and 25-54, meaning everyone over the age of five for the former and only those aged between 25 and 54 for the latter. These are gathered from a surprisingly small sample of the 900 households that make up Nielsen’s television audience measurement survey, and have “people meters”, which capture what is being viewed, when and how many people are watching. These are released weekly, but with a two-week delay, ensuring that their news value is limited, and as PDFs, meaning combining them into bigger data sets is hard.

The problem is that this lacks the context provided by a longitudinal sweep, and is isolated to specific shows. What is the fate of the medium as a whole? 

I wanted to know, so asked a friend who has access to Nielsen data. They provided me with a motherlode – 21 years’ worth of data, spanning the pre-broadband heyday of television as a medium to the hyper-online era we live in now. They provided it across three crucial demographics. First, 5+ – the biggest possible number, which shows the total number of people watching television. But because that number naturally includes a bunch of older New Zealanders, who are much higher users of television (but less attractive to advertisers), they also provided 18-54 and 18-34, to get a sense of how younger New Zealanders are using television.

Some caveats: this data is about linear television. We watch a lot of on-demand now, too – TVNZ was rightly proud of 6.1 million weekly streams last year. Yet linear TV remains the form we spend the most time and money on, despite knowing little about how it is tracking. That’s why these numbers are so interesting. Below are some charts I’ve made detailing the data, along with some analysis of what it shows. (Next week I’ll show how the same audiences tracked through the pandemic, when audiences swelled so much).

The motherlode of 5+

The 5+ data looks like a small hill, choppily rising to a peak in 2011, before commencing a steady decline. The average age of a New Zealander is around 40, meaning the 5+ chart is significantly impacted by the large number of older New Zealanders whose behaviour has been least impacted by technology. That’s the group that still subscribes to newspapers, listens to the radio and has a Sky box. So when you see the hill steadily descending, what you’re really seeing is one half of the population whose habits are changing quickly, while another is not really changing their behaviour at all. You’ll notice that for a brief period audience growth outpaces population growth – that was driven by the chill wind of the GFC, which forced us all to stay inside watching our pennies for a few years.

The big money: 18-54

This cohort covers close to half our population, and encompasses the period from leaving high school through our peak earning years. This one still has that hill characteristic, but drops far more steeply through the 2010s. This was the period during which broadband spread swiftly, and Lightbox, Netflix and Neon all launched. TVNZ also started to put significant resources into TVNZ OnDemand, which just this week rebranded to TVNZ+, with a flash event to celebrate its launch. This is quite a change for a platform that wasn’t even mentioned at sales events when The Spinoff was founded in 2014.

We see a choppy rise up to a peak of around 370,000, dropping to less than half of that in the present day. This is significant because 25-54 is the group most sought after by advertisers. It’s the one that funds our TV networks with its attention, and which is also the target for the largest chunk of our publicly funded media through NZ On Air. The fact that it has declined by more than half in just a decade shows how seismic the behaviour change has been. It’s a combination of smartphones, social media, streaming and ultra-fast broadband that has combined to hollow out the audience for television. It was once the great unifying media source – now a shadow of what it once was.

The future: 18-34

This is where things get very scary. Due to the lack of precisely matching census data it’s hard to say exactly how many people there are in any of these cohorts. But 18-34 is the start of our working lives, the period that (in theory) encompasses tertiary education, career choice, marrying and starting a family and (again, in theory) purchasing a home. It’s when crucial patterns are established that may stick for the balance of our lives – which is why advertisers are so keen to reach this group.

This chart shows why television is no longer the place to do that. We see a peak around the time of the GFC, as we did with the other groups. But the drop-off is enormously steep. This group, which encompasses most millennials and older parts of Gen Z, is the first true born internet generation. Their habits are wildly diverse, shaped by algorithms, social and the very small screen. We as a society have not changed to meet their evolved behaviours nearly fast enough to keep up – and this is in part because we haven’t really acknowledged that they have gone. 

This is the big challenge facing the merged TVNZ-RNZ, but also everyone who seeks to influence the public, and know what it is they experience and believe. And as these charts show, there has been a seismic audience shift – one that we don’t really wrestle with until we see the data.


Follow Duncan Greive’s NZ media podcast The Fold on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

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Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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