For free-to-air TV, the audience is ageing

Angus Kidman 2 December 2016

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Switched on the box last night? Chances are good you're over 50.

It's not surprising that the average viewer for free-to-air TV is getting older. If you grew up in the era of YouTube and Netflix, why bother hanging around waiting for a show advertised as starting at 7:30pm to actually start at 7:37pm?

Here's the average age for viewers of each of Australia's major free-to-air networks, per a recent report at TV Tonight of analysis of OzTam viewing data:

NetworkAverage viewer age
ABC66
SBS61
Seven52
Nine52
Ten46

Of course, that average age doesn't mean that much younger people aren't sometimes watching those networks, or that people that age and older aren't also watching Netflix or Stan or even, in this strange universe we occupy, Quickflix. But it does mean that the habit of watching live TV is declining as new generations of viewers emerge.

This is very bad news for free-to-air TV as a business, because the main audience that advertisers want to address is 25-54 year olds. That's the group seen as having the biggest propensity to react to advertising and spend. Be offended all you want, that's the business model for TV. But when your average viewer is soon going to fall outside your commercially desirable audience, you have a problem, and there's no obvious solution. (The ABC doesn't have to worry quite as much, as it doesn't rely on ads.)

The TV networks have tried to respond to that challenge by becoming more flexible. Last month, we saw Freeview finally roll out an app to allow live streaming of TV shows. It's a start, but the app is still fiddly and can't handle catch-up well. Meanwhile, Netflix has become even more flexible by allowing downloading of many of its shows. By the time free-to-air gets that option introduced, how much older will the audience be?

Free-to-air TV is never going to die entirely, and as we've noted before, its biggest successes these days are reality shows and sport, where people feel compelled to watch live. However, its days as the dominant way we look at screens are over. There's so much more to choose from, so why restrict yourself to a schedule? That's a lesson you can appreciate whatever age you are.

Angus Kidman's Findings column looks at new developments and research that help you save money, make wise decisions and enjoy your life more. It appears Monday through Friday on finder.com.au.

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