Prime time has just doubled

Online publishers and traditional television broadcasters used to think they were competing for audience attention but it turns out they are actually partners in a multi-tasking boom that benefits both.

An interesting and unexpected thing is happening to media consumption that might seem trivial at first but is actually the best news the embattled media have had for years.

Ubiquitous wireless internet connections mean that people are using their tablets, smart phones or laptops while they watch TV. This seems to be having two powerful effects: holding up prime-time TV ratings and producing a simultaneous spike in internet traffic – bringing online publishers out of the cold and into the lucrative warmth of prime time.

Online publishers and traditional television broadcasters used to think they were competing for audience attention but it turns out they are actually partners in a multi-tasking boom that benefits both.

Obviously they still compete to some extent, especially with most TVs now connecting to the internet and offering some type of IPTV service, but that’s actually another issue entirely: it’s clear we are moving to a world in which there are at least two devices operating during the prime evening media consumption period – the one across the room and the one on the lap.

Yahoo!7 recently did a survey to find out what people are doing while they watch TV: 41 per cent post stuff on Facebook and 62 per cent of those between 18 and 24 do that. Forty-eight per cent check emails, 36 per cent use their phones and 17 per cent do other things online.

The survey was done as part of Yahoo!7’s launch of a new iPad and iPhone app called Fango, which lets the user 'log in' to TV shows while they are airing so they can chat about it with each other, and sometimes with the producers or stars of the show. The next version of the app will apparently be able to recognise the advertisements by their sound and simultaneously play them on the iPad. Already the Seven Network is bundling ads on both the TV and the iPad.

You can see the changing habits in internet traffic patterns as well: the main period for internet consumption is still 8-10am because websites replace newspapers, either at home or at work. But now traffic is spiking in the evenings, especially on iPads.

The reason this is not trivial is that it means first that viewers are more likely to watch TV shows as they go to air, rather than record and watch them later while skipping over the ads. And second, a whole new future for online publishers has opened up, especially for struggling newspaper companies and their iPad apps.

Instead of only fishing for readers in the morning with printed newspapers and then websites, online publishers of all types are now suddenly finding themselves playing in the vast ocean of prime-time viewing, when huge numbers of eyeballs support expensive high-margin advertising.

What’s more they don’t have to compete with TV networks for those eyeballs – they’re getting them at the same time.

The prime-time viewing audience is, in fact, being multiplied by two, or possibly three (TV plus iPad plus phone). It is a transformational development: effectively doubling the size of the prime-time audience and significantly increasing the potential revenue from it.

Specifically it gives hope to newspaper publishers who are desperately trying to maintain their revenues with paywalls. Last week Melbourne’s Herald Sun even started moving behind a paywall; it needs to stop this idea immediately and go after the Home and Away audience with a free iPad app in prime time.

More broadly, all online publishers are discovering that they are rapidly becoming mainly mobile publishers. Phones and tablets – either through apps or special mobile websites – are quickly taking over from computers as the main devices for publishing their content.

The implications of this are profound, and mainly good: it means newspaper publishers are returning to their comfort zone of portability – except it’s digital, not analogue (on paper).

The bad news is that in the digital world barriers to entry are low, so the competition is fierce and subscriptions (cover price) are hard to get. But there is much more flexibility in how you publish, so the options for serving both readers/viewers and advertisers are much greater, and the portable internet is 24 hours, not once a day like a newspaper.

It’s good for TV broadcasters as well. The research shows that multi-tasking viewers are more inclined to watch TV events as they happen – not just sport, but also high-rating shows that air at a specific time, like the big reality shows as well as Q&A on the ABC, which has a huge simultaneous Twitter following.

Follow @AlanKohler on Twitter

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