Our changing TV habits

Nielsen, the company tasked with tracking television viewing, has released some interesting data. In its first public release of online individual TV program rankings (again, online, not the number of people watching on their televisions), Nielsen ranked ABC.com’s Lost in first place for the month of December with 1.4 million unique viewers.

Let’s get the caveats out of the way. Lost’s numbers are assuredly higher because Hulu.com’s figures aren’t included as Hulu doesn’t report the kind of data Nielsen used for tracking this information. Saturday Night Live came in second with 1.1 million unique viewers. Wha…? SNL?!? Yes, I’m sympathetic to the italics and punctuation. Seasoned SNL watchers know that the best part of the show is the first 45 minutes—savvy viewers don’t stick around for the last skit. But Nielsen includes not only full episodes watched, but also part of an episode or a program clip. These clips—the kind that people embed in their websites using NBC’s player—pushed SNL to the heights of the list.

The number of “real” TV watchers and time they spent glued to the boob tube dwarfs these figures, of course. On average, U.S. households watch 142 hours of TV per month while Internet TV watching comes in at an average of 27 hours a month.

But Nielsen’s data does point to some interesting trends. The SNL number, as I’ve hinted, suggests that Web watchers want the good and timely bits of skit shows like SNL. It makes it a heck of a lot easier to participate in those “didja see” water-cooler discussions on Monday afternoon when you’ve had Monday morning to catch up on the latest SNL opening bit.

But I’m more intrigued by the Lost number. Bear in mind that the new season of Lost didn’t launch until late January. So why the big December number? Lost has a deserved buzz again and the reputation for a convoluted plot. ABC presented old episodes in December for those who haven’t been following the show. That helped prime the “what the heck is going on?” pump, which drove tech-savvy viewers to ABC.com to watch past episodes.

And that points to the fact that while we’re still watching an obscene amount of TV, the way we’re watching is starting to change from “sit and click” to “hunt and gather.” And that has all kinds of interesting implications.

For instance, if you know your audience can catch up by exploring past episodes or view recap or summary videos (as ABC does with its Lost Untangled web videos) you can write differently. There's no need to constantly remind viewers of what’s going on or who’s who each time a new season starts—forge ahead and the audience follows.

Better yet? If enough people seize the power to grab what they desire from the Web rather than sit passively and stare at whatever the networks dish up, perhaps those 142 hours a month will be filled with more TV worth watching.

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