The 1960s and viewer behaviour

A mystery and no mistake: The absconding viewer

The 1960s.  A different world.  Viewers could, eventually, choose between three (three!) channels.

Mostly in black and white.

So basically viewers would stick with a programme loyally from week to week, in that sheep-like way we associate with our forefathers. Yes?


What do you mean the viewers are running amok... you were supposed to be guarding 'em

What do you mean the viewers are running amok… you were supposed to be guarding ’em

Consider Z-Cars

A weekly drama about coppers near Liverpool.  Sometimes they had special two-part episodes on successive nights – Monday and Tuesday from 7-7.30.  A single story but across two nights.

Probably people either watched both episodes or opted out completely. Open or shut, as it were.

Here’s the evidence:

1st half, Monday May 1st 1967:     24% of people viewed

2nd half, Tuesday May 2nd 1967: 24% of people viewed

Bang to rights.  A little under quarter of the population watched the two episodes.  Given only three channels and a continuing story, why not?

The people who watched the first would want to know how it ended.  And if you missed the beginning, why start late?  That’s common-sense.

Nothing to see here.  Move along sir (…or madam).

Except it wasn’t.

Only 12% of the population saw both episodes.  So only around half the people who watched on Monday bothered to watch on Tuesday.  And half the audience on Tuesday had missed the first episode.

Why did half the Monday audience drift off, and why did half the Tuesday viewers not watch on Monday or bother to watch on Tuesday?

Bert Lynch would call that rum. 

(yes, Bert Lynch.  Not Bet. That’s someone in Manchester.  Miles away).

But that’s not all.  When they* looked at programmes in 1971 – a world of three channels still – they found the same thing.  Only about half the viewers to one episode of Top of The Pops, Match of the Day or The Two Ronnies  – programmes viewed by a quarter of the country – could be arsed to tune in two weeks in a row.

Consider Brideshead Revisited

It was on ITV, 32 years ago (36 years after Waugh’s novel was published) and around a fifth of the population watched each of the 11 episodes.

But only 4% of the population managed to watch 10 or more episodes.

Brideshead Revisited?  Brideshead visited once or twice and then dumped more like

Brideshead Revisited? Brideshead visited once or twice and then dumped more like

Quick... while they're sleeping... let's sneak off.  They won't notice.  Shh...

Quick… while they’re sleeping… let’s sneak off. They won’t notice. Shh…









As many people saw one episode than 6 or more.  More people saw precisely two episodes than 8 or more.

Sebastian Flyte might call that a little queer. 

But to understand is to forgive all… 

It wasn’t a failing on the part of Brideshead.  They’re all like that.

A Duplication of Viewing Law had been discovered, the 55% Rule

It found that around 55% of the audience to a programme would have seen the previous episode. Or would go on to watch the next episode.  And it didn’t even matter what type of programme it was.  Or how good it was.

‘Failure to repeat-view seems to be a reflection of irregular or infrequent viewing habits, not of any special dislike or lack of interest in what had already been seen.  The only variation was to do with the size of the audience – bigger shows had slightly greater loyalty’  (Goodhart, Ehrenberg, Collins)

And there, in a nutshell is what happens not only on TV viewing, but across most consumer categories and services and all the rest.  All these numbers are from The Television Audience: Patterns of Viewing co-written by Andrew Ehrenberg (see picture), and it covers much of the marketing fundamentals that are espoused by the Ehrenberg-Bass Insitute, and its Director, Professor Byron Sharp in How Brands Grow.  Audiences come and go, just like consumers do.  Little loyalty, a high willingness to drop what they enjoy or to try something different given half an excuse to do so.  All marketers and consumer researchers need to be alive to the myth of loyalty and the under-appreciation of how many people mill about (and the importance of the occasional purchaser)…

..getting into all sorts of trouble…

That’s their modus operandi.  It’s got their dabs all over it.

And what sort of people are they, these viewers of whom the authors speak?  The authors spend a little time creating an E-fit of the perp.

‘In the UK, women tend to watch perhaps 10% more TV than do men, and older people much more (50%) than younger ones. But otherwise these approaches (audience profiles) have produced few very revealing or insightful results, and thus will not be pursued extensively here.  Television is largely a mass market activity’ (Goodhart etc p8)

And that, as they say, is that.

The whole country has been fingered.


PS:  Tell you what I’ll do…. I’ll update these Z Cars and Brideshead numbers with a programme from nowadays. What’s happened now?  Next week.  In the meantime, keep ’em peeled.

Fundamentals. (thank you to Peter Menneer for lending me the book)

Fundamentals. (thank you to Peter Menneer for lending me the book)