Television viewers stick with their channels, despite greater variety

Nielsen finds that most Americans consume a relatively limited diet of 17 television channels, though average home receives 189.
(Jeff Wheeler/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)

If you find yourself flipping through the same handful of channels even as your cable lineup (and bill) continues to swell, you’re not alone.

The average American home now receives 189 channels, according to an upcoming report from the audience research firm Nielsen. This represents a record high as well as a substantial increase from 2008, when the average home received just 129 channels.

Yet despite an ever-expanding buffet of options, most Americans consume a relatively limited TV diet of just 17 channels — a number that has not budged since 2008.

“This data is significant in that it substantiates the notion that more content does not necessarily equate to more channel consumption,” Nielsen said. The report will be released later this week.


The nearly 50% increase in available channels is due to the transition from analog to digital service over the last five years or so, explained Pat McDonough, senior vice president of insights and analysis at Nielsen.

“We’re all creatures of habit,” said Brad Adgate, an analyst for ad firm Horizon Media. “We read the same magazines and visit the same websites and television is no different. We have our favorite channels and we go there. Everything is so hyper-targeted there are channels for every age group and lifestyle.”

The Nielsen report is likely to embolden proponents of a la carte cable billing, such as Arizona Sen. John McCain, who argue that consumers should not be forced to pay an average of $80 a month for a slew of obscure channels they don’t watch.

In the current model, consumers must pony up for packages in which channels are bundled together, rather than picking and choosing the channels they want. This has contributed to a rapid uptick in cable costs: According to the Federal Communications Commission, the price paid by the average consumer for expanded basic cable service has increased at more than twice the rate of inflation since 1995.

And though the average person is still regularly tuning in to the same number of channels much as in 2008, McDonough is impressed the figure hasn’t dipped, given the emergence of alternate platforms like Hulu and Netflix. (For a channel to qualify as regularly watched, viewers had to spend a minimum of 10 minutes per week there.)

“Five years ago most of us weren’t online, on our tablets, watching videos on our phone, so there’s all of that video consumption on top of the fact that we’re still managing to watch the same number of channels,” she said.

McDonough also pointed out that the average person, not the average household, regularly watches 17 channels, meaning a la carte billing wouldn’t necessarily make sense for most American families.

“When you have mom, dads, kids fighting for channels, I’m not sure if you end up with a less expensive cable bill,” she said.