Is Mobile About to Overtake Traditional TV Viewing?

Consumers are flocking to smaller screens

People are watching more and more content on mobile devices. Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Source: iStock
Headshot of Kevin Eck

Gone are the days when the only way to watch TV was from your couch.

“You can watch content when you’re waiting in the doctor’s office. You can watch it when you’re waiting for your car to be repaired. It is not uncommon to occasionally see some people try to watch while they’re in my class,” said Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson, also known as the “pop culture ambassador.”

A recent study from eMarketer showed that the average time consumers spend on their mobile devices has increased by nearly a minute per day over the past four years, while the amount of time they spend watching traditional television sets has dropped by more than 30 seconds in the same time period. In a few years, mobile devices will overtake TVs as the primary way consumers watch their favorite shows.

So cable operators, content creators, wireless providers and phone-makers are racing to stay ahead of how, when and where we consume those shows.

"The test kitchens of quality television is no longer the broadcast networks."
Robert Thompson, Syracuse University professor

“Networks have gotten better over the last five years, allowing for more traffic to be consumed,” said Tony Goncalves, svp of strategy and business development for the AT&T Entertainment Group. “Screens have gotten larger. Devices have gotten more powerful, and content has essentially become more available—and that’s with the fragmentation of content availability.”

AT&T says data traffic on its network has increased 250,000 percent over the past 10 years, and it’s seen a jump of 75 percent in the past year alone. Goncalves said the carrier expects major growth in the next three years across the network.

“In the early days, Netflix was the only streaming service,” said Ken Burbary, chief digital officer at ad agency Lowe Campbell Ewald. “Now you have so many options, everything from individual channels or channel options like an HBO Go all the way to Hulu or Netflix, which are also creating their own original programming to capture audiences and not just relying on programming or content other creators are providing.”

One recent sign of the times was seeing Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos at the Academy Awards this year. Amazon won an Oscar for best original screenplay for Manchester by the Sea and picked up a best foreign language statue for The Salesman. Netflix, which has racked up Emmys and Peabody awards for its slate of shows, also picked up an Oscar for its original short subject documentary, The White Helmets. And what good is a fast network and a sleek new phone if you can only use it to watch cat videos on YouTube?

“The test kitchens of quality television is no longer the broadcast networks,” said Thompson. “In a lot of cases, it’s not even the pay cable places. A lot of it is happening on the direct-to-internet programming. Since this conversation started five minutes ago, Netflix has probably released seven really good series.”

"Screens have gotten larger. Devices have gotten more powerful and content has essentially gotten more available."
Tony Goncalves, svp at AT&T Entertainment Group

AT&T saw the change coming and acquired DirecTV for $48.5 billion in July 2015. Eighteen months later, it launched DirecTV Now, giving mobile users greater access to live TV without a satellite dish or cable cord.

And in a reverse move, Comcast stepped into the wireless carrier arena by announcing Xfinity Mobile, a new mobile carrier service combining Verizon’s network with 16 million Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspots, allowing Comcast subscribers to stay comfortably within the Comcast universe to watch their favorite shows.

Comcast, meanwhile, operates under the tenet that TV is just a piece of glass, which means how you’re watching isn’t as important as what you watch. The Philadelphia-based cable operator that also owns Universal, introduced an updated Xfinity app in February, allowing customers to tap into whatever content stream they want on any mobile device.

“It just gives you perspective that networks evolve, content becomes more available, devices evolve, and so you create lots of opportunity to give consumers the convenience that they’re seeking in consuming content on their terms and on their schedule,” said AT&T’s Goncalves.

So does this move to smaller screens and faster networks mean the old set-top box is heading the way of its cousin, the radio receiver?

Newhouse’s Thompson said HBO’s cult hit Game of Thrones is a good example of why traditional TV watching isn’t going anywhere.

“It is so much better to watch Game of Thrones on a big screen than it is to watch on a little tablet or on a phone,” he said. “On the other hand, I think number one, viewers are willing to make that sacrifice for the convenience and the portability and number two, they have the opportunity to have those devices communicate with their big-screen TVs and watch them on it anyway.”

@KevinEckTV Kevin Eck is a writer and editor for Adweek.