A young woman wearing headphones watching media on her laptop
Younger viewers now rely more on digital apps for on-demand short-form videos, rather than scheduling time for TV programmes © Antonio Guillem/Alamy

The proportion of people watching traditional broadcast television in the UK each week showed a record fall last year, with even loyal older audiences more readily switching to digital services, according to research by the media watchdog.

Weekly audience reach of broadcast TV fell to 79 per cent in 2022 from 83 per cent in 2021, Ofcom said in its 2023 media nations report on Thursday.

That was down from 88 per cent in 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic, in an acceleration of the longer-term shift away from “linear” TV viewing, where people watch scheduled programmes live on traditional channels.

The average time viewers spent watching linear TV each day dropped to 2 hours 38 minutes in 2022, more than one-tenth lower than in 2021, when viewing was partly boosted by Covid curbs.

Ofcom found that average daily viewing among older people, which had been stable before the pandemic, dropped at its fastest rate. “Core” audiences aged over 65 fell 10 per cent year on year, and were down 6 per cent on pre-pandemic levels.

More people, including older viewers, are now watching programmes via digital streaming services rather than solely broadcast TV. But even taking account of this shift, the average amount of time spent watching TV and video content across all devices in 2022 was four hours 28 minutes per person per day, about 12 per cent lower than in 2021.

Claire Enders, founder of media research company Enders Analysis, pointed to the growth in popularity of video platform YouTube and social network TikTok among younger audiences, with less interest across age groups in news in particular compared with during the pandemic.

She noted it was also significant to see a “massive long-term drop in shows” that regularly attracted several million viewers. Analysts at Enders expect viewing of linear broadcasting to shrink from two-thirds to less than half of total video viewing by 2028 as streaming services such as Netflix advance.

The most watched TV programmes last year were England’s quarterfinal against France in the Fifa World Cup, Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral and the platinum jubilee celebrations.

But the number of programmes pulling in more than 4mn viewers has halved since 2014, suggesting a big drop in “national TV moments” around climactic parts of soap operas, for example, as well as lower audiences for once-dominant evening TV news bulletins.

With only 48 programmes averaging more than 4mn TV viewers on streaming platforms in 2022, Ofcom said its report illustrated “just how fragmented the viewing landscape has become”.

The watchdog found two-thirds of households were using a subscription streaming service in the first quarter of 2023, down from a peak of 68 per cent in the first quarter of last year, suggesting take-up has plateaued.

Younger viewers also now rely more on digital apps for on-demand short-form videos, rather than scheduling time for TV programmes.

For the first time, 16 to 24-year-olds watched less broadcast TV on average than children aged between four and 15, prioritising time on apps. The report said teenage TikTok users spent more than an hour a day on the social network.

Its research also found that roughly one in five adults listened to podcasts each week.

​Letter in response to this article:

Broadcasters are proving resilient and popular / From Matt Hill, Research and Planning Director, Thinkbox, London WC1, UK

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