According to the IMMI data, more than 20% of people watch some amount of prime-time TV programming online. Within that group of online viewers, 50% are watching programming as it becomes available and appear to be beginning to use the computer as a substitute for the TV set, the company said. The other 50% are using the web as a tool to watch past programming they have missed, or to re-watch segments of episodes they have already seen.
The shifting patterns have distinct consequences for marketers and media outlets. Advertisers typically pay for TV advertising based on audience ratings for the commercials that appear on the individual networks. At present, there is no standardized measure for audiences of specific programs spread across TV, the web and various digital devices.
The problem was illustrated earlier this year when the fledgling CW network, facing ratings declines, refused to stream the last five episodes of the season of its flagship program, "Gossip Girl." The network instead chose to air the shows on TV only, in an attempt to boost ratings. Likewise, CBS pulled "Jericho" off the air after admonishing fans of the cult favorite that watching it online or played back via a digital video recorder didn't help the TV ratings.
Overall viewer consumption patterns appear to be in flux, IMMI found. "In May for the first time, data show that a significant portion of the online audience for prime-time episodic content is NOT also watching some portion of the show on TV," according to the company's report. The data also showed that, in several instances, online viewing of a particular program was higher than DVR viewing of that same program, suggesting that the fairly large segment of non-DVR owners are adopting the computer for time-shifting rather than buying a DVR.
Numbers to back speculation
"This is the first study to show there are a significant amount of people watching prime-time shows online who are not watching some portion of those shows on TV," said Amanda Welsh, co-founder and senior VP-research for IMMI, in a prepared statement. "Everyone's been talking about the internet becoming a substitute for TV; however, this is the first single-source passive data to show that the migration from one platform to another is actually occurring -- and it's happening fast."
Characteristics of the online-TV audience are also starting to emerge. IMMI found that the audience skews female (55%), is largely between the ages of 25 to 54 (58.4%) and is primarily Caucasian (76.8%). Online viewers are also more affluent than live network prime-time viewers, with people who earn $40,000 or less a year 75% more likely to watch a TV show live than online. The majority of online viewers -- 56.8% -- have completed four years of college or more.
IMMI collects its information by means of a random sample of 3,000 teens and adults in six key markets: New York, Denver, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and Houston. Members are given a cellphone that runs proprietary software that tracks individuals' media consumption.