Whether they're watching those specific channels, or any of the 36 channels currently received by the average TV household, isn't clear, but a new study by Nielsen Media Research offers the first proof ever that viewers may significantly increase the number of channels they watch as more become available.
The Nielsen study, which was conducted in November 1993 for the Network Television Association, found that the average TV household currently views 13 channels, or 36%, of 36 received.
That may seem like a relatively small percentage, but it's a significant increase over the previous study conducted by Nielsen in 1990, which found that the average TV household viewed only nine, or 30%, of 30 channels received.
That is a 44% increase in the number of channels viewed by the average household, with only a 20% increase in the number of channels received.
The finding appears to refute an important psychological theory that network TV executives have used to defend their vitality and viability in a 500-channel TV universe.
The theory, known as "seven, plus or minus two," says that given an infinite number of choices, people will select a finite number of manageable options. Indeed, in 1990, with 30 channels available to the average TV household, they watched only nine.
"This magical number seven has sort of been around forever," said Bob Warrens, senior VP-director of research at J. Walter Thompson USA, Chicago. "It doesn't really mean anything."
Mr. Warrens said even Nielsen's definition of "viewing" is highly interpretive.
Currently, Nielsen defines a channel as being "viewed" if a household has watched it for 10 or more consecutive minutes per week.
Mr. Warrens said JWT's standard is more stringent: "What we look at here, in terms of the number of channels a person would watch with enough regularity that an advertiser would be able to reach them, is probably something in the order of seven, eight or nine channels."
Many cable networks, however, believe that definition penalizes them, because they're not necessarily programmed to sustain viewing for 10 consecutive minutes or more.
"There are so many cable networks out there that are designed for watching a minute or two, such as MTV or the Weather Channel. With remote controls, it makes it easier for viewers to move around. So the definition of viewing is really deceptive," said Rob Frydlewicz, VP-associate director of media research at N W Ayer, New York. "If you're just looking at 10-plus minutes, you're completely under-representing channels like MTV and VH-1, which probably get only 3 or 4 minutes of viewing at a time."
In fact, several cable networks have requested that Nielsen change its definition of viewing to 5 consecutive minutes.
Broadcast network executives, meanwhile, say the new finding supports their basic premise that viewers still only watch a limited number of channels.
"What this shows is that no matter how many channels there, are it's the programming that counts. And the networks are the leaders in programming that attracts viewers. They are now and they will be in the future," said Marcella Rosen, president-ceo of the Network Television Association. Ms. Rosen noted that when Nielsen analyzed viewing in households that receive 80 channels, the channels "viewed" increased by only one, to 14.
"That's an amazing statistic," said Dave Poltrack, senior VP-research and planning for CBS. "When you think about all the new options those 80-channel households have available to them and the number of channels they watch increases by only one."
But others aren't so sanguine about a limited channel viewing future. Even JWT's Mr. Warrens, who uses a stringent definition of viewing, said he believes the number will increase significantly, as niche programmers start offering services that appeal to specific viewer interests.
The survey was a special analysis of Nielsen's regular network TV ratings.