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Canadians switch channels on digital recording as TV habits change: poll

Live television the top choice among Canadians 55 and over.
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Over the past 12 months, there have been many opportunities for Canadians to enjoy entertainment at home.

The way we approach content has changed dramatically, particularly for younger viewers. The early years of this century provided a barrage of specialty cable channels that were, at the start, offered on a free trial basis. Now, following the success of Netflix and Amazon Prime, more media conglomerates are starting to assemble old, recent and new content into on-demand streaming packages.

When Research Co. and Glacier Media asked Canadians about their television viewing habits this month, we once again encountered some particularly profound generational gaps. On a weekly basis, Canadians who watch television spend 19 hours and 35 minutes enjoying content, whether on over-the-air and cable channels, or streaming series and movies on TV sets, tablets and mobile devices.

Canadians aged 55 and over spend the most time exposed to television in a typical week (25 hours and 56 minutes), a significantly higher number than their counterparts aged 35 to 54 (18 hours and 20 minutes) and aged 18 to 34 (13 hours and eight minutes).

The way in which Canadians enjoy television differs. Across the country, more than a third of the viewing time (35%) is devoted to live programming on a regular set. This is up 10 points since our January 2020 survey, before the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to rekindle with home entertainment with the cancellation of concerts and live sporting events, and closed theatre houses and cinemas.

There is growth for streaming services, which now account for 29% of the TV viewing time of Canadians, up six points from last year. A severe drop is observed for the concept of watching television via a digital recording device, which went from 32% of the time in 2020 to just 13% in 2021. As Canadians become more well versed in finding streaming content, the need to keep recorded versions of movies and sitcoms in our cable boxes or similar devices has waned.

Significantly less television viewing time is spent streaming from network websites (7%), streaming from other websites (9%) or watching content downloading directly from the internet (7%).

The surge in the popularity of streaming can be attributed to Canada’s youngest adults, who devote 44% of their TV viewing time to these services. Conversely, most of the hours spent by Canadians aged 55 and over (55%) occur in front of a television set broadcasting at that particular moment.

Different events can capture our attention as viewers. The past year gave us a unique presidential campaign in the United States, as well as a moment of catharsis for the 73% of Canadians who felt Donald Trump was “bad for Canada.” Across our country, 42% of television watchers watched a U.S. presidential or vice-presidential debate and a similar proportion (40%) watched the inauguration of Joe Biden in January. Canadians aged 55 and over were keener to watch these events than their younger counterparts.

The pandemic has postponed the release of many motion pictures, mostly because live attendance to the movie theatre in international markets is the best way to cover the cost of major blockbusters. This has not stopped some content creators from making new movies available for streaming, but usually at a cost that will not be part of an annual or monthly subscription.

While fewer than one in five Canadian television watchers (18%) paid to watch a motion picture that was not shown in theatres because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the proportion increases to 26% among those aged 18 to 34.

Network television continues to generate content that is effectively premiered at a particular time slot on weekdays. Many Canadian television watchers have capitalized on the chance to watch entire seasons and shows from start to finish at a pace that we never would have imagined three decades ago.

More than seven in 10 Canadian television watchers (73%) have “binge watched,” or watched two or more episodes of a specific series in one sitting. It is important to note that the fluctuations between different age groups are not drastic. If the content is there, Canadians of all ages will sneak another episode in before continuing with their day or ending it.

The findings show some demographic consistency on our consumption of live television and streaming. Canadians aged 55 and over are still devoting a majority of their time on live television, even if some have started to stream and “binge watch.”

The biggest loser of the current “television war” appears to be the digital recording device. With vast libraries of shows and movies available online for a fee, the idea of recording and storing broadcast content is gathering dust – much like the Beta and VHS tapes lingering in the corners of our childhood homes.  

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted from March 4 to March 6, 2021, among 910 adults in Canada who watch television at home. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in Canada. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.