Terrestrial TV switch-off risks leaving older viewers behind, Ofcom warns


Terrestrial TV is reaching a “tipping point” which risks leaving older audiences with less choice and reduced quality, Ofcom has warned.

In a report published yesterday, the media watchdog warned that a sharp decline in traditional TV viewing had prompted broadcasters including the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 to place an ever-growing focus on their streaming services.

Broadcasters are shifting their focus as collapsing terrestrial viewing numbers make terrestrial broadcasting increasingly economically challenging, with advertisers less keen to book time.

The average number of minutes of broadcast TV watched per day has fallen by 25% since 2018, according to figures from Ofcom, as viewers flock to streaming rivals such as Netflix and Disney.

The shift risks leaving many viewers – particularly older ones who rely on terrestrial – left behind if the move to streaming is “unmanaged”.

Taking account of responses to our earlier call for evidence, research into audience behaviours and analysis of commercial dynamics, Ofcom’s report outlines:

  • people are spending less and less time watching TV broadcast over digital terrestrial television (DTT);
  • changing audience habits and rising costs could force a tipping point within the next decade where investment in DTT cannot be sustained – undermining the platform for those who rely on it; and
  • three broad approaches that could sustain the universal availability of TV services.

The market now

In recent years there has been a radical shift in people’s viewing habits. TV is increasingly being viewed online, driven by the mass take-up of broadband, a range of different devices, new platforms and ways to consume content. The average person spent 25% fewer minutes per day watching broadcast TV in 2023 than in 2018.

The trend is expected to continue, with watching on scheduled TV channels through Digital Terrestrial Television and satellite forecast to drop from 67% of total long-form TV viewing in 2022, to 35% by 2034 and 27% by 2040. Much of that remaining viewing will be done by households that rely solely on DTT, which are more likely to include people who are older, less affluent or have a disability.

Broadcasters are paying to distribute their content both online and via traditional infrastructures like DTT with costs rising. The less time people spend on DTT, the less cost-effective per viewer it is.

For the first time, many broadcasters have told Ofcom they foresee a tipping point at which it is no longer economically viable to support DTT in its current form.

To date, the significant migration of audiences online has been organic. Were this transition to continue ‘unmanaged’, there is a real risk that the DTT platform could be left unsupported. If those organisations that sustain the DTT ecosystem see a weaker case for new investment, they are likely to seek to cut costs.

This could mean, for example, removing HD from Freeview, or reducing the number of channels the platform can broadcast – but without support for those viewers who rely on DTT to access those services over the internet.

Says Ed Leighton, Ofcom’s Director of Strategy and Policy:

“Digital Terrestrial Television faces big long-term challenges and audiences who rely on it deserve a solution that is sustainable and fit for the future. It requires a new vision and planning across industry and Government.  

“We’ve set out three broad approaches for how this could be achieved in the long term, and we’ll continue to support Government with further analysis as it considers options for the future”.  

Chris Price
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