May 19, 2015

From the Archives

Network, Cable, Streaming: What Americans Are Watching in 2015

The medium of television is—like newspapers, magazines and books—undergoing massive disruption. The average number of cable stations Americans receive ballooned from 129 in 2008 to 189 in 2013, an increase of one-third in just five years.(1) During the same five-year period, Netflix introduced subscription-based Internet streaming of both TV shows and movies, a service that has multiplied to include more than 60 million subscribers around the globe.(2) What effects, if any, have these seismic shifts had on the TV audience? Barna Group surveyed a nationally representative panel of U.S. adults on their viewing habits and preferences.

According to the new research, each of the four adult generations reports a TV top-three list unique to their content and delivery preferences. For example, the top shows watched by Elders (Americans 69 years and older) are all dramas aired on one of the “Big Four” television networks: ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox. Forty-four percent of Elders report watching NCIS (CBS), one-third say they watch Person of Interest (CBS, 33%) or Criminal Minds (CBS, 33%), and about one-quarter regularly watch Castle (ABC, 23%).

By contrast, Millennials (ages 18 to 30) watch a combination of comedies, dramas and “dramedies” that air on network, cable or Internet streaming services. One in four young adults say they watch The Big Bang Theory (CBS, 25%), and one in five watch Criminal Minds (21%), The Walking Dead (AMC, 21%) or Orange Is the New Black (Netflix, 20%).

Gen-Xers (ages 31 to 49) share with Millennials an affinity for The Big Bang Theory (26%) and The Walking Dead (25%), while Boomers (ages 50 to 68) split their loyalties between the younger generations’ preference for Big Bang (34%) and the Elders’ favorite, NCIS (36%).

What do they all have in common? At least one in five adults among every age group watches Criminal Minds, the police procedural that follows an elite squad of FBI specialists who profile the country’s most disturbing criminals. One-third of Elders (33%), one in four Boomers (24%), and one in five Gen-Xers (19%) and Millennials (20%) report regularly watching Criminal Minds.

As the widespread popularity of Criminal Minds demonstrates, Americans generally favor dramas over other genres, but many also enjoy sitcoms such as Big Bang. There are notable differences, however, when it comes to news and sports: Elders are more likely than younger generations to report regularly viewing these genres.

Also significant are the differences between practicing Christians (who attended at least one church service during the past month and say their faith is very important in their lives), non-practicing Christians (who self-identify as Christian but do not qualify as “practicing”) and those of other faiths or none. Particularly when it comes to news and sports, practicing Christians are more likely than others to say they watch these television genres on a regular basis.

There is also measurable disparity in the amount of time each generation reports spending in front of the TV (or viewing TV programming on another screen). While a majority among all ages says they turn on the TV seven days a week (Elders 93%, Boomers 83%, Gen-Xers 69%, Millennials 52%), young adults are far more likely than older Americans to say they don’t turn it on at all. About one in five Millennials say they turn on the TV zero days per week (22%), compared to less than one percent of Elders. This disparity is due largely to other screens replacing the TV among Millennials, rather than less screen time overall.

On the days they sit down to watch, Millennials and Gen-Xers tend to watch fewer hours of TV programming than their older counterparts. One-third of Millennials (32%) and one in five Gen-Xers (22%) report watching one hour or less on an average day, compared to one in 14 Boomers (7%) and one in 20 Elders (5%). Elders are nearly three times as likely as Millennials to say they watch television four or more hours per day (72% vs. 26%). The median number of hours per day is two among Millennials, three among Gen-Xers, four among Boomers and five among Elders.

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Older Americans’ preference for traditional media extends beyond entertainment to information acquisition, as well. Twice as many Elders (41%) as Gen-Xers (21%) and Millennials (20%) say they turn to network television at least a few times a day to get new information. The proportions are reversed when it comes to getting new information via digital tech:

  • Millennials (40%) and Gen-Xers (42%) are twice as likely as Elders (22%) to say they use websites at least a few times a day to get new information.
  • Millennials (36%) are three times as likely as Elders (12%) to use social media at least a few times a day to stay informed.
  • Millennials (49%) are nearly four times as likely as Elders (13%) to use a mobile or smart phone to access new information.

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About the Research
The research included in this report is the result of a nationwide online study conducted February 3 to February 11, 2015. The survey included 1,000 adults 18 and older. The maximum sampling error for the study is plus or minus 3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.

The online study is derived from a probability panel, which means that respondents are recruited for inclusion in the research based on physical mailing addresses, not an opt-in online panel. Those randomly selected households without Internet access are provided an Internet-enabled device to complete surveys.

Generations: Millennials (or Mosaics) are the generation born between 1984 through 2002; Gen-Xers (or Busters), between 1965 and 1983; Boomers, between 1946 and 1964; and Elders, in 1945 or earlier.

About Barna Group
Barna Group (which includes its research division, Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each update on the latest research findings from Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (

© 2015 by Barna Group.

(1) Megan Geuss, “On Average, Americans Get 189 Cable TV Channels and Only Watch 17,” ArsTechnica, May 6, 2014.
(2) Rick Munarriz, “Netflix Inc. Earnings: Crushing Milestones,” The Motley Fool, April 15, 2015.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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