Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Audience Flow Past and Present: Television Inheritance Effects Reconsidered

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Audience Flow Past and Present: Television Inheritance Effects Reconsidered

Article excerpt

Inheritance effects are one of the most important, and robust, of all television audience behaviors. Also known as lead-in effects, or simply audience flow, they have been routinely reported in the academic literature for over 40 years. Essentially, they describe the tendency of people who watch one program on a given network to stay tuned to the next, resulting in disproportionately large "duplicated audiences." If the lead-in program has a big rating, it confers an advantage on the following program. Conversely, if the first show has a small audience, it handicaps its successor. Neither the growth of alternative delivery systems nor the universal penetration of remotes seems to have diminished the phenomenon. Inheritance effects are, to this day, the foundation of programming strategies that have been in use for several decades (Adams, 1997; Eastman & Ferguson, 2006; Webster, Phalen, & Lichty, 2006).

Yet, many studies that claim to document inheritance effects are hampered by their inability to directly observe the duplicated audience. Further, there is a lack of conceptual clarity on how to measure inheritance effects that leads to widely divergent, even contradictory, results. This study addresses those problems by using Nielsen peoplemeter data (a) to replicate a study of inheritance published 20 years ago (Webster, 1985), and (b) to extend the analysis to consider a different dependent measure. This author finds that the relationships identified in 1985 are generally stronger in 2004, resulting in a model that explains 96% of the variance in the duplicated audience. However, an alternative measure of inheritance provides new insights into this central feature of television audience behavior.

The Literature on Inheritance Effects

Audience flow is a topic of enduring interest to broadcasters. As early as 1945, C. E. Hooper, the long defunct ratings company, offered radio stations a service to track audience flow to and from other stations ("Advertising News and Notes," 1945). Beville's (1988) history of audience ratings describes network researchers routinely analyzing audience flow with household-by-household data from Nielsen. Legendary TV programmers like Fred Silverman and Brandon Tartikoff built their reputations, in part, on their ability to manage audience flow (Gitlin, 1983).

These recurring patterns of audience behavior are best understood within a theoretical framework that recognizes audience availability, viewer program preferences, and the many structural factors that constrain those preferences (e.g., Rust & Eechambadi, 1989; Webster & Phalen, 1997). Webster (1985) argued that the general phenomenon of adjacent program audience duplication was, in the first instance, the result of audience availability. That is, programs scheduled back-to-back were likely to enjoy high levels of duplication simply because the same people tended to be available (i.e., watching TV) in adjacent time periods. Within that context, viewer preferences and the structure of program options determined the ebb and flow of audiences. Some have ascribed audience flow to simple audience inertia and passivity. Adams (1997), for example, argued that "flow theory" had little or nothing to do with people acting on their program preferences. In fact, the relevant theories of program choice take a more nuanced approach that attempts to sort out the tensions between people's program preferences and the way in which those programs are scheduled. That is, at any rate, the framework within which inheritance effects are explored here.

Inheritance effects can be thought of as a special, with in-channel, case of audience flow. It is, by far, the most important and widely studied form of audience flow. To the best of the author's knowledge, the first publicly reported evidence of this behavior was offered by Kirsch and Banks (1962), who noted inordinately high levels of audience duplication between programs scheduled back-to-back on the same network. …

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