What is Linear TV?

Blog 5 min read | Oct 15, 2022 | JW Player


Television is a lot more complicated than it used to be. Who remembers the days of rabbit ears and three or four channels?

When it comes to monetizing your video content, it is important to understand all of the jargon. One term that often comes up is linear television, but what does it mean?

Linear television is the old school cable or satellite television. With linear TV, content is broadcast sequentially, at a specific time, and is intended to be watched at the time of broadcast. Of course, this latter part breaks down with current technology, as many people use DVRs to record shows for later viewing.

Sporting and other live events, however, are still typically watched at, or close to, the time of viewing. Delayed viewing is, of course, more common for events that are taking place in a different timezone.

Linear TV providers include cable, satellite, and over-the-air broadcasts. These forms of traditional TV are mistakenly considered to be “dead” but, in fact, retain strong vitality, especially with older demographics.

However, linear TV does not include VOD services that might be provided by these services, although they are often lumped together due to being on the same platform. By definition, on-demand services are not linear, but they offer a similar viewing experience and also come through the cable or satellite box rather than via the internet.

Linear TV could also be used to refer to a streaming service that is broadcasting live events as they happen, such as Peacock broadcasting Olympic events. This is still linear, as it is intended to be watched as it happens. However, the term is primarily used to refer to more traditional services.

How Does Linear TV Differ From Over-the-Top and Connected TV Services?

As technology has developed, linear TV has gained a new competitor. Streaming services, where programs are stored in a library and accessed on demand, are bleeding off viewership from linear TV. This is particularly true for younger people.

In fact, many younger people no longer have cable and obtain all of their TV content through OTT services such as Netflix, Apple TV, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Disney plus. The idea of watching a show when it is released on a weekly schedule is now considered old fashioned.

This might lead one to think that linear TV advertising is, in fact, on the way out. Traditional cable, however, has some advantages. You don’t need a smart TV, gaming console, Roku box or other device, for starters. In rural areas, satellite television has major advantages over over-the-top services.

OTT advertising is also often more data driven. Streaming services collect a lot of data about their audience. However, it is not the same as that gained through Nielsen ratings, which have become less accurate due to delayed viewing and, in some cases, people consuming the same content through multiple devices. For example, some linear TV providers also stream programs after the date and somebody who experienced a power outage might watch some episodes of the same show through their cable TV box and others on their computer. Notably, one race of the 2022 IndyCar season was broadcast entirely through NBC’s Peacock, forcing a lot of fans to switch platforms or skip the race.

The common wisdom that linear TV is on its way out is supported by declining viewership and ad spend, but the fact is that there are still many people who have a cable or satellite subscription. That said, 60% of families with young children no longer watch traditional TV, in part due to the increased flexibility and better parental controls offered by streaming platforms. There is also a trend for higher quality programming being available through these channels, as well as niche material that might only attract a small audience. This makes them a great outlet for your own niche material as you don’t need to necessarily get high ratings to continue.

And again, some things that are broadcast through streaming platforms still count as linear TV due to the nature of the material (sporting events, concerts, etc).

How Companies Should Continue to Invest in Linear TV?

First of all, live TV is worth considering. Major sporting events such as the Superbowl, the World Cup, etc, are still commonly watched through traditional TV. While streaming can offer added functionality, the fact is that most people want to watch these events right as they happen in order to avoid spoilers.

When it comes to video advertising, a lot depends on your target audience. Older people still have pay TV and may not have devices that can stream content other than laptops and desktop computers, or smartphone apps that provide only a small screen size.

Younger people, on the other hand, now consume most of their content through non-linear TV and often “blitz” shows, watching episodes back to back. They are often willing to pay extra not to have to watch ads, but advertising-supported services are attractive to those with limited funds.

It’s also worth understanding that Nielsen ratings now tend to capture a skewed audience and you may think the audience for your or somebody else’s content is older than it is. When producing content for live TV, it’s worth considering local linear channels first and then moving the content to streaming later. Local channels still tend to broadcast in a traditional manner, although it is often an adjunct to streaming not a replacement.

Linear or traditional TV is still a way to advertise and to get your content out there. While it has been partially replaced by streaming services, it still has its place, especially for older people and in rural areas. It should be part of your digital advertising strategy, at least for the time being, and local cable channels can be a good vehicle to get your monetized video content out there.

As streaming becomes more and more popular, however, it is important not to leave too many eggs in the linear tv basket. Most companies need to move into the streaming and non-linear TV space at this point, without necessarily abandoning the past.