A new study from Thinkbox, the commercial television marketing association, claims to explain why live viewing satisfies all our television needs. Meanwhile research commissioned by YouView suggests that catch-up or on-demand services now account for a fifth of television viewing in the United Kingdom, a finding that is far from compatible with conventional industry measures.

The Thinkbox study, Screen Life: TV in demand, suggests that the live television experience “satisfies human emotional needs that on demand viewing alone can’t”.

The study was based on an analysis of 100 hours of footage from 18 households and a diary study of 662 adults.

The researchers found six main reasons that people watch television: to unwind, for comfort, to connect, for an experience, to escape, or to indulge.

While there is much to be said for trying to understand why people watch television, rather than simply measuring how much they watch, reducing it to these six reasons seems rather simplistic.

It is interesting that the psychology of why people watch television, which is largely about their social and emotional needs, is far from aligned from the public service mission of broadcasters to inform, educate and entertain, as embodied in the values of the BBC.

While for many the primary purpose of television is to entertain, it might disappoint some programme makers that there is so little emphasis on information or education.

Yet in a typical week, around a fifth of the top hundred rating shows in Britain are news bulletins. That alone should suggest that people are interested in finding out what is happening in their world. That might be explained by a need for a sense of connection, but it might also suggest curiosity or a need for novelty.

In fact, news, sport, weather and some entertainment shows represent the majority of television that is genuinely ‘live’, while other genres such as drama and documentary are invariably recorded and arguably better viewed on demand when most convenient.

The researchers suggest that video on demand excels at satisfying personal approaches to television, specifically indulging and escaping, but is less equipped for more social needs such as unwinding and seeking comfort, a conclusion that appears arguable at best.

The study supports its finding by the observation that on 54% of occasions people were watching live television they were with someone else compared to 30% for video on demand.

One reason for that, which the research does not address, is that watching television is often not so much a shared experience as a negotiated experience.

When viewing with someone else, the question of ‘What is on television?’ is really ‘What shall we watch?’ which really means ‘What can we agree to watch?’ where the answer is dependent on the social dynamics of those involved.

When viewing alone, there is no need to negotiate, so there is more opportunity to catch-up, discover, browse or indulge, and the choice is likely to be more personal and more deliberate.

“Live TV is best equipped to meet all of the needs and that is why it will endure, no matter what new platforms emerge,” argues Neil Mortensen, the research and planning director of Thinkbox. “Live TV is our daily food whereas VOD is more like a box of chocolates.”

Yet if research commissioned from YouGov by YouView is to believed, a fifth of all television viewing is now to catch-up or on-demand services.

The YouGov survey questioned a nationally representative sample of over 2,000 adults from across the United Kingdom in May 2013 and found that they claimed to watch 16 hours of live television a week, 9 hours recorded and 6 hours catch-up in a typical week.

If that is anything like accurate it suggests that 19% of all viewing is to catch-up services while 48% of all viewing is viewed on demand.

Checking with BARB, the official source of television viewing figures in the United Kingdom, it seems that only 15.5% of all viewing in the year to the end of March 2013 was timeshifted, while at most a further 1-2% was viewed online.

BARB is working to incorporate more catch-up viewing in its measurements, but the discrepancy is significant. Nevertheless, the YouView finding that a fifth of all television viewing in the county is now to catch-up services was generally reported without critical comment.

The YouView survey was based on an online survey of self-reported viewing by 2,000 adults. YouGov claims that this was a nationally representative sample with a plus or minus 2% margin of error.

However, online surveys may not necessarily represent the viewing of the general population and self-reported responses invariably differ from actual observed behaviour.

For one thing, people may be more likely to recall viewing experiences that involve more personal and active decisions, such as time-shift or catch-up viewing.

In any case, the claimed average of 31 hours a week of television viewing is considerably more than the 25.75 hours of average weekly viewing that BARB measured in May.

All of which makes the claim that a fifth of viewing is on demand seem as incredible as the idea that live television will continue to dominate to the extent that it does today.

One thing is clear, there is a real need for more research into why people watch television and particular types of programmes, as well as measuring what they watch, when and where, if we are to understand how they can best be served in the future.