Ownership of traditional television sets in the United Kingdom has fallen to its lowest level since 1972, according to media reports. As usual, the picture is rather more complex than this suggests. The number of television homes across the country does appear to have fallen from its peak at the end of 2013, but is a million higher than in 2005.

The Sunday Times reported that in the first quarter of 2015, figures from the industry ratings body BARB show that 1.72 million households declared that they did not have a television set, up from 150,000 the previous quarter.

It suggests that only 93.7% of households now declare that they have a television, the lowest proportion since 1972. Two years ago the proportion was more than 96%.

Looking at the BARB universe data, in May 2015 there were 26.09 million television homes in the United Kingdom, compared to 26.13 million in January.

There has been a fall of 190,000 television homes since May 2014. The absolute number of television homes as reported by BARB is the lowest since July 2010. It is down by 440,000 from its peak in December 2013.

There is some variation in the number of television homes reported by BARB, with evident changes for different survey periods.

BARB Universe of Television Homes in the United Kingdom 2000-2015

The average since 2010 has been 26.27 million. So an apparent reduction of around 200,000 television homes seems significant but it is only 0.7% of the total. There is still a long way to fall.

The number is much higher than in the year 2000, at the dawn of digital television, when there were 24.10 million television homes in the United Kingdom.

It may be too early to say whether we are seeing a survey sampling effect, or the beginning of a long-term relative decline in television ownership.

The decline is more evident in the context of population growth, relative to the total number of households.

From 2004 to 2014 the population of the United Kingdom increased from 60.0 million to 64.6 million. On average it has grown at 465,000 people a year. Just under half of that is because of more births than deaths, so these are children. The rest is down to net migration, or people coming into the country.

It is simplistic to suggest, as some newspapers have, that the apparent relative decline in television ownership is down to people watching television on the BBC iPlayer. As The Sunday Times puts it, to “exploit a legal loophole to avoid paying the BBC licence fee”.

BARB reports that in 2014 there were 1.13 million homes in the United Kingdom with broadband but no conventional television set. That is 4.3% of all households. In 2013 there were 1.07 million such homes, so that is an annual increase of 33,000.

The proportion of homes with broadband but no television is highest among younger demographics in urban areas. 12.4% of households with 16-24-year-olds in metro areas have broadband but no television.

However, there is still a view that the glass is over 90% full and that those without a television set will eventually get one. This seems to be supported by the relatively stable number of television homes in the context of disruptive technologies and demographic change.

BARB suggests in its annual viewing report that the generation of digital natives, who were in their teens and early twenties when YouTube launched, are now in their twenties and early thirties. “Somewhere along the way, seemingly, they’ve been persuaded that it might be a good idea to acquire a TV set.”