The proposition of online video platforms is that they offer extensive viewer choice compared to traditional television channels. However, these viewing choices are often influenced by factors controlled by service providers. An academic study suggests that the prominence of a programme in the user interface has an influence on its popularity. That is hardly surprising but implies that viewers have less agency than is often assumed.

The research paper is by Professor Neil Thurman, who studied the performance of BBC Three when it ceased to be broadcast as a regular channel and became available only online, before returning as a traditional transmission.

He and his team investigated a year of viewing data of programmes on traditional broadcast television compared to viewing on demand.

They found that the presence and prominence of programmes on the online interface significantly and positively predict the extent to which those programmes are viewed. The genre seems to be no more a predictor of viewing on demand than on a traditional television channel.

The study of BBC Three analysed twelve months of viewing on the channel from February 2015 and compared it with twelve months of online viewing through the BBC iPlayer from November 2018 when it was available as an online only channel.

The results suggest that the number of days a BBC Three programme was available on the online platform was the strongest predictor of the audience it attracted. By contrast, neither the number of times a BBC Three programme was transmitted nor the number of days it was on air were significant positive predictors of viewing on linear television.

Being able to control how long programmes are available to stream appears, therefore, to give online video platform owners significant power over what audiences watch, the study suggests. The longer fruit is dangled in front of a viewer, the likelier they are to grab it.

Controlling for a number of other variables, there was a positive correlation between the viewing of BBC Three programmes and their placement and prioritisation on the BBC Three web site and landing page on the BBC iPlayer.

As ever, correlation does not imply causality. It could be that popularity also influenced the level of promotion. In any case, it suggests that more prominent promotion resulted in more viewing, which seems unsurprising.

Considering genre, it appears to be no more important as a predictor of viewing online than on traditional television and is possibly less important. This may be surprising, since online platforms present the proposition of user choice, which presumably includes preference for particular genres of programme.

This challenges the assumption that online platforms empower users to choose to view whatever they want whenever they want. It seems, unsurprisingly, that they get to choose from what they are given.

What this does not account for is that those viewers may have chosen to watch something else entirely, given the choice.

The study concludes that despite dramatic changes in the ways in which television programmes are distributed and consumed, media providers can continue to assert control over what their viewers choose to watch.

The rule of thumbnails suggests that on platform promotion has a large influence on what people watch.

“Predicting streaming audiences for a channel’s on-demand TV shows” by Neil Thurman, et al. is published in the first issue of Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies.