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Many of My Friends Don't Own TVs, but That Could Change Soon

Gen Z wants TVs to function more like their phones. How can TV makers innovate to compete for young consumers' attention?

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Bella Czajkowski Associate Writer
Bella covers TVs and home entertainment technology for CNET. She earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from Ohio State University, where she was editor-in-chief of the independent student newspaper, The Lantern. She recently earned a master's degree in investigative reporting from Columbia Journalism School. When she's not writing, Bella can be found at the dog park with her rescue pup, Wilson.
Expertise TVs and Home Entertainment Technologies
Bella Czajkowski
6 min read
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Phones over TVs?

Josh Goldman/CNET

I recently joined CNET covering TVs (hello!) and started by asking some friends a basic question: What do you look for in a TV? But I quickly realized I should've been asking a different question: whether any of them actually own a TV. As it stands, many don't.

I'm part of Gen Z, defined as those born between 1997 and 2012. My friends and I have long relied primarily on personal devices like phones and laptops over traditional TV screens for entertainment. My last handful of apartments went without a TV in the living room. For the most part, my roommates and I would stream content on our laptops. 

But personal devices can't do it all. People want TVs for console gaming and as an alternative screen to their computers after a long day of work or school. Plus, watching shows and movies with friends or family on a small screen is clunky and inconvenient.

Recent data shows that Gen Z does, in fact, rely less on TVs now than past generations, but TV makers are adding new features to make sets more appealing to young viewers. Experts I spoke with pointed to increased integration between smartphones and TVs, including the ability to buy products you see in shows or films. They say this may incentivize younger consumers to purchase and use more TVs. 

Phones beat TVs for streaming shows among Gen Z

A survey of 16- to 23-year-olds in the US, France and Brazil found that the majority -- at 50% -- use a smartphone as the main device to watch shows, according to Broadpeak, a technology company that designs and manufactures video delivery components. A computer followed as the second most popular source at 30%, with tablets and TVs each accounting for only 10%.

My first instinct was this must be due to the ever-expanding domination of social media like TikTok and Instagram, which can't be consumed through a TV. But curiously, Gen Z still spends a lot of time streaming. A survey by consumer research firm GWI found that Gen Z typically spends around 2 hours per day streaming. So their consumption of film and TV hasn't declined, only the method by which they watch has changed.

Focusing on "streaming wars" -- or what content people are consuming -- misses out on a larger point about how they're consuming it, according to Hub, an entertainment and TV research firm. This firm's data, like the Broadpeak survey, also shows a strong shift away from traditional TV screens. 

So what does this mean for TV makers and content producers?

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Phones are the main streaming device for the majority of Gen Z. 

Josh Goldman/CNET

The new frontier: Mean Girls broken into 23 TikTok videos

Some creators and distributors of shows and films have adapted to capture Gen Z viewers on their phones. Paramount uploaded the entire Mean Girls movie to TikTok broken down into 23 separate videos, for example.

Jon Giegengack, founder and principal of Hub, said with only 24 hours in the day, social media platforms and streaming companies are competing for young consumers' attention. There is a certain ease in social media like TikTok that takes away the chore of decision making for people, showing them content seamlessly and without individual decision making. 

When you turn on your TV and navigate to Netflix, for example, you have to spend some time choosing what to watch, Giegengack said. TikTok cuts that "discovery process" out by showing you content immediately, all the while fine tuning what it shows you in the future via its algorithm. 

"TikTok has maybe the best discovery process, which is no discovery process at all," he said.

That's a mode or ease of viewing that TV hasn't really caught up with. Some streaming services have offered a "shuffle" mode, but it hasn't had the same traction as social media platforms that offer frictionless entertainment. Gen Z is often known for wanting instant gratification, which this feature plays well to.

Sharing accounts is easier on phones

Netflix recently cracked down on password sharing, impacting the way young consumers consume TV and film. A survey by YPulse found that 72% of Gen Z would rather stop watching Netflix entirely than purchase their own subscription, should password sharing no longer be an option.

Curiously, Netflix polices password sharing only on TVs connected to different Wi-Fi networks, not personal devices, according to the company's website. This means you can still access a shared Netflix account from a remote location using a phone, tablet or laptop -- further incentivizing people to just stream directly from their personal devices, rather than using a TV and needing to purchase an entire separate Netflix subscription.

Gen Z buys fewer TVs now, but that likely won't last

Younger consumers ages 18 to 26 are purchasing markedly fewer TVs than older generations, according to data from the Consumer Technology Association. In its 2023 study of tech ownership in the US, which is the latest data available, 68% of consumers in this age group own a TV versus 87% of total US adults.

This study also reinforced that all in all, younger people spend less time in front of traditional TV sets than other generations. Still, there are some forms of content, like long-form films and sports, that they prefer to use TVs, especially in a social setting.

But when asked whether they plan to purchase a TV in the next year, about one-third of consumers aged 18 to 26 answered affirmatively -- on par with other generations. This could very well be because younger consumers are, for the first time, buying houses of their own and furnishing it with TVs. 

So what will they be looking for in TVs?

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Casting to a TV is a gateway to a bigger screen.

Josh Goldman/CNET

Phone-friendly features (and shopping) may make TVs more appealing

Jessica Boothe, who led CTA's study, said she expects a shift toward more interconnectivity between devices. For example, maybe someone prefers to use their smartphone to watch content when alone, but they also like the option to cast from their phone onto a TV to watch with friends.

Apple AirPlay and similar screen sharing or mirroring tech is a form of interconnectivity between devices, and it's pretty widely used already. The nice thing about casting a phone or laptop screen onto a TV is that it doesn't really require any additional devices, plus it's simple and fast to set up.

Boothe also expects an uptick in interactive features on TVs, including greater e-commerce or direct purchasing offerings directly off the TV. For me, this conjured up images of traditional infomercials. But Boothe spoke specifically about the ability to see something you like in a show or movie and purchase it directly. For example, you see a pair of boots you like in an episode of Emily in Paris and buy them off the TV. TikTok recently launched a "shop" tab that functions similarly.

"If I was watching Emily in Paris, and I really liked her fashion, if I could purchase that purse or those shoes, that's how I really think about that coming to life for me," Boothe said.

Tech company Brightline released a report finding that 75% of survey respondents would prefer an interactive TV ad over a standard commercial. Viewers have an appetite not just for personalized ads, but those they can actively interface with rather than passively watch. Interacting directly with shows in other ways, for example sports betting directly on your TV, could also become more widespread. 

"It's kind of a build-your-own adventure with the TV," Boothe said.

Boothe was in agreement with Hub's founder, saying Gen Z may rely more on TVs as they become the "hub" or central command center of a household that can, say, control a washing machine and Ring doorbell system -- features already available on many TVs. 

And TVs themselves could take more mobile-friendly forms. Samsung released its Sero TV, which can rotate to show vertical videos, a few years back. The idea for the 43-inch screen was to serve as a larger version of your phone, where you could watch TikTok and other content from vertical-oriented social media platforms. Samsung said the TV was "designed for the mobile generation."

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Samsung made a TV designed for vertical social videos. 

The Sero never quite took off, but its design gets to the heart of that idea of interconnectivity between devices that industry experts predict will be most important to younger generations in the coming years.

I have a TV now but only by sheer happenstance because my former roommate forgot it when she moved out (yes, an entire TV). But I rarely watch it. Instead, I turn to my phone -- and really, only my phone -- for entertainment and utility alike. But as TV technology and functionality advance, I find myself reevaluating just how a TV could feature and function in my life.