People are hopping across the channels, but more choice is cutting viewing figures overall. Below, three families reveal their TV habits. By Meg Carter
Dawn of a new era or a last-ditch attempt to win subscribers? The jury's still out. But the cable industry is confident its new pounds 12m advertising campaign starring Dawn French, which broke yesterday, will finally fix the benefits of cable TV in the national psyche. It needs to. For despite now covering more than 30 per cent of UK households, cable operators suffer public ignorance and misunderstanding. And as research increasingly shows, more channels does not guarantee more TV viewing.

Far from being a recipe for TV heaven, the multiple stations of cable and satellite TV make viewers watch less television, analysis of Broadcasters' Audience Research Board (Barb) data reveals. This is because as viewers get more choice, they become more selective. Whereas once they would wait for their favourite programme by sitting through a second best, third choice or "least worst" option, now they'll have a bath or phone a friend instead.

"It's difficult to draw a clear conclusion because of other trends in the market - notably the fact that total TV viewing is in decline," says Dave Chilvers, a director at Continental Research. According to recent analysis of Barb data by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, people in households receiving only terrestrial TV spent on average 2.84 hours each day watching TV between July and September 1995 - down from 3.25 for the same period in 1991. The average for all households (including cable and satellite) fell over the same period from 3.41 to 3.21 hours.

"There is certainly no evidence that if people get extra channels, they watch more," Chilvers says. In fact, after a brief honeymoon period when they regularly watch nine, 10 or even more of the new services, viewing settles down to a regular repertoire of just three or four. After this period, Chilvers adds, "new" channels take no more than 30 to 40 per cent of all viewing, and terrestrials 60 to 70 per cent.

Ivor Hussein, research director at the advertising agency Lowe Howard- Spink, takes up the theme: "Viewing has reached saturation levels - it's only channel share that can change." He is investigating how viewing behaviour is affected by moving from a terrestrial TV to a cable and satellite multi- channel environment. "It's less to do with media fragmentation, more to do with becoming more selective."

By analysing four years of Barb viewing data, Hussein has identified distinct groups of cable and satellite users distinguishable by the types of programmes they predominantly view - such as sport or movies. "Media fragmentation doesn't have a scatter-gun effect," he says. "When they move to cable and satellite, viewers' true preferences come out."

Faced with greater choice, cable and satellite viewers tend to watch less TV: "Perhaps because there is a heightened awareness of why and what they are watching - it's a pattern evident around the world." However, they are able to watch more of what they want. People watch programmes, not channels, Hussein says. "They become more focused. It makes them plan their TV more."

The McQuakers

Andrew, a 36-year-old driving instructor, and his wife, Carole, 38, an accounts controller, live in south-east London with their three children, Christopher, 11, and seven-year-old twins, Sarah and Joanne.

They had cable TV installed two years ago for one reason, Andrew says: "The variety of programmes available for the whole family."

However, having cable TV hasn't revolutionised the amount they view. "We don't really watch more than we did before - perhaps with the exception of the kids in the mornings."

Instead, cable TV allows them to watch more of what they like.

In Andrew's case this means movies and sport; also UK Gold for Match of the Day and TOTP2.

For Carole, it's TV dramas. "I like the mini-series on Sky One because when I'm working I rarely get the chance to sit down before 8pm and when I do, there's usually something good on."

For the kids, "They watch Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and the Disney Channel," says Carole. "They're not loyal to any one channel but pick and choose."

BBC 1 and ITV remain part of the family's TV diet. "I still like EastEnders - you can't beat that - but I definitely watch less terrestrial TV," Carole says. Her husband adds: "Sunday nights on ITV at the moment are particularly strong."

But when it comes to flexibility and variety, the terrestrials just can't compete, Andrew says.

"The problem with ITV is they put on good films that are interrupted by News at Ten. I understand why they do it, but it makes it a late night if you have to get up next day at 6am."

The Winteringhams

The Winteringhams were one of the first families in York to get cable TV, last year. "The children always wanted us to have satellite," says Lorraine, 36, a part-time office worker. "But we didn't like the dish on the side of the house. Cable's much neater."

Lorraine and her husband, Kevin, 38, who is self-employed, have three children: Lee, 15, Gary, 12, and Laura, four.

"We watch more telly now than when we had just four channels. Sometimes there wasn't anything we wanted to watch at all," says Lorraine.

Films and sport were the reason the family took cable. They say they are more than satisfied by what's on offer.

"There's always something to watch," Kevin says. "You tend to flick through the channels a lot and think you might be missing something."

Seeing sport on the news the next day is not the same as watching it live, he continues. "I got up at 6am one Sunday to watch Super Bike racing from Australia. I'm watching sports I never would have before - like skiing."

Movies, cartoons, Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel are firm favourites for the younger members of the family. Their oldest likes sports - notably racing and boxing. Their youngest, Gary, watches the most TV, including Discovery and The History Channel, as well as regularly playing the "Nickelottery" on Nickelodeon every Saturday night.

Lorraine likes having the TV on during the day: "Sometimes I watch the shopping channel - I like the fashion slots - although I haven't bought anything yet. The good thing is that they show films three or four times so they're hard to miss.

"We very rarely switch on to BBC 1, BBC 2, ITV and Channel 4 now unless there is a specific thing we want, like Coronation Street."

The Rolinsons

Jean Rolinson, 47, and her husband Michael, 49, live in east London. They have two grown-up children: Mark, 24, and Kelly, 17, and look after three other children during the day - a six-month-old baby, an 18-month- old toddler and Christian, aged five. They are recent cable converts. Mrs Rolinson explains: "We wanted the cheaper telephone service cable offered - we thought we'd give cable TV a try."

Despite still enjoying the "honeymoon period", Jean is underwhelmed by multi-channel TV. "I don't watch it an awful lot but it gives the kids something to do. The first thing Christian says when he gets in is "Cartoon Network". He's only five but knows how to switch the channel on."

Michael enjoys the Sci-Fi channel and Bravo; their teenage daughter watches MTV. But Jean says there isn't much that interests her. "I like thrillers - such as Inspector Morse - which I am more likely to find on ordinary TV." When sick of repeats on BBC1 or ITV, she turns to cable for "another option". But she criticises some of the channels on offer: "Some, like Landscape Channel, are a waste of time - it's nice music, but not much else."

Unlike the other families, the Rolinsons do not have Sky's packages of movie or sports subscription channels. "We are thinking about it but I'm not keen," Jean admits. "Films are shown too often, and with more available we'd never move from it." Besides, she adds, the basic cable TV package offers another benefit: "My uncle has sports and everyone goes down the road to watch them there. That suits me just fine."