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8 Hours a Day Spent on Screens, Study Finds

In a world with grocery store television screens, digitally delivered movie libraries and cellphone video clips, the average American is exposed to 61 minutes of TV ads and promotions a day.

Some people may think that amount seems excessive. But “people don’t seem to be getting up and running away,” said Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer at Turner Broadcasting.

In fact, adults are exposed to screens — TVs, cellphones, even G.P.S. devices — for about 8.5 hours on any given day, according to a study released by the Council for Research Excellence on Thursday. TV remains the dominant medium for media consumption and advertising, the study found. The data suggests that computer usage has supplanted radio as the second most common media activity. (Print ranks fourth.)

The council was created by the Nielsen Company but has an independent board. The $3.5 million study, paid for by Nielsen, sought, in part, to determine whether media companies needed to address new forms of media measurement.

Researchers at Ball State University’s Center for Media Design, who conducted the study for the council, say it is the largest observational look at media usage ever conducted. Rather than relying on what people remembered watching, researchers captured the actions in real time by shadowing 350 subjects — most of whom were former members of the Nielsen television ratings panel — and recording each person’s behavior in 10-second increments. The researchers say they recorded 952 days of behavior. People under 18 were not included in the study.

The results of the video consumer study may intrigue advertising clients ahead of the upfront season for ad sales. The researchers found that the number of minutes with media is almost identical for every age group. Mr. Wakshlag called the amount of time “amazingly consistent across the age groups.” Except, that is, for 45-to-54-year-olds, who spend on average an extra hour in front of screens each day, the study found.

“It flies in the face of conventional wisdom, of course, which tells us that the younger cohorts apparently spend more time with screen-based media,” said Michael Bloxham, a director of the center at Ball State.

Among other surprises, the research found that young people aren’t the only ones dividing their attention among multiple screens and machines; people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and early 50s essentially multitask for the same amount of time. People over 55 are markedly less likely to be multitasking. “That’s where the generation gap, if there is one, may exist,” Mr. Bloxham said.

Although the researchers emphasized that the study did not set out to prove any specific points about media consumption, much of the data is “actually quite comforting” for the television industry, Mr. Wakshlag said. The data reaffirms much of what Nielsen has found in past studies, namely that television remains by far the dominant medium for video viewing. The Ball State study found that the average American adult was exposed to five hours and nine minutes of live TV each day, almost 15 minutes of TV via a DVR device and 2.4 minutes of video on the computer.

“Even though people have the opportunity to watch video on their computers and cellphones, TV accounts for 99 percent of all video consumed in 2008,” Mr. Bloxham said. “Even among the 18-to-24-year-olds, it was 98 percent.”

Among younger audiences, there are some leading indicators that the Web is affecting media usage. The data shows that 18-to-24-year-olds — generally college students and new entrants into the work force — watch the smallest amount of live TV of any age group (three and a half hours a day), spend the most time text messaging (29 minutes a day) and watch the most online video (5.5 minutes a day).

Slightly older viewers, those ages 25 to 34, spend the most time of any group watching DVD or VCR videos. People ages 35 to 44 spend more time on the Web than other groups, 74 minutes a day on average. The next demographic, 45 to 54 years old, spends the most time on e-mail. Consumers over the age of 65 watch the most live TV, according to the research.

The researchers found that television and video games attract the most undivided attention, while other actions (like listening to music) often occur while people are doing other things.

More than 30 percent of households now own digital video recorders, allowing them to time-shift their viewing and potentially fast-forward past advertisements. The study found that the average American watches almost 15 minutes of TV using a DVR each day.

Mr. Wakshlag said that newer owners of DVRs “are using them for less time-shifted viewing than the ones who bought them a while back.” Mr. Bloxham noted that more people were receiving DVRs as part of a cable company upgrade, instead of buying them on their own.

While the study’s findings mostly align with the ratings that Nielsen and other companies report on a daily and monthly basis, the researchers did find that people remembered watching less TV than they actually did.

When subjects in the study were asked to recall their behaviors, “people underestimated the amount of time they spent with TV by a substantial amount,” about 25 percent on average, Mr. Wakshlag said. The same people tended to overestimate their use of other media.

For some people, there is a “social stigma” attached to high levels of TV watching, Mr. Bloxham said. When some people are asked to estimate their TV viewing, he said, some of them may not “want to tell you five or six hours, because that may slip into the couch potato category,” he said. For others, he said, “there is no stigma because being able to talk about last night’s reality show or last night’s ball game is social currency.”


Brian Stelter, The New York Times. March 26, 2009

Copyright © 2009 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.