“You can say this for the technological revolution; it’s cut way down on television.” So writes Rebecca Christian in a column for the Telegraph Herald in Dubuque. She’s not alone in assuming that the increasing amount of time we devote to the web is reducing the time we spend watching TV. It’s a common assumption. And, like many common assumptions, it’s wrong. Despite the rise of digital media – or perhaps because of it – Americans are watching more TV than ever.
The Nielsen Company has been tracking media use for decades, and it reported last year that in the first quarter of 2009, the amount of time Americans spend watching TV hit its highest level ever – the average American was watching 156 hours and 24 minutes of TV a month. Now, Nielsen has come out with an update for the first quarter of 2010. Once again, TV viewing has hit a new record, with the average American now watching 158 hours and 25 minutes of TV a month, a gain of 2 hours in just the past twelve months. Although two-thirds of Americans now have broadband Internet access at home, TV viewing continues its seemingly inexorable rise.
And the Nielsen TV numbers actually understate our consumption of video programming, because the time we spend viewing video on our computers and cell phones is also going up. The average American with Internet access is now watching 3 hours and 10 minutes of video on Net-connected computers every month, Nielsen reports, and the average American with a video-capable cell phone is watching on additional 3 hours and 37 minutes of video on his or her phone every month. Not surprisingly, expanding people’s access to video programming increases their consumption of that programming. The spread of high-definition digital TVs and broadcasts appears to be another factor propelling TV viewing upward, says Nielsen.
What about the young? Surely, so-called “digital natives” are watching less TV, right? Nope. The young, too, continue to ratchet up their TV viewing. A recent study of media habits by Deloitte showed, in fact, that over the past year people in the 14-to-26 age bracket increased their TV watching by a greater percentage than any other age group. An extensive Kaiser Family Foundation study released earlier this year found that while young people appear to be spending a little less time in front of TV sets today than they did five years ago, that decline is offset by increased viewing of television programming on computers, cell phones, and iPods. Overall, “the proliferation of new ways to consume TV content has actually led to an increase of 38 minutes of daily TV consumption” by the young, reports Kaiser. Nielsen, too, finds that TV viewing continues to rise among children, teens, and young adults.
What about the rise of amateur media production, abetted by sites like YouTube? That trend, at least, must be shifting us away from media consumption. Wrong again. As Bradley Bloch explained in a recent Huffington Post article, the ease with which amateur media productions can be distributed online actually has the paradoxical effect of increasing people’s media consumption even more than it increases their media production. “Even if we count posting a LOLcat as a creative act,” observes Bloch, “there are many more people looking at LOLcats than there are creating them.” Bloch runs the numbers on one oft-viewed YouTube entertainment: “One of the most popular videos on YouTube, ‘Charlie bit my finger – again!’ depicting a boy sticking his fingers in his little brother’s mouth, has been viewed 211 million times. Something that took 56 seconds to create – and which was only intended to be seen by the boys’ godfather – has sucked up the equivalent of 1600 people working 40 hours a week for a year. Now that’s leverage.” By giving us easy and free access to millions of short-form video programs, the web allows us to cram ever more video-viewing into the nooks and crannies of our daily lives.
To give an honest accounting of the effects of the Net on media consumption, you need to add the amount of time that people spend consuming web media to the amount of time they already spend consuming TV and other traditional media. Once you do that, it becomes clear that the arrival of the web has not reduced the time people spend consuming media but increased it substantially. As consumption-oriented Internet devices, like the iPad, grow more popular, we will likely see an even greater growth in media consumption. The web, in other words, marks a continuation of a long-term cultural trend, not a reversal of it.
Take it away, Charlie: