View across the pond

Posted on March 23, 2010. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

If you’re average, you spend just under five hours a day in front of a television screen.

The desired effect may vary—education, entertainment, zombification—but the end result is always the same: You’re watching TV.

That figure—the Nielsen Co. calculates it to be 4 hours and 49 minutes—is up 20 percent in the last 10 years. What’s up a whole lot more than that, however, is average time spent online.

Nielsen has determined that the average Internet user now clocks more than two hours a day (68 hours a month) online at home or at work.

When combined, average daily television and Internet time (7.1 hours) expended by Americans now exceeds the average sleep time (6.1 hours). Factor in a normal eight-hour workday and it’s easy to see that when people complain about how little time they have, they aren’t lying.

Without downplaying what are obviously astonishing numbers, there are some mitigating factors in play. Weekends skew averages, to begin with. Plus, for many people, the online number is multiplied because their jobs involve Internet connectivity or activity.

Still, it’s a snapshot of behavior worth pausing to consider, especially in light of a 2009 Microsoft research project report predicting that by June of this year Internet usage in Europe will exceed traditional TV viewership.

Europeans have never been as passionate about television as Americans; their average is a paltry 1.6 hours of viewing per day. But with broadband penetration scaling ahead of the U.S.—83 percent of all European Internet connections vs. only about 70 percent here—their time online has increased by nearly a third since 2004.

The European study revealed a number of other key findings as well.

Web-enabled devices such as mobile phones and games consoles will topple the dominant position ofPCs as Internet gateways. Today, 95 percent of Internet use involves a PC; in five years, it will be down to 50 percent or less.

Online video has become the favorite Internet application. One in four Europeans regularly watches short- or full-length videos online, representing 150 percent increase since 2006. From September 2006 to January 2008, the number of online users who said they had watched an online video leapt from 31 percent to 82 percent.

Television on demand is in greater demand. With growing broadband saturation comes more online video options, and consumers displayed a definite preference for watching videos on their own time. Incredibly, in the 18-24 age bracket, one in seven never watches live TV at all.

Obviously, the scale of the Internet usage trends coursing through Europe can’t be replicated here; there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. But the scope of the behavioral shifts makes too much sense to be dismissed and will fundamentally alter some of our long-established consumer habits.

Advertising has long subsidized media operations. Yet advertising revenues are shrinking faster than dial-up Internet areas. Newspaper ad woes are well reported, but local TV stations saw a 22 percent drop in ad revenue last year alone. Network TV ad dollars dropped 8 percent.

Part of those decreases was undoubtedly the economy, but audience media fragmentation didn’t help. Given American proclivity for the “my way” mentality, the huge European jump in online video on demand watchingmight well leap across the Atlantic.

Since a big chunk of advertising every biennial and quadrennial election is political advertising, these European data will require campaigns on this side of the pond to rethink everything about traditional communications.

The shift from totally passive to participatory media will reshape voter receptivity about traditional adspeak, and further erode control of messages. Just as CNN president Jonathan Klein said he was worried more about 500 million Facebook users than 2 million FOX News viewers, candidates will have to stop relying on mere TV buys to sway voters.

Most intellectuals will cheer anything that reduces America’s boobtube addiction, and the questions about what constructive activity can replace the lost hours of television watching is a valid one.

Silicone Valley columnist Clay Shirky has likened 20th century sitcoms to 19th century gin. Both, he suggests, were coping mechanisms to deal with social paradigm shifts: The English drank gin to get through the rural-to-urban migration during the Industrial Revolution, and Americans watched “I Love Lucy” and “Gilligan’s Island” to handle the post-World War II transition.

As traditional TV falters, Shirky says, America has a cognitive surplus of staggering proportions. He tells the story of a colleague who was watching a DVD with his 4-year-old daughter when suddenly the child jumped up and began rummaging behind the flat-screen TV. When her father asked what she was doing, she poked her head back around the edge of the screen and asked innocently, “Where’s the mouse?”

Even a toddler, Shirky points out, recognized that media that don’t include the recipient today are missing something. Interesting times, indeed.

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