Study Finds Americans Becoming Screen-Based Multi-Taskers, But TV Still Dominates

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A group of the TV industry's leading researchers Thursday released the first wave of what is believed to be the biggest, most ambitious and most detailed ethnographic study ever done to measure how Americans are consuming media across the major "screens" (TV, computers, mobile and gaming devices, and digital out-of-home locations), and the top finding is that while we are increasingly becoming a population of media multi-taskers, the television screen continues to dominate our lives. The findings, which come from the Nielsen-funded Council for Research Excellence, are the culmination of a one-year, $2.5 million study that employed a highly-regarded "observational" method of media research developed and conducted by Ball State University.

Unlike traditional survey-based methods that simply ask people how they use media, the Ball State method employed researchers to physically shadow and observe how people actually consumed media during a 24-hour period. The study is regarded as the most rigorous and largest scale research of its kind, and the researchers said they will be mining its database for months to come to shed new insights about how the media usage of Americans is evolving in age of multiple digital screens.

The top line takeaway from Thursday's briefing is that we are consuming more media than ever before - an average of about 8.5 hours daily across all adult demographic groups - but that TV, especially live TV viewing, remains the "800-pound gorilla," accounting for the vast majority of time the average person spends watching screen-based media.

The study also found a seemingly contrarian insight that it is not the youngest adults who consume the most screen-based media, but boomers ages 45-54 who consume about an hour more total daily screen-based media than all other demographic groups. The researchers said this is because boomers are adopting new media, especially computer-based media in the workplace, but have not abandoned traditional TV viewing, and the net effect has been incremental usage of media.

"They're kind of straddling two types of media consumption," explained Mike Bloxham, director of insight and research for Ball State's Center for Media Design, who led the project along with the CRE members, and executive from Sequent Partners. While Nielsen did not have any direct role in conducting or analyzing the research, other than underwriting it, the findings appear to affirm Nielsen's so-called "Four-Screen" research, said Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer of Turner Broadcasting, and a CRE committee member.

Another key initial finding of the research reveals how American adults are evolving as media multi-taskers. While boomers are becoming avid consumers of screen-based media, especially computers in the workspace, it is younger adults that are the most prone to simultaneous use multiple forms of media, and especially newer platforms such as videogame consoles, and mobile devices.

The study found that young adults ages 18-24 consume nine forms of screen-based media for 10 minutes or more per day, while older adults ages 65-plus consume only five forms of screen-based media for that duration daily. Ball State's Bloxham coined the phenomenon "platform promiscuity," and the CRE researchers indicated more analysis needs to be done to understand the evolutionary effects of media multitasking over time.

The study also looked at another kind of evolution: the impact that new technologies have on media consumption patterns. To do this, the CRE asked Ball State to replicate a version of its so-called "media acceleration process" in one of the U.S. markets studied as part of the overall study. The acceleration process, which provides respondents with upwards of $4,000 to spend on new consumer electronics technologies, watched what happened in 100 households in Indianapolis. It found that the vast majority took advantage of the subsidies to upgrade to HDTV sets. Other significant purchases included videogame consoles, followed by Apple iPhones and Apple TV systems, but the researchers said they were surprised to see that no household purchased a DVR, or new cutting edge video technologies such as Sling Media's Slingbox.

Ball State's Bloxham said the DVR finding most likely reflects the fact that DVRs have become an integrated and bundled component of upgraded cable and satellite TV service, and that consumers no longer feel the need to purchase them as a standalone device.

2 comments about "Study Finds Americans Becoming Screen-Based Multi-Taskers, But TV Still Dominates".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, March 27, 2009 at 10:41 a.m.

    So it was easier to give people money than to find people who already had DVRs? With 30% penetration, you'd think they'd be easy to find, but maybe Indianapolis is not typical. Are DVRs not bundled there with digital cable?

    Expecting early adopters to learn commercial avoidance quickly may be asking too much. In my household, it took my wife a year to fully embrace the ad-skipping nuances of TiVo, but now she's very good at watching a lot of programs without ever seeing a commercial, often juggling a live show with a buffered show with a recorded show.

  2. Joe Mandese from MediaPost, March 27, 2009 at 3:02 p.m.

    I think the point of paying people to adopt new technologies -- including DVRs, if that's what they opted for -- is to see how the adoption changes the way they consume media.

    I didn't cover all the details of the Media Acceleration Process, but there is a pre- and post-analysis to look at the affect over time.

    That's the difference.

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