Based on the preliminary findings revealed March 26, the ambitious study reassures media and advertising executives that their TV dollars remain viable, declaring its continued dominance in a multiscreen world. Even multitasking young adults and younger baby boomers spend more time with television than with their indispensable smartphones, other mobile devices and computers. The dazzle of HDTV, DVR playback and DVDs contribute to TV's 99% Three-Screen appeal among adults to age 55.
The well-intended $3.5 million year-long project conducted by Ball State University and funded by Nielsen through its independent Council for Research Excellence generally hails television a winner on most fronts. Just in time for the start of the networks' recession-strained new upfront advertising sales.
The 350 TV users whose every move was observed and electronically recorded by researchers in spring and fall of 2008 were "exposed" to about an average of one hour of live ads and promos. A higher percentage of participants gave more of their undivided attention to TV than to computers (ranked second), all forms of print (ranked fourth) and audio (ranked third). Television remains the "800 pound gorilla" in video media.
Yet there are many levels on which the initial findings raise more questions than they answer. For instance: why call an examination of media silos a holistic effort when there is nothing about it that appears to suggest convergence? (The complete study will be released after April 7.)
Trying to identify media trends by observing and recording the behavior of a relatively small sampling of former Nielsen research participants in five markets seems strangely dated. Observational methodology -- like Nielsen's electronic sampling -- is a nagging reminder of how archaic media measurement remains in the digital age. Shifting consumer media behavior would be better served by more immediate, accurate interactive tracking and measurement.
A principal of the study last week suggested that in 10 years, 85% of television viewing will still be on a TV at home. But it's difficult to imagine that as TV and everything media becomes more universally interactive, the experience will not be redefined by such powerful conventions as social networking, long-tail niches, personalization and e-commerce.
Consumers appear to be more prepared for that advent than the television industry.
Did it really require a multimillion-dollar study and 952 days of observed behavior to confirm that the PC has supplanted radio as the second-most-used medium? Americans are consuming record amounts of media and are going digital regardless of age and other demographics. Is that a surprise?
So far, there hasn't been much study-related discussion about interactivity, connectivity and the quality of time consumers spent with media -- as opposed to the quantity of time. Although it is early in the digital game, the study findings seem dismissive -- even indignant -- about nascent streaming online video.
"Contrary to some recent popular media coverage suggesting that more Americans are rediscovering free TV via the Internet, computer video tends to be quite small with an average time of just two minutes a day," the study briefing states. "Despite the proliferation of computers, video-capable mobile phones and similar devices, TV in the home still commands the greatest amount of viewing, even among those ages 18-24. Thus, in the eyes of the researchers, this appears to dispute a common belief that Internet video and mobile phone video exposure among that group (and the next one up, age 25-34) were significant in 2008."
Sure, "environmental" exposure outside the home is a mere 2.8% of total video consumption today. But with mobile phones already outnumbering TVs by a wide margin and broadband adoption on a tear, why dwell on what "is," since it won't even remotely resemble what "will be"?
After all, the study findings were released amid a flurry of TV-related change: Google's AdSense announced an application for selling TV ads online, Twitter said it will become an ad-supported social network, Juniper Research forecast $284 billion in mobile enterprise revenues by 2014, and Borrell Research revealed that in 2008, even newspapers generated 50% more in streaming video ad revenues than TV stations ($165 million compared to $105 million). That is a sliver of media's new reality.
It could be that by the time the study's tedious findings have been dissected and digested, consumers will be on to bigger and better things. What was once "watching television" will have transformed into just another interactive content experience across all platforms and devices. The business of measuring audience reach and behavior is on the path to becoming far more accurate and intriguing, based on tracking individual consumer's digital movements, preferences and data footprints -- with and without permission.
The last of the study's 10 major findings smacks of a self-serving qualifier: "Serious caution needs to be applied in interpreting self-reporting data for media use. TV was substantially under-reported while online video and mobile video were over-reported." So much for the accuracy of Nielsen's electronic diaries.
While the principals deserve credit for trying to make sense of media behavior, clearly, digital challenges and opportunities will have more to do with individual consumers than with devices or companies. It will not be an either-or proposition: television or all that other stuff. Here's hoping the study details provide more forward-looking perspective.