At a time when the ad industry appears to be consumed with the attention consumers pay to ads in all media, new research suggests viewers are only paying attention to what’s on their TV screens about half the time. And about half of that time, they are paying attention to what’s on the “second screen” of a mobile or tablet device they are holding while watching TV.
The findings, which were unveiled last month during the Advertising Research Foundation’s annual conference, were the second phase of a two-part study utilizing rigorous neuroscientific methods conducted by Nielsen for the Council for Research Excellence. The new phase, which was conducted in viewers' homes, confirmed the patterns of the earlier phase, which was conducted in a lab setting -- that the single biggest distraction for television viewers are he hand-held devices that the TV industry typically refers to as “second screens.”
Other forms of distractions include everyday activities such as reading, eating, interacting with pets, or other people. In fact, so-called “co-viewing,” watching TV with another person present, was also found to have a pronounced effect on the attention that people give to TV -- including advertising -- both positively and negatively.
While both types of distractions -- hand-held devices and co-viewers -- distracted people from what they were watching, both also had some upside.
The presence of a second screen reduced the amount of channel-tuning by viewers, while the presence of a co-viewer increased engagement with advertising, presumably because of conversations related to the content of the advertising.
Dr. Carl Marci, executive vice president and the Chief Neuroscientist at Nielsen, who oversaw the study, said the researchers were both “surprised” and “delighted” to see the in-home studies correlated so closely with the lab studies, and said it reinforced the overall findings that second-screen devices are having a pronounced effect on TV viewing behavior, as well as cognition.
Among his initial conclusions is that advertisers and agencies should probably spend more energy thinking about the “audio” content of their television ads, because the research shows that second screens keep viewers tuned to a channel during advertising, but viewers may be gazing at their second screens.
Dr. Marci said the studies are an important baseline for understanding even more rampant technological changes that are beginning to affect the way people watch TV, and interact with all media, and that Nielsen and its clients are already beginning to think about how to research and measure those, including the rapid adoption of intelligent agent technology in the homes from companies like Amazon, Google and Apple that could be creating new distractions and new ways of interacting with TV too.
“I don’t think there’s any question that the technology environment will continue to change,” he said, citing the rapid adoption of devices such as Amazon’s Echo as an example.
“I imagine in a few years we will want to redo the study,” he said, adding that at least for the near term, the current study indicates that “the TV is on an awful lot,” but viewers may or many not necessarily be engaging with it.
The CRE, which is funded by Nielsen, conducts research determined by Nielsen customers.
Richard Zackon, the facilitator who runs the CRE for Nielsen’s clients, said the new research likely will begin to impact some of the core methodological thinking Nielsen uses to measure the medium in the near future.
He said the CRE and Nielsen’s neuroscience team have briefed the data science team responsible for managing the company’s research methodologies to see whether they can be improved based on the new insights.
While the first phase of the study indicated that in an extremely small and non-representative panel measured in the laboratory setting found that the second screen did distract people from interacting with their people-meter prompts -- the core method used in most of Nielsen’s television ratings -- Zackon and Dr. Marci said the in-home testing found it did not, and that overall there was good compliance with Nielsen’s people-meter button pushing.