Nielsen: Daily Media Usage Saw Decline -- Not Surge -- At Height Of Pandemic

In a finding that appears to defy conventional wisdom -- not to mention many other media research studies -- Nielsen has released a new report this morning indicating the amount of time the average American spent using media each day actually declined precipitously at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The finding, part of Nielsen's periodic "Total Audience Report" amalgamating most of the electronic media sources it measures in the U.S., shows the number of minutes of media used by the average American adult declined 16% to 600 in the third quarter of 2020, when the pandemic was surging, compared with 714 minutes daily during the same quarter in 2019.

Nielsen did offer one caveat, noting that it "enhanced" how it measures media usage on Android-based smartphones in May 2020 to "more precisely capture" how people use them to to access apps and the web as "intended behavior" vs. usage that's just happening in the "background."

"This has resulted in a significant decrease in smartphone duration on Android devices and a trend break from data prior to Q2 2020. However, while duration did decrease as a result of these changes, smartphone reach metrics remain unaffected," Nielsen Senior Vice President-Audience Insights Peter Katsingris explains in the report.

Nielsen's breakout for daily media usage by device type does indeed show a precipitous decline of 39% for smartphones, year-over-year, so the methodical change clearly had some impact.

But with the exception of connected TV devices (which showed an 18% gain) and computers connected to the internet (which had a 9% gain), all other media shown declined in daily U.S. adult minutes, including TV, radio and tablets.

Live and time-shifted TV viewing, in fact, fell 6% to 221 minutes daily.

3 comments about "Nielsen: Daily Media Usage Saw Decline -- Not Surge -- At Height Of Pandemic".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, March 25, 2021 at 12:13 p.m.

    Joe, as you know, Nielsen deosn't really measure electronic media usage by people in terms of time spent watching or listening as we normally understand the terms. It merely assumes that if the device is on then those who claimed to be watching a TV show were watching every second while the TV set was on and similar assumptions are made for radio as well as digital media. Looking at the data, it's clear that, as was indicated in your report, that the major "decline was in smartphone usage which can be explained in many ways. One is that the composition of the panels supplying such information has changed. Another may be that they are tabulating the data differently. A third factor---which applies to all panel operations--is that a certain percentage of the 2019 panel was "retired" or opted out and was replaced by substitute panel members. Hopefully the newbies were matched as best can be demographically---but this is no guarantee that they are  exactly the same kind of folks who departed in their media usage habits.

    Looking at the "TV/video" usage trend in its totality, counting "linear" as well  as digital/streaming activity, Nielsen found exactly the same amount of average day "viewing" by adults in 2020 as it did in both prior years---about 5.3-5.4 hours per day. Interestingly, smartphone video consumption--always a very small number per Nielsen---was only 11 minutes per adult per day in the third quarter of 2018, but rose to 16 minutes in 2019 and "fell" to 15 minutes in 2020. So, whatever happened to smartphone usage in general didn't seem to have the same effect on that small portion of it that involved video.

    I hope Nielsen will provide a better explanation that we have so far for the sudden decline in overall smartphone usage it has shown---maybe there is a mistake in the tabulations?

  2. John Grono from GAP Research, March 25, 2021 at 5 p.m.

    All true Ed.   But there are other sources of such data vagaries.

    For example, an app may not be in-focus but still be active in the background.   That is, from the consumers perspective thay are not 'viewing'.   From the publisher's server-side data it appears as usage.   Another example, is 'swiping' past content.   The processors are so quick that a swipe may (does?") appear as a usage while the consumer has no cognisance of the content.   Such 'micro-usages' tend to not affect 'time-used' but they can certainly distort/inflate reach.

  3. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, March 25, 2021 at 5:07 p.m.

    John, Nielsen mentions the "background" aspect in its report as a possible explanation but I wonder if that and the other reason you give can expalin a huge drop---over one hour a day per person---in usage?

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