Commentary

My Personal Multiplex

Don't anyone ask whether I will be going to CES this year, and PR people everywhere, please stop calling. I am Vegas-averse. I haven't gotten over my last trip there. I still can hear that damned roller coaster passing my room at New York, New York. And I think strippers give me hives. I don't drink, I don't gamble, and I haven't done anything for a couple of decades that would vaguely qualify as having to "stay on Sesame Street," let alone "stay in Vegas."

One thing that won't stay in Vegas is the latest research from Deloitte, "The State of Media Democracy," which the consultancy will release at CES. This second in an ongoing series tracking media usage across demographic segments and platforms has some very good news for mobile. According to Deloitte, many users now see a "two-device" world, with the cell phone as one of those potent new forces in information and entertainment gathering.

While long in coming, and preceded by Europe and Asia, the U.S. embrace of mobile as a data platform seems finally to be accelerating. Just six months ago in the first consumer survey, 24% of mobile users said they used the phone for entertainment, and now 36% say they do. That to me is a substantial pop in less than a year, and it suggests that a number of ongoing trends finally are converging: handset upgrades, lowered and unlimited data plans, and a higher profile for the mobile Web. A tipping point? Not quite. But we can see a trajectory now towards that critical mass.

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The best news within this deeper penetration number is that the larger Gen-X group is showing the fastest rate of growth. The sub-24-year-old "Millennials" popped from 46% to 62% who see the phone as an entertainment source. But 25- to 41-year-olds went from 29% usage to a tipping point of 47%. Now 75% of Xers are texting and 55% are playing games on handsets. Remarkably, when it comes to Internet access over phones, Millenials (45%) and Xers (46%) are identical.

Drilling into the specific activities is interesting. 63% of all users are using phones for picture taking, but 80% of Millenials and 75% of Xers are. This is good news potentially for the nascent MMS market in the U.S. Opening up the rich palette of multimedia messaging give marketers the opportunity to give real entertainment and information value back to the consumer.

I do have to say that the overall penetration metrics from the Deloitte study strike me as high. When any study finds that 28% of young people frequently or occasionally watch user-generated video on their phones already, or that 48% are downloading music to their phones (as this research says), then I have to wonder about the sample and the way the questions were posed. Deloitte does warn that the survey was conducted with 2,000 or so users over the Web, which means the results could skew techno-savvy. On the other hand, the opposite could be the case, since anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the heaviest data phone users are not frequently online but rely on their phone as a primary screen. Still I really am not sure that 45% of any demo is using their phone as an MP3 player (Millenials, according to this data) or even that music phones have that kind of penetration in any segment.

Whether the baselines are accurate in these numbers, what really fascinates me is the accelerated growth and the greater concentration of that growth in the massive Xer demo. This is not the only place where data are suggesting quick shifts in media habits. The online video space has also witnessed staggering shifts. Recent metrics show that across all content types (TV episodes, short form clips, humor, and user-generated) the first six months of 2007 saw double-digit growth in the amount of videos people are watching online. I think we are starting to see media habits become very fluid very quickly. People are starting to engage entertainment across multiple screens, and not necessarily to the detriment of any one over the other. For all the woes of TV business models and ratings for individual shows, overall TV time is still strong. This is cumulative and simultaneous growth.

One of the reasons I don't like Vegas is that I am an old fart, generally, a barely reconstructed academic who would rather wax theoretical than double down or let it ride or whatever the hell it is they do out there. One of the things that old media historians like me know is that habit is everything when it comes to emerging media. Unless and until a media platform becomes ritualized (prime time, drive time, morning email time) it is best regarded as a fad, not a fixture. When we see habits on two of the three media screen move this much this fast, something is up. It may not mean a permanent shift -- but to me that kind of change suggests at least fluidity of habits. If we have TV viewing staying stable, but increased use of PC and phones for entertainment, then there must be some kind of multiplexing going on.

When, how and how much these three screens work with or against one another could be the questions we ask next year... the next time I don't go to Vegas.

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