In Digital Era, What Does ‘Watching TV’ Even Mean? Study Suggests More Time Spent on Smartphones, Computers, Tablets Than Television

October 8, 2013, 9:43 p.m. ET

In Digital Era, What Does ‘Watching TV’ Even Mean?

Study Suggests More Time Spent on Smartphones, Computers, Tablets Than Television


We spend a full five hours and 16 minutes a day in front of a screen, and that’s without even turning on a television. So says a statistic from eMarketer, a research firm that focuses on digital media and marketing. It says that for the first time we are devoting more attention each day to smartphones, computers and tablets. All of which points to a big question: What counts as TV-watching today?We are actually watching more television programming, just from a growing range of devices and platforms, say digital and television executives, as well as academics and statisticians. Traditional TV or cable-network fare is now available online, via streaming services like Netflix or for sale to be watched on mobile phones and tablets.

The report says that adults are watching their televisions slightly less—with a daily intake of four hours and 31 minutes this year, seven minutes less than in 2012.

The increase in mobile devices and the multitasking they allow, plus the trend toward watching TV shows on devices other than televisions, is driving the changes measured in the report, says Clark Fredricksen, a spokesman for eMarketer. The study, which came out in August, is conducted twice annually.

The company says its numbers reflect raw data and studies of consumer media behavior from sources such as companies that measure TV ratings and online traffic, social networking platforms, gadget retailers, software manufacturers and government records.

Although Americans are gravitating toward digital platforms and social networks, “in many cases, what’s popular comes from the large entertainment companies,” says James Webster, a professor who studies audience measurement and behavior at Northwestern University. He points to a recent video that looks homemade and shows a woman failing badly at the twerking dance move.

After the video exploded on YouTube—it has been viewed more than 13 million times—ABC late night host Jimmy Kimmel announced that his team had produced the short.

Like other multimedia companies, Viacom Inc. has been rolling out apps that provide digital access to its shows. Nickelodeon, MTV and Comedy Central programs reach authenticated viewers (cable subscribers who go online and register). “You can see mobile device usage growing, but it’s not eating into TV-watching,” says Colleen Fahey Rush, executive vice president and chief research officer of Viacom Media Networks.

As networks provide new ways for people to access their programming, they’re creating new viewers too, says Albert Cheng, Disney ABC Television Group’s executive vice president and chief product officer for digital media.

Last May, the company launched Watch ABC, a service in which authenticated viewers can access online live streaming of programs as they air on the network, in markets like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles. Mr. Cheng says the company is noting an uptick in regular viewing through Watch ABC of “Good Morning America” and local ABC morning news programs.

Adding to the confusion over what constitutes TV, digital companies are taking on network-like roles. YahooYHOO -3.54% for instance, just launched Screen, an app from which users can watch clips of “Saturday Night Live,” and “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”

Nielsen—whose television ratings data factored into eMarketer’s recent report—disputes eMarketer’s findings. The rate of “TV consumption is healthy. If anything, it’s up from a year ago,” says Dounia Turrill, Nielsen’s senior vice president of client insights. “We don’t see any contraction on time spent with television sets.”

The eMarketer study found two connected trends: Our time spent on mobile devices is surging and increasingly we are multitasking.

The average time spent by U.S. adults per day using a mobile device in a non-voice capacity is 2 hours and 21 minutes this year, up from 24 minutes in 2010. The study counted simultaneous media use—scanning Twitter while watching a football game, for instance—as time spent both with a TV set and a digital device.

Social media is a big draw on smartphones and tablets, the eMarketer study says. In 2013, adults will spend an average of one hour and seven minutes per day on smartphones, with 28.4% dedicated to social networking, with the remainder spent on email, texting, maps, shopping, news and other activities. In 2011, U.S. adults spent 22 minutes a day on a smartphone, 18.1% of that time was spent on social networking. Carolyn Everson, Facebook‘s FB -6.68% vice president of global marketing solutions, says that 101 million people in America access the social network every day from mobile devices.

One group finds nothing surprising about eMarketer’s findings: parents of young children. Jacques Stambouli, a wholesale liquidator in Los Angeles, has three children, ages 4, 6 and 8.

All have their own Wi-Fi-enabled mobile device—hand-me-downs from their parents. The younger two can’t yet read, Mr. Stambouli says, but all three can stream video via Netflix apps and find programs on the family’s DVR. “They expect to be able to see whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want,” he says.

Day in the Life of a Media Omnivore: Breakfast Cartoons, a Twitter Snack

The assignment: In a day, spend more than five hours in front of a computer, smartphone or tablet screen, as well as fours hours and 31 minutes watching television. In other words, live the national average, according to a report from eMarketer.

The initial reaction: This will be the simplest task I—a tech-obsessed television-lover—have completed since I was asked on my first day of employment to smile for my ID photo!

The reality: Consciously working to take in and keep track of 9½ hours of media in a single day—even if the rules allow for counting TV and digital fare—isn’t as easy as it sounds. It isn’t a particularly fulfilling or efficient way to spend a Friday, either.

My day began when it usually does, at about 5 a.m. I spent an hour on my laptop computer at my kitchen table enjoying a cup of coffee and the quiet of a house before the earthquake of children erupt. I scrolled Twitter to catch up on news and Facebook to keep tabs on extended family and old friends. Then I made pancakes and woke my children.

“Get downstairs and turn on the TV right away,” I called.

The television as background noise counts as TV watching. The TV set played (via our DVR) Boomerang network episodes of old “Tom and Jerry” cartoons as I hustled to get my kids fed, dressed and to the bus. I clocked almost an hour.

Then I tinkered at my computer for another 45 minutes, with the TV playing at very low volume a recent episode of NBC’s “The Voice.”

As part of this media-consumption experiment, I had decided to stay home from work. It seemed not in the spirit of things to just sit at my newsroom computer and lose myself in the Internet for five hours before heading home to do the same before the family room television set for 4½ more.

Over the next four or five hours—in line at the supermarket checkout, in the parking lot of Home Depot, as I waited at Starbucks for my cappuccino, when setting my Spotify to a better playlist at a red light, and more—I must have glanced at my iPhone several dozen times, if not more. This accounts, in my experience, for a vast chunk of time spent with digital media.

At 3:30 p.m., I met the kids at the bus and ditched them with the baby sitter. I had to work. I watched from the DVR the season-opener of ABC’s “Scandal” and checked my email (a two-fer). After dinner, we watched as a family “MasterChef Junior,” the sole non-DVR TV watching all day. I kept my iPhone handy throughout.

Once the kids were asleep, I watched via my iPad’s Yahoo Screen app clips from “Saturday Night Live” and “The Colbert Report.”

Bleary-eyed and content-weary, I wasn’t sure how to log this time—is TV-programming accessed via app and then streamed through Apple TV onto a television set, digital media or both? All I knew for sure was that I was desperate to read a book, the old-fashioned way.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: