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The Internet Hasn't Hurt Television - Yet

Where do people find the time to watch TV?

By Will Offensicht  |  May 11, 2010

To hear the recording industry tell it, unauthorized music downloads have nearly destroyed their businesses.  The movie business is concerned that low-cost video rentals of $1 per night will cut into their revenue and are afraid that illicit Internet downloads are only a matter of more people having higher bandwidth.

Traditional newspapers have been dying for decades, and traditional brick and mortar stores are losing customers to web-based vendors.  Book publishers are finding that online book sellers are putting downward pressure on book prices, and e-books promise to cut prices even more.

In spite of many predictions that broadcast television would lose market value over time, the Economist points out that TV remains a unique medium with capabilities which the Internet can't match:

When it comes to mobilising a mass audience, nothing can touch television. On February 7th this year 106m Americans watched the New Orleans Saints defeat the more favoured Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl. The nation spent more time glued to that one match than it spent on YouTube, the most popular video-streaming website, during the entire month, according to ComScore. Remarkably, television can deliver these huge audiences even though it provides more choice than ever.

One of the reasons the Internet was supposed to displace television was that people could choose what they wanted to watch at any given time.  For example, hard-core Sci-Fi addicts could find enough science fiction on the Internet to stop using television, which tended historically not to supply very much high-quality material in that genre.  Technology has multiplied the number of channels available, however, so that Sci-Fi now has its own channel along with history, music, and many others.

There's hardly and imaginable topic that isn't covered extensively.  Thus, Internet use has not displaced television; instead, Internet use is squeezed into the gaps in time when people aren't watching TV or are skipping a commercial.

Citizens of Tokyo spent an average of an hour a day viewing media on the Internet last year as opposed to an average of 6 minutes in 2000.  Over the same period, however, their TV watching time increased from 206 minutes to 216 minutes.  Thus, although it is not growing as fast as the Internet, TV use is still increasing.

On the other hand, people are beginning to want the computer and the TV to merge.  The BBC is making its older video available on a massive web site which serves 120 million videos and radio programs per month.

Being able to select individual programs threatens the networks sales of boxed sets of entire seasons of TV shows, of course.  When iTunes made it possible for customers to buy individual songs instead of having to buy an entire CD, industry revenue suffered.  A research firm found that just under half of the most popular shows were available online for free within a few weeks of being aired on TV.  People who are willing to wait a bit can watch at their convenience.

The Lazy Medium

Despite all these competing delivery channels, TV audiences continue to grow.  Why?  One reason is pure laziness - turning on a TV is a lot easier than turning on a computer, finding a web site, grinding through menus, and selecting a program.  Although YouTube has a decent mechanism for recommending videos, it's still a lot less convenient to find a given video than finding news articles via Google.

A secondary reason might be that people enjoy watching TV together.  Although individual family members may have diverse views of what they want to see, they'd rather watch something together than each watch their individual favorite alone.  "Togetherness" is something that the Internet can't match, at least not yet.

Also, for that most social of entertainments, sports events, the leagues sell the rights to broadcast their games to TV channels.  Sport and TV need each other.

At this point, television is supreme at gathering huge groups of people to share the same experience at the same time.  People distract themselves from their major activity of watching TV by using other devices.  These gadgets divert people momentarily from TV, but TV remains their core activity.

On the other hand, it's possible that people will eventually decide that they really shouldn't pour so much time into TV.  A local newspaper which is given away free has the habit of interviewing the valedictorian and the salutatorian of the local high school each year.  This time, each of the honorees said that a major reason for their academic success was that their parents had removed TV from their homes.  Not having much else to do, they'd studied.

So what will happen?  Will people turn away from TV to other activities?  Will the Internet eventually match TV's ability to generate shared experiences?  Will sports programming move closer to the Internet experience as people want to watch more than one game at a time?  Or will people use the Internet for email, texting, and social media while "watching" TV at the same time?

In any case, TV has not been hurt by the Internet, at least not yet.  People seem to be spending more time on the Internet and more time watching TV.  What have they stopped doing?

We know they're spending less time reading newspapers and books, less time sleeping, and less time around the table at family meals; is there anything else they're no longer doing?