The Impact of the Internet on Television Viewing

A popular approach to the study of leisure time activities is to treat this as a budget allocation process (see the references listed at the bottom of this page).  Thus, everybody has a total of 24 hours to allocate each day, and no one has more or less than that amount.  Within this time budget, people can allocate according to their needs and utilities, which will vary from person to person.

A fact of contemporary life is that people allocate significant amounts of time in their daily lives to watching television, whether for information or entertainment.  According to the Los Medios y Mercados de Latinoamérica 1998 study, the average Latin American persons age 12 to 64 spends 4.5 hours per day watching television.  This works out to be 18.8 percent of their time.

Television is a relatively new technology that was introduced to Latin America in the 1950's.  Before its introduction, people led lives that involve other types of leisure activities.  The success of television is due to the effectiveness of the medium to provide rapid home-delivery of information and entertainment, which are generously supported by willing advertisers.  But the story of the rapid emergence of television also gives a hint that, in turn, it may also be supplanted quickly by newer technologies.

The emergent technology of the moment is the Internet.  While Internet penetration is still low in Latin America (2.0% of Latin Americans used the Internet at home within the last 3 months, according to the  Los Medios y Mercados de Latinoamérica 1998 study), it is rapidly growing, especially in Argentina and Brazil.  Sooner or later, the Internet will be a serious competitor with television in the time budget battle for the hearts and minds of Latin Americans.

At the point, the important question is: what (if any) is the impact of the Internet on television viewing?  According to the Los Medios y Mercados de Latinoamérica 1998 study, among those who used the Internet at home within the last 3 months, the average time spent on television viewing is 5.0 hours per day.  This is in fact higher than the average for the general population (4.5 hours per day).  Indeed, this is a seemingly unexpected answer.

If we break down the Internet users by their usage levels, we find that there is no relation between Internet usage level and television viewing level:

Time Spent Using the Internet in the Last 7 Days

Number of Hours Spent on Television Viewing Per Day
None 5.2
More than zero, less than 1 hour 4.6
Between 1 and 10 hours 5.0
More than 10 hours 4.6
     TOTAL 5.0

(source: Los Medios y Mercados de Latinoamérica 1998)

Should we conclude that the Internet will have no impact on television viewing?  Well, we believe that this question needs to be formulated more precisely.  The measure that we have used here is the quantitative volume of television viewing time.  This measure is the one that is adopted by the television industry, and is at the foundation of television ratings measurement.  But there has always been some degree of uneasiness since there is some doubt as to what attention, if any, are people paying to what is going on the television screen and what is coming through the audio channel (see our Television as Companion discussion).

The crux of the matter is that Internet usage and television viewing are not mutually exclusive activities.  Below, we show an example of the equipment setup within a home.  On the right, there is a computer connected to the Internet.  On the left, the television is tuned to a Gloria Estefan music video on a cable television channel.  This is multi-tasking, or parallel processing.  Just because we don't have the time to do everything we want to doesn't necessarily mean that we have to give something up.  We can try to do everything at the same time.  In fact, if we spend a long time on the Internet, the television set on the side may be left on longer than ever.

Television Set & Computer

In this type of situation, we need to go beyond the quantitative volume of time spent with the television set on and tackle the attention factor.  The impact on the Internet on television viewing is not necessarily in the gain or loss in the number of minutes in which the television set is on, but in the amount of attention that people are spending.  Of course, this is not a simple research task.  Whereas the quantitative measurement can be done with people meter technology in which the major burden of data collection is given to electronic meters, we cannot continuously prompt people to report their attention levels.

Insofar as research methodology goes, the Internet is in fact easier to measure.  There are software programs (also known as "meters"; see, for example, Media Metrix ) that will record every Internet activity on the that computer.  Attention is hardly an issue, as it seems fair and reasonable to assume that the user must be paying attention while this stream of activities is occurring.  The attention (or lack thereof) paid to pop-up and/or banner ads is another matter.

Another possible outcome is that the Internet and traditional television may converge into a single medium.  If you look at the photo above, there are two video screens that look rather similar.  There are no compelling reasons, either technological or economical, for keeping them apart.  The prospects for convergence are in fact good.  Whereas television is a narrowly specified standard (for example, NTSC or PAL format delivered by a few officially licensed stations on the UHF / VHF band), the Internet is multi-platformed, continuously evolving and not inhibited by centralized planning and directing.  For these reasons, the Internet that we use today looks and feels different from what we were using five years ago.  Whereas the ascent of television was driven by governments and large commercial interests, the Internet is propelled by a much larger population base, empowered by a technology that extends beyond national boundaries.  People who meet new needs and demands from this base will be rewarded.


(posted on 9/4/99 by Roland Soong)

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