Poynter Online http://www.poynter.org/content/content_view.asp?id=89510

by Howard I Finberg

Americans are hungry media consumers, spending almost two-thirds of our busy days interacting with one medium or another. We spend more time with media than eating, sleeping or any other activity.

We are also media multi-taskers, spending one-third of that time with multiple media, such as using the Web and watching television at the same time, or using an iPod and reading e-mail.

Those are two of the major conclusions of the latest report from Ball State University’s Middletown Media Studies project, which tracked the media usage habits of more than 350 people.

According to the Middletown Media report, about 30 percent of the observed waking day of study participants was “spent with media as the sole activity versus 20.8 percent for work activity, while an additional 39 percent of the day was spent with media while involved in some other activity,” such as eating or driving.

Michael Bloxham, the director of Ball State’s Center for Media Design, said he wasn’t surprised by the results, as this study offered “reinforcements of what we found from the first Middletown Media Studies published last year. Although smaller and less complex in its agenda, the first study pointed to many of the same conclusions.

“Having said that, what’s perhaps most remarkable (and what others may be surprised by) is the sheer extent of media’s presence in our lives,” he said in an e-mail interview. “It’s the number one life activity during the day and, given the amount of time we spend with the media, it’s clearly the number one life activity, period.”

What makes this study different and potentially important is that it is based on observation rather than the remembrances of participants. Earlier usage studies relied on phone interviews or paper diaries.  But consumers don’t always accurately recall how much time they spend watching television or reading a newspaper.

For this latest media study, Ball State researchers observed and recorded the activities of consumers in Indianapolis and Muncie, Ind., in 15-second increments to better understand how consumers interact and use all major media, including television, books, newspapers, magazines, radio, computers and phones.

Television, not surprisingly, is the participants’ favorite medium, with consumers studied spending, on average, 240 minutes a day with TV, according to the study.

The Poynter Institute will be hosting a conference on the topic of media consumption on March 12-15, 2006. “Blogs, Podcasts, TiVo and Wikis: The New Habits of News Consumers” will bring together journalists, researchers and media watchers to explore how consumer use media in the daily lives.  We want to explore how our changing media habits affect journalism and media organizations. For a link to the seminar page, click here.

What’s surprising, as noted by the researchers, is the amount of time consumers spend with computers — not just online but with various office productivity tools. In less than a decade the computer has become the “pretender” to the usage throne, with 186 minutes at day spent on Web, e-mail and software interactions.

“Television is still the 800-pound gorilla because of how much the average person is exposed to it,” Robert Papper, telecommunications professor, said in the Ball State University news release. “However, that is quickly evolving. When we combine time spent on the Web, using e-mail, instant messaging and software such as word processing, the computer eclipses all other media with the single exception of television.”

“The introduction of the computer into the workplace also has created a whole class of multi-taskers,” he said. “We thought young people would be better at multitasking, but computers have forced older workers to do more than one thing at a time to survive in the workplace.”

Here are the overall amounts of media minutes spent per user per day according to the 5,000 hours of observations recorded by the project researchers:

  • Television:  240.9 minutes
  • Any computer use: 135.8 minutes
  • All Internet: 93.4 minutes
  • Radio: 80.0 minutes
  • Music [includes MP3 players]: 65.1 minutes
  • Phone, includes cell: 42.2 minutes
  • All print media: 32.8 minutes
  • All video [VCR and DVD]: 32.6 minutes
  • Newspapers: 12.2 minutes
  • Game console: 11.6 minutes

Researcher Bloxham added these observations about the importance of the computer in our lives: “In terms of minutes spent with individual media, we weren’t surprised to see TV come out on top, but the margin by which it does so over the second medium (in terms of minutes) is remarkable. It’s also perhaps surprising that the second-placed medium by time is the computer. It’s interesting to note that time spent with the computer actually totals almost as much as all radio and music combined,” he said in an e-mail interview.

Looking at these numbers, it is understandable why the Ball State researchers also call attention to the amount of “concurrent media exposure.” This multi-tasking plays an important role in the media day of consumers.

While television might rank highest among single media activities, it is also a behavior that we do in combination with other media — the Web or telephone, for example.

The Ball State researchers believe that this multi-tasking behavior, once dismissed as the “sole preserve of the young and media-savvy,” is pervasive across the entire Middletown Media Studies sample group.

This kind of behavior — watching, talking, surfing at the same time — has implications for journalists and advertisers.

Journalists, especially those working in television, might consider how stories are written and how much information can be shown on the screen to someone who is paying partial attention.

In the future, it might not be enough to consider which medium to use when telling a news story, but also how much time and attention will be expected from the consumer.

For advertisers, the lack of focus by consumers affects how messages are crafted and delivered.

The researchers suggest that this widespread concurrent media use requires a greater focus on a “holistic approach” to communications planning and development.

“Increased choice and interactivity is giving more control to consumers over their media experiences,” Bloxham said in a BSU news release. “Media strategies should perhaps no longer be media centric, but should focus on consumers.”

The importance of such an approach is evident when looking at the top media pairings and concurrent media exposure:

  • TV and the Web: 18.5 minutes
  • TV and e-mail: 9.8 minutes
  • TV and telephone: 9.6 minutes
  • TV and (computer) software: 9.0 minutes
  • (Computer) software and music: 8.3 minutes

The study also tracked media use by day of the week, showing the pattern of difference between weekday and weekend. While the findings shouldn’t be a surprise to those who study computer usage logs, it was interesting to note the 30 percent drop in Internet use from weekday to weekend.

The increase in time spent with newspapers on the weekend is driven by the Sunday paper. During the week, study participants spend 9.4 minutes a day with the paper; on weekends that number almost doubles to 17.1 minutes.

One interesting aspect of segmenting media usage by day was observed on Fridays. According to the report, “Friday stacks up as a particularly interesting day in the media week. Use of the Web, e-mail and phone are all substantially higher on Friday than on any other day, perhaps in planning weekend tasks and social activities. If we follow the assumption that this represents an increase in social planning activities, then this reinforces the view that Friday is potentially the best day of the week to advertise related products such as movies, spirits, venues and so on.”

One other interesting finding indicated that young people don’t spend as much time online as conventional wisdom indicates.

According to the researchers, “18- to 24 year-olds we surveyed are not the biggest online users. They’re actually among the lower users, and little of their Internet use involves informational Web sites.”

While that finding isn’t shocking, it might be of interest in future studies to learn where this groups gets its information and what that means in terms of how well-informed they are about events.

The research also makes an interesting distinction, one that media site managers should consider, about understanding the diference between computer use and Internet use:

People spend over 2 hours a day at a computer, but that only tells some of the story. More than an hour of that involves computer software; almost an hour involves e-mail and instant messaging.

So people’s perceptions of spending more and more time online may well be fed by actually spending more and more time at the computer, with most of that time engaged in software tasks and communication and almost all involving concurrent media exposure within the computer arena and commonly with other media as well.

When asked in an e-mail interview about the implications of the research for television executives, publishers and Web site managers, Bloxham wrote:

In essence … the study demonstrates perhaps more comprehensively than ever before the sheer complexity of an average consumer’s media day. Research that has only looked at one medium or one location has not been able to address this bigger picture, and as we gain access to more media channels and capabilities, the need to understand this only increases exponentially.

Our research — being consumer-centric, not media-centric — can be added to the other resources available to advertisers, media owners and content creators to better inform their thinking about how best to reach and engage an audience.

Keeping the consumer’s behavior in mind is critical — especially for those involved in creating and delivering journalism via the Web, broadcast and print.

Here’s something else to consider: how little time we spend in silence. It makes me wonder — How do we find any time just to “think”?

Researchers from Ball State’s Center for Media Design (CMD) spent several months shadowing about 400 people, collecting and analyzing data on 5,000 hours of media use, in Muncie and Indianapolis. Recording information every 15 seconds, researchers measured participants’ use of 15 media types. The complete reports from Ball State University will be available here. You can read the news release here.