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At an Industry Media Lab, Close Views of Multitasking – New York Times@import url(;
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LOS ANGELES, May 14 — In a sleek media lab hidden in a Los Angeles high-rise, some of the country’s biggest media companies and their prominent clients are seeking to understand the state of the divided American attention span.

The space looks like the most advanced of homes: the living room is outfitted with the latest in video technology, and in the kitchen, the refrigerator has a television monitor for leaving notes for the children, and for looking up recipes on the Internet.

The installation, the Emerging Media Lab in Los Angeles, is run by the Interpublic Group of Companies, a holding company for ad agencies as well as media buyers like Universal McCann and Initiative. Since February, clients like Sony, L’Oréal and Microsoft have been using it to figure out a central question vexing marketers: how do you reach consumers who seem to be doing so many things simultaneously?

People now surf the Internet while watching television. Their children instant-message friends while listening to music. They all talk on the phone and check their e-mail while they cook.

“Our research showed that people somehow managed to shoehorn 31 hours of activity into a 24-hour day,” said Colleen Fahey Rush, executive vice president for research at MTV Networks, which worked with an online research company, OTX, last year. “That’s from being able to do two things at once.”

As media companies plunk down billions of dollars in advertising at the major networks’ fall presentations this week, market researchers are still struggling to understand the realities of what has been called “concurrent media usage.”

Thus far, the researchers have found some common ground, but differ widely in crucial areas of interpretation. They do seem to agree on two points: that this kind of multitasking does not apply only to young people and that the amount of time spent multitasking is rising across the board.

For advertisers, the challenge is getting their message across in one medium while the consumer is active at the same time in several others. The buzzword these days is “engagement” — as in how engaged, or involved, the consumer is in a particular activity, a notion that is still relatively new in a media world that has for decades relied on stable indicators like the Nielsen ratings.

The question for programmers is whether it is possible to break through the clutter and offer material that commands more of their viewers’ attention, and perhaps more advertising as a result.

In the Emerging Media Lab, major advertisers can observe engagement for themselves, watching consumers try new technologies or use old ones, through cameras that feed back into an observation room.

“Multitasking is not quantified yet,” said Greg Johnson, the lab’s executive director. “The metrics of all this is a big piece of what our clients want to know, and they want to know desperately. They don’t know where their customers are, and it’s our job to find them again and what they’re doing.”

Using the lab themselves, media executives can assess how their ads or other content appear on devices like portable video game players or cellphones.

“You can see things here in context,” explained Lori Schwartz, the director of the lab project. Standing in the living room, she wielded a wireless mouse to navigate a media center, a flat-screen monitor on the wall that fed into the Internet, television channels, a DVD player, an Xbox 360 and a stereo system.

“For a lot of our clients, it is hard to keep up,” Mr. Johnson said. “It’s hard for them to know what to do next when every day there is something new — a blog, a site. They know to move their dollars, but they don’t know how much or what media to pick.”

Last week, 40 executives from the Sony Corporation of America came to explore the lab’s possibilities after one division had tested its video-on-demand service there. “It’s another way for us to further understand how consumers are using new media,” a Sony spokeswoman, Lisa Davis, said. “We expect the learning here to benefit all of our businesses.”

David Sklaver, president of KSL Media, who buys advertising time for clients like Western Union and Bacardi, said multitasking was either “a blessing or a curse” for advertisers. “If someone is watching a TV drama and has CNN News on the Internet,” he said, “it’s most likely you don’t have an engaged viewer.” But on the other hand, someone watching a sports event on television could enhance the experience by simultaneously surfing the Internet for game statistics.

A widely cited study conducted last year at Ball State University in Indiana observed 400 people over a broad age range for a day, and found that 96 percent of them were multitasking about a third of the time they were using media. A university white paper recently estimated that consumers spend about nine hours a day in media use, most of it watching television.

The OTX study for MTV used an online sample of 4,213 people, and found that those responding engaged in 15.6 hours of leisure activity a day, which included nonmedia activities like shopping, socializing or eating. Almost a third of that time involved doing more than one thing at a time, the study found.

Most of the multitasking involves television plus another activity, whether reading a newspaper, surfing the Internet or talking on the phone. And when that is the case, which activity is getting primary attention?

On this crucial point, the research differs. In a summary of its latest work on the topic in March, Forrester Research noted that only 11 percent of consumers who went online while watching television said they paid the greatest attention to TV. Some 61 percent paid more attention to the Internet, while 28 percent said they gave equal attention to both. Forrester used on-line surveys of 12,000 people as the basis for its findings.

Ms. Fahey Rush said her research showed something different. “TV is considered the primary media activity when you’re doing two things at a time,” she said. But when asked how she assessed what people were paying attention to while multitasking, she paused for nearly a minute. “We certainly asked people about how they feel about our brands on a variety of platforms,” she said.

David Poltrack, the president of CBS Vision, the network’s research arm, said that in the age of multitasking, it was hard to evaluate levels of engagement. “We know people are watching with shared attention,” he said. “But we don’t know to what degree it’s less-than.”

It does seem certain, though, that a viewer who is multitasking is not doing those activities with equal interest. “Terms like multitasking imply equal attention,” said Mike Bloxham, director of testing and assessment at Ball State. “But cognitive science tells us this isn’t possible. You have to give priority to one in order to absorb the messages.”

Industry experts say it will be some time before this kind of research results in changes in the pricing of advertisements. IAG Research, a company that measures engagement, has slowly been bringing the television industry around to its measurement approach. In daily online surveys, the company asks respondents substantive questions about the programs and advertisements they watched. The viewer’s attentiveness is graded on a scale of 0 to 100, and is not formally used to set advertising rates, but Alan Gould, IAG’s chief executive, wonders how long that will last.

“When you have a small but attentive audience, that information can be very important,” he said, citing the UPN hit show “Everybody Hates Chris.” He said viewers of the program were 27 percent more attentive than those of a normal program. One day, that could mean higher ad rates for such shows that command a greater portion of its viewers’ concentration.

“Over time,” he said, “I don’t see how it doesn’t get baked into the equation.”