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TV: We're Still Watching

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If you've come across news coverage of the media industry of late, you can be forgiven for believing that audiences are too consumed by their iPhones and the Internet to watch television. These days, suggestions that "TV is on the bubble" might lead you to think consumers are ditching their plasma screens for new platforms. There's just one problem with this — it's wrong. The fact is consumers are watching more television than ever before.

The video experience, however, is widening. Today, for example, more than 130 million U.S. consumers watch video online — up 13% year-over-year — while more than 13 million watch video on their cell phones. The American appetite for video on emerging platforms, it seems, is insatiable.

But such growth is not at the cost of conventional television viewing. Even as consumers increasingly turn to their PCs and cell phones for entertainment, they continue to spend more and more time with traditional TV — 153 hours per month, as of the first quarter of this year.

So if television viewing is up, why all the doom and gloom surrounding the medium?

One reason may be that industry insiders in New York and Los Angeles instinctively believe that typical media consumers behave just as they do.

I recently observed an example of such a misperception first-hand amid a group of media leaders at an industry breakfast discussion. There, a room full of decision makers from print, online and TV, along with private equity and advertising executives, were surveyed about their own video consumption. Among these media professionals, the mean self-reported time spent watching television was only about a third as much as the U.S. average. On the other hand, their viewing of online and mobile video, was considerably higher than average. It's not surprising then, given that their personal media habits vary from the norm, that they were a ways off in their estimates of typical consumer usage.

The point is not that media executives are out of touch with consumers. For the most part they are not; and this small and unscientific survey was insufficient to prove otherwise. Instead, it is the fact that a focus on new and emerging media trends, and the challenges of monetizing them, may skew perceptions of what is commonplace among typical media consumers. It is in this echo chamber that the "decline of television" takes on another life.

Another misconception among some in the industry is that media consumption is a zero-sum game — with television the potential loser. Yet recent research by Ball State University on behalf of the Center for Research Excellence confirms what we at Nielsen continue to find: that people keep adding more media to their lives without abandoning their TVs.

Consumers may watch television online and on mobile devices — while discussing their favorite shows on Facebook and Twitter — but they also watch more television the way they always have: on their televisions, inside their homes.

Advances in video technology should not be understated: the TV industry is changing rapidly and dramatically. Yet rather than creating obsolescence, these innovations are expanding choices. Consumers can now watch their favorite programs on whatever screen best suits the time, place and preferences. Sometimes, that means catching up with a missed television episode online during lunch, or viewing the evening news on their cell phones while on the train home. It also means watching movies, sports or American Idol with the family around the plasma TV at home.

In these ways, it is evident television is not on a bubble. Instead, consumers are renewing and strengthening their engagement with traditional television while adding new screens that expand the viewing experience.