Americans Spend 5 Hours a Day Watching TV

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Americans are watching more TV than ever at least according to Nielsen and AllThingsD. Television remains the biggest chunk of the nearly 60 hours of media consumed every week. Here’s how those 60 hours break down across TV, radio, online, and mobile in 2012.

If you did the quick math like I did, yes 35 divided by 7 days is an average of 5 hours of TV per day. Five hours! Even with all the buzz about Netflix, the numbers haven’t changed all that much over the last few years:

I did some quick searching and found the 2012 American Time Use Survey (ATUS) by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics gave some slightly different numbers:

Watching TV was the leisure activity that occupied the most time (2.8 hours per day), accounting for about half of leisure time, on average, for those age 15 and over.

(I’m not sure what the cause of this big difference is, my best guess is that the BLS survey depends on self-reported answers, while Nielsen data includes set-top boxes that quietly track actual usage. People may think or only want to admit they watch less TV than they really do.)

I don’t begrudge anyone the act of decompressing after a day of work. I watch TV to relax too. But sitting for 3-5 hours in front of the TV every single day? I don’t see how someone who does that can also complain about being “too busy” to cook their own food or do other self-improvement projects. Learn a new skill, get a better job, start a side business. Warren Buffett’s investment partner friend Charlie Munger recommends working for yourself an hour every day. I mean, who else is going to do it?

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  1. 5 hours is quite a bit, and while I don’t even own a TV so I can’t speak for myself, perhaps the 5 hours is actually 5 hours of the TV being on but not watched with undivided attention. People could be getting other things done with the TV on in the background.

    It would be interesting to see these statistics broken down by demographics, because we all know that 40 year old women play video games 0 hours per day and that teenage boys play 8 something like 6 hours a day. But I would also guess that people with government handouts and seniors spend much more TV time than people with jobs simply based on their available free time.

    Speaking for myself though, I can see your point in the last paragraph for me personally, because I know I could cut back on pointless Internet things and work a little harder.

    I guess like the saying that says that nobody wished that they saved less money when they were younger, nobody is going to wish that they watched more TV when they were younger.

  2. I find it amazing that people still watch that much live tv relative to dvr. Everything I watch is dvr, at the very least if something is on live I’m interested in I’ll start it 10-20 minutes late so I can skip commercials.

    It also would seem difficult to break out live vs. dvr. If I pause my tv during a football game for 2 minutes to go to the bathroom and come back and watch the rest of the game delayed 2 minutes that should count as dvr watching for the rest of the game, right?

  3. I wish I had 5 hours to watch TV. I mean, not that I would watch 5 hours of TV but I would love that much free time (unless it’s just the TV being left on like Peter mentioned above). Oh, I don’t have that much free time due to taking care of a 1.5 year old, not because I’m just busy working all the time. 🙂

  4. I think it is a mistake to assume that people _sit_ for 5 hours in front of a TV. Many people do housework and other things with the TV in the background. For example, in many barber shops the TV is on continuously, but they are certainly not sitting in front of it.

  5. Personally, if you are watching too much tv, the answer is to get rid of cable and then you watch only things that you really want to watch and never just sit idle in front of the tv. We have roku and through that have discovered some amazing shows, like Friday night lights (thank you Amazon Prime!). If we still had cable my wife would watch Tyra Banks (or whatever that was) in the day time and i watch sports center at night! Now we have to find something we can both enjoy. She can still get her HGTV fix but she needs to decide if she wants to watch it not just let it run. I feel like we are both more productive this way.

  6. After thinking about it overnight, I came to a similar conclusion. Perhaps the Nielsen boxes track actual TV usage in unbiased manner (on, off, what channel), while the BLS survey relies on user-provided answers to a survey. If I keep the TV on for 5 hours but am cooking or letting the kids watch while I use the iPad or something, then I don’t really think I am “watching”. Or maybe I don’t want to admit to it fully. I am thinking the true number is somewhere in the middle.

    @Peter – 97% of household own at least one TV. You are the 3%!

    @Kevin – I do the same. Watching a commercial just feels weird now.

    @Daniel – 1.25 year old here 🙂 Having her actually made me miss TV even less. We couldn’t even watch the few shows we used to.

    I still am reticent to let go of live sports though, that still hard to replace.

  7. Maybe the difference is the Nielsen data is for a household and the BLS is a survey of individuals. If you have four people in your household and two children each watch an hour of their own programming at different times/on different sets and two adults watch 2 hours together in the evening, and they all watch the news/morning show while getting ready in the morning together, that probably gets you pretty close to 5 total hours per day and an average of 2.8 hours per person of actual viewing.

  8. Do people really still listen to that much radio?? 2 hours a day seems like a lot. I imagine a lot of it is in the car when you’re driving, but still.

    Here’s another Nielen report:

    It breaks down live TV versus DVR. The sum is ~5 hours.

    I also agree with MB that the time counted doesn’t mean you’re 100% focused on the TV. Some of households have a TV on ‘in the background’ all the time. Similarly I can’t imagine anyone sits and does nothing but listen to a radio for 2 hours a day.

    I’m one of the people who watches a lot of TV. I’ve averaged more than 5 hours a day in the past. I was often doing something else at the same time.

  9. 35 hours a week of TV? I’m guessing the same people that do this are the ones that claim they can’t save any money. Get a second job and get your life moving!

  10. Four Arguments For The Elimination Of Television by Gerry Mander….check it out.

  11. Television is not good for your health or your wealth. The amount of productivity one loses in their lifetime due to T.V. is staggering.

  12. I’d say I’m probably a couple hours a day. I’m a junkie for:

    Live sports
    HGTV (almost anything they show)

    I am quite active. I work 9 hours a day. Workout for a minimum of 30 minutes per day in some form or another. (run, weights, cross train, etc). I mow my own yard. Wash & work on (mostly) my own cars.

    And I still find plenty of time to watch TV.

    My biggest question would be……..What is the alternative to “downtime”?? (Not “start a side business”)

    Read?? (What’s the diff in watching TV?)
    Puzzles?? (Is it more stimulating than TV/reading?)

    Just curious as I’ve heard, “Read a book” forever & not sure that’s really much different than TV.

  13. Don’t even come close to that. If I hit 1 hour in a day it’s quite a bit.

    Then again, internet consumption is way, way, way above 5 hours.

  14. @Red – books usually are more focused, smarter, have deeper themes and are far more involving than 95% of the TV out there. Sure you have the exception to the rule in something The Wire but for the most part, most TV is written for a 4th grader to understand it and it’s not meant for people to grasp concepts or remember anything. The highest rated shows on TV are brainless comedies and episodic nonsense (Big Bang, NCIS, CSI, etc) or even worse, reality shows.

  15. As a child, my parents were big on reading books. I am thankful that they enforced reading, because if they didn’t I just may have turned out to be a couch potato.

  16. Joshua Rodriguez says

    I would say I watch about an hour of TV a day. The majority of that hour is catching up on news. When I was younger I used to watch a lot more but these days, it seems like TV is worse than ever and being taken over by fake reality shows. I’ll stick with the news.

  17. Peter, I take offense. I am exactly 40 years old and spent at least 8 hours this past weekend playing Portal 🙂 It was co-op, so I think it also counts as social interaction…

  18. bgdc, The most popular books are crap like 50 shades of gray and the #1 book genre is trashy romance novels. You can’t judge the quality of a medium by the top 10 list. There are a lot of brainless books out there just like theres lots of poor quality TV. I don’t think reading harlequin romances all day is better than watching PBS.

  19. To each his own.

    60 years ago Newton Minnow defined TV as a vast wasteland. It’s only become far worse. Books, which can be bad at times, are never as awful as the top 50 shows on TV.

    I can’t name 5 great, well written shows on television. They don’t try to make good shows… only profitable shows.

  20. bgdc,

    Newton Minnow actually started that ‘vast wasteland’ speech with : “When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.”

    But yes, to each their own. If you don’t like TV thats perfectly fine.

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