Study says the Internet is not reducing TV viewership

Breathe easier, Hank Hill, Ally McBeal and Frasier -- the Internet is not robbing you of your viewers. Not yet, anyway.
Written by ZDNet Staff, Contributor

At least that's the contrarian opinion issued Wednesday by market researcher Nielsen Media Research Inc., throwing cold water on earlier surveys that found people dialling back their TV viewing to spend more time Web watching. "The early indication is that just because a home has access to the Internet, we are not seeing a corresponding decrease in TV tuning," said Jack Loftus, vice president of communications for NMR. The study refutes several others that indicated Internet-connected households were watching less TV. In fact, Nielsen itself released a study with Internet service provider America Online Inc. in August estimating that households connected to the Internet watched 15 percent less TV.

At that time, Bob Pittman, president and chief operating officer of AOL, said that the study proved the Internet's -- and AOL's, in particular -- advantage compared to television, which is under-delivering to upper-demographic Internet/online households." Discovery Communications Inc., owner of the Discovery channel, took exception with the AOL-Nielsen conclusions.

In September, the cable channel published a different set of conclusions based on the same data as the AOL-Nielsen report. By looking at the more than 2,200 people in the study that had participated in a similar study the year before, Discovery found that gaining access to the Internet did not change the viewing habits over that year.

The current NMR study points to other factors behind the decrease in TV viewing. The survey followed 5,000 households over a six-month period, dividing them into three categories: households lacking Internet access, a group with access and a third that started using the Internet during those six months. Both groups that had Internet access by the end of the six months had their TVs on about 26 percent of the time compared with the 31 percent for the group without Internet access. Neither groups' viewing time changed during the period, except that men who gained access to the Internet tended to watch less TV, stated the report.

The conclusions did not refute the AOL-Nielsen's study, just AOL's spin on the data. In fact, in August, NMR'S vice president Paul Lindstrom said in a statement, "The findings from this [the AOL-Nielsen] study are consistent with other research indicating that online households are more upscale than their unconnected counterparts, and that upper-demographic homes, as a whole, watch less television than the U.S. average."

In other words, the Internet is not stealing its audience from TV, but attracting viewers who were not big TV watchers in the first place, said Julia Pickar, industry analyst with Internet watcher Zona Research Inc. "People's media diet doesn't change because of the Internet," she said. "People are just finding what's right for them."

NMR hopes six-month check-ups of its test groups will reveal more information, such as what types of programming are most resistant to the Internet and which segments of the population watch less TV. "You need a series of snapshots -- this is only the first," said Loftus.

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