Americans so caught up in the Net, they would set TV free
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If you had to choose between watching TV and surfing the Web, which would it be?
For the first time, the Internet is the winner by a narrow margin: 49 percent said they would drop television, and 48 percent said they'd give up their Internet connection, according to a survey released Thursday by Arbitron Inc. and Edison Media Research. The survey included 1,753 Americans aged 12 and older.
The Internet led all media as the "most essential" of all media in the survey.
The last time Arbitron and Edison posed this question in a survey was in 2001, when 72 percent of respondents said they could do without Internet and 26 percent said they'd give up TV.
"The shift over these nine years has been steady and profound," said Edison Research president Larry Rosin.
Although it's a photo finish, the new survey -- "The Infinite Dial 2010: Digital Platforms and the Future of Radio" -- shows that the way Americans use media has reached a tipping point, especially in terms of TV's former dominance over other media, new and old.
"There's very little TV programming you can't watch on the Internet," said Tom Webster, Edison Research vice president/strategy.
The shift is most evident among younger viewers between the ages of 12 and 44. "These are people who are watching 'House' and 'Glee' and enough NCAA basketball to bring the Internet to its knees," Mr. Webster said.
Despite the survey results, Pittsburgh still is among the nation's heaviest TV viewing markets, according to The Nielsen Company. More than 70 percent of Pittsburgh homes tuned in during each quarter hour of prime time in the 2008-009 TV season: it tied for fifth place with Greensboro, N.C., and Spartanburg, S.C. In all-day viewing, Pittsburgh ranks 16th among the top 50 TV markets.
But some viewers definitely are changing their habits. Patti Schmidt, 48, of Munhall, for example, has cut the cable cord completely because of the abundance of TV programming online.
"I use Hulu mostly," she said, also mentioning PBS.org and websites associated with cable's A&E and History, when viewing on the Internet. "The cool thing about watching over the Internet is that you can watch anything you want whenever you want."
Hulu.com and other sites offer new and old TV shows on the Web. There's the convenience of streaming movies through services like Amazon, iTunes and Netflix. Wireless Internet connections and set top boxes like Apple's iTV let viewers watch Web video on their large TV screens instead of a computer monitor. Most U.S. households now have high-speed broadband Internet access, which is needed to stream large amounts of data like video and movies.
Tom Haddad, a 35-year-old software engineer who lives near Coraopolis, also has dropped his cable. He keeps up with 20 TV shows. Some he watches on TV, but as many as half he relies on websites to view.
His new approach to TV consumption improved his budget's bottom line. "My bill for Internet, cable, cell and land line in New Jersey was $200," he said. "Now I pay just under $100 for cell and Internet service."
For Leah Shreckengast of Squirrel Hill, a junior at Point Park University, TV or Internet isn't just a hypothetical question. She doesn't have cable, uses the Internet to watch TV episodes and Netflix for movies, and listens to music online.
Not everyone in her generation feels the same way. "I don't enjoy sitting at my computer," said Rachelle Rosensteel of Hampton, a Point Park University junior who says she buys CDs rather than downloading music online and doesn't spend much time on social networking sites.
Others are perfectly content to give up their Internet privileges. "When I get home, it's more relaxing to watch TV," said Linda Sikora of Forest Hills. Sue Toth of Greenfield would give up Internet "in a heartbeat."
Nationally, viewership of all kinds is growing on home screens large and small. According to the Nielsen Three Screen Report, people are spending more time watching on different platforms: In the last quarter of 2009, the typical American watched almost 35 hours of TV a week, two hours of timeshifted TV, 22 minutes of online video, four minutes of mobile video, and four hours on the Internet.
With so much more content online -- and fewer commercial interruptions -- is it any wonder that viewers would pick the Internet over TV?
Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at New York ad buying firm Horizon Media, was not surprised by the results of the Arbitron/Edison research.
"There's just more content, more components on the Web," he said. "I think that makes it a generational thing. Younger folks are light viewers of TV. They are the first tech savvy generation and they grew up totally connected."
He said television networks could see which way the wind was blowing and that's why they've made their content available on multiple platforms, including online. "The networks did that just because eyeballs are moving that way," Mr. Adgate said in a phone interview Thursday. "In the future, [access] will move outside the home, it will be wireless. The networks had no choice. They were caught napping with [the rise in] cable and they didn't want to be caught flat-footed again."
Of course, the online world is made up of more than just video sites, and there's been the suggestion this television season that social media sites have helped traditional television. Ratings for big events -- the Super Bowl, March Madness, ABC's Oscar telecast -- were up, perhaps in part due to the ability to commiserate about the programs in real time online.
"A lot of people are on Facebook talking about these shows," he said. "You can look at it as a complement [to TV viewing] or as a frenemy as opposed to just a competitor."
First Published April 9, 2010 12:00 am