In Depth

Web Now 'Most Essential' Medium

By Hillary Atkin

For the first time, the Internet has squeaked past television as the most essential medium in the lives of Americans.

That finding was part of Arbitron Inc. and Edison Research’s recently released “The Infinite Dial 2010: Digital Platforms and the Future of Radio” national survey.

This was the 12th such annual survey measuring media habits among people age 12 and older and included non-Internet and non-cell phone households in its polling of about 1,750 people across the country.

The study showed that when given a choice along with television, radio and newspapers, 42 percent of Americans say the Internet is “most essential” to their lives, with 37 percent selecting television, 14 percent choosing radio, and 5 percent saying newspapers were the most important to them. While television still leads among those over the age of 45, the Internet dominates among people age 12 to 44.

“We also looked at different ways people are watching television shows to see what percentage are watching nonbroadcast television platforms,” said Diane Williams, senior media research analyst at Arbitron.

Twenty-eight percent of those surveyed had watched a full-length television episode streaming over the Internet at some point in their lives, and among the 12-24 age group, 41 percent had done so.

“I viewed it as a reality check on how many people are doing this,” Williams said. “It’s something that’s fairly in its infancy. As the experience improves, it’s an experience that’s growing. I read articles that imply that a lot more people are doing this. Should networks be preparing for additional shifts in this way? Our finding is that online is not taking over the world right now.”

Yet the research confirms that viewing habits are shifting and changing. Thirty-seven percent of those surveyed have watched TV shows through their cable provider’s video-on-demand service. Thirty-two percent have bought or rented TV series on DVD, while 15 percent have downloaded an entire show episode from an online store like iTunes.

As far as watching television shows online, a five-year trend shows that the big jump was between 2008 and 2009 and that the percentage of people doing it did not increase significantly in the first quarter of 2010, staying at about 22 percent. The average time spent viewing video online was nearly three hours per week.

The study points out that while the rise of online video has been steady and persistent for the past 10 years, many more people still watch television in public places like doctors’ offices, gas stations and stores than online — and that online video still appeals to an audience that is young (12-44) and male.

“Online does not appear to be a replacement activity for broadcast,” Williams said. “We’re not seeing enough volume. Watching online seems to be extra — catching up on episodes. There are two categories: full-length and watching any video online. A good deal of video that people are watching online is shorter form, like YouTube videos.”

The study showed that Americans still hold radio in high regard, with nearly 80 percent saying they plan to listen to as much AM/FM radio in the future as they do now — and it still beats the Internet as the main venue in which people find out about new music.

“Younger consumers show interest in radio on mobile phones,” said Tom Webster, vice president of strategy and marketing at Edison Research. “More than 4 in 10 mobile phone owners age 12 to 24 say they would listen more to FM radio if a tuner were built into those phones.”

Another growing trend that’s important to watch: When more cars are equipped with seamless integration systems, more people will listen to an iPod or an MP3 player through a car stereo system. About 1 in 4 do so currently — even though many have to deal with adapters and other barriers that can make it cumbersome.

The study also showed that online social networking has exploded, with the number of Americans age 12 and over who have a profile on a least one social networking Web site reaching 48 percent of the population, literally doubling in the past two years.