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The Average American Watches This Much TV Every Day: How do You Compare?

By Demitri Kalogeropoulos - Mar 15, 2015 at 9:33AM

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We watch a lot of television in this country.

If you watch less than five hours of television each day, then consider yourself below average. The typical American spent 4 hours and 51 minutes in front of a TV screen per day over the last few months, according to a report from ratings company Nielsen. 

The overall numbers were down from last year, but that's just a quirk of the data. Nielsen only tracks live TV viewing. When you add time spent watching streaming content from Netflix (NFLX 5.03%) or other services, it's clear overall video consumption continues to march higher.

How you spend your day
Government data provide more details on America's TV habits. The Bureau of Labor Statistics conducts a "time use" survey every year that shows how typical citizens portion out their activities through an average 24-hour period. The latest report covering 2013 found that 80% of us watch TV on any single day, and that television took up more than half of all our leisure time. That category includes pursuits such as exercising, socializing, playing games, and reading. Here's a look at TV watching in relation to a few other major time commitments.

Activity Percent of waking time
Work 23%
Watching TV 18%
Eating and drinking 8%
Shopping 5%
Housework 4%

Data show average time dedicated to each activity for household members aged 15 and over. Sleep takes up 8.7 hours on average. Source: BLS American Time Use Survey

The BLS survey shows that that men watch more TV than women. And television viewing time grows as you age: Americans in their retirement years spend twice as much time per day watching TV as younger citizens do. Overall, we dedicate nearly 20% of our waking hours to the television, far more than any other single activity except work.

Changing habits
Even though TV is a huge part of our lives, the habit isn't immune to change. In fact, Nielsen's data show that Americans are busy shifting their viewing from broadcast TV to on-demand streaming video services. Live TV viewing is down a hefty 12% so far this year, according to a Wall Street Journal estimate, which explains why ratings have been falling for major networks such as Disney's ABC and Discovery's Animal Planet. 

That viewing dip has companies scrambling to protect their advertising revenue. Many have adjusted to lower ratings by stuffing even more commercials into a given program. Advertising time per broadcast hour grew to a record 16 minutes on cable last year, up from 14.5 minutes in 2009.

But strategies like that only seem to make the problem worse for the cable networks -- and better for Netflix. The streaming video pioneer shows zero commercials on its billion-plus hours of streamed content each month. And it gained 13 million paying members in the last year while cable subscriptions hardly budged. There are no ratings statistics on Netflix's viewing yet, so we can't compare the House of Cards fan base to that of, say, CBS' Madam Secretary.

Source: Netflix.

Still, Netflix is already in 36% of U.S. homes, and it has plenty of room to keep growing. Roughly one-third of broadband households are not yet subscribed to a single streaming video service. 

Foolish wrap-up
Broadcast cable isn't dying. The fact that we spend five hours on the activity demonstrates how ingrained television is in our culture. And viewership figures for the latest top-rated shows confirm there's still strong demand for live broadcasts. CBS' The Big Bang Theory attracted 18 million viewers in the final week of February. NBC's The Voice and Fox's Empire also saw healthy audience numbers above 10 million viewers.

However, all of the growth in TV watching is coming from subscription streaming services, which cuts at the heart of the cable industry's ad-supported business model.

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