How Do American Families Have Time to Watch 8 Hours of TV Every Day?

Understanding the attempts to quantify the nation’s most popular leisure activity

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Even as phones and tablets extend their reach into daily life, a bigger screen remains supreme. According to the market-research firm Nielsen, the average American household watches nearly eight hours of television a day. If people are working and sleeping and doing anything else at all, how do eight hours of TV even fit into people’s days?

Nielsen has been measuring TV viewership since 1949. These days the company keeps tabs on nearly 60,000 households with special “meters” that attach to people’s TVs and track what they’re watching, when, and for how long—information that’s highly valuable to advertisers and TV networks. What becomes clear, on a closer look at viewership data, is that the eight-hours-a-day statistic is a very blunt figure, because viewing varies dramatically by age, race, and other variables.

When Nielsen started measuring TV viewership, American households were averaging four and a half hours a day. This figure rose steadily over the course of the century, but the biggest jump came in the 2000s, when it peaked at almost nine hours. Now it’s a little under eight.

Eight hours a day is, it maybe goes without saying, a lot of hours. What kind of TV watching does that figure capture? The eight-hours figure covers “traditional TV use”—which is live TV plus shows recorded on a DVR or watched on-demand—but not watching things on a computer or a streaming device such as a Roku. That latter category accounts for about another hour of TV time, on average.

Further, in its per-household count, Nielsen is tallying up the amount of time that at least one person was watching TV—so if two people watch together for an hour, that counts only as one hour, not two. And a person has to be paying some basic level of attention for the time to count: “We actually have techniques to prevent capturing idle viewing, in which panelists are prompted to engage with the meter at certain times to make sure they’re still viewing content,” explains Peter Katsingris, Nielsen’s senior vice president of audience insights.

Katsingris told me that individually, Americans 18 and up are averaging four hours and 20 minutes of TV watching a day, with younger people watching less and older people watching more. There is also significant variance by race: Black adults average six and a half hours of traditional TV a day, while Asian American adults clock in at about two and a half hours.

Nielsen is not the only group tracking this data. The federal government is also curious—not because it’s selling the data to media companies, but because it’s interested in how its citizens spend their days. The American Time Use Survey (ATUS), overseen by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is what captures this data; it’s administered over the phone, and respondents are prompted to talk through how they spent their time the previous day.

The ATUS agrees with Nielsen: Americans watch a lot of TV. If you added up all the hours that they devote to leisure activities each week, 55 percent of that time, on average, is spent in front of a television. By the government’s count, the average 15-or-older American watches two hours and 46 minutes of TV a day.

That is less than Nielsen’s tally for individuals, but the government and the market researchers both document substantial demographic variation. According to the ATUS, people 65 and up watch more than four hours a day, people of all ages who aren’t employed watch just under four, and parents whose kids are 5 or younger watch just under two. “Sometimes it’s a little hard to relate to the estimates,” says Rachel Krantz-Kent, an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “They might seem really high, but there’s a lot of variation within each of those populations.”

It’s hard to point to one specific reason that the figures from Nielsen and the government differ. One reason might be that the ATUS is measuring mainly what people report as their primary activity at any given time; Nielsen, meanwhile, can better account for multitasking, as long as the viewer maintains a certain level of “engagement.” So, for example, if someone is intermittently looking up at the TV while folding laundry, Nielsen might consider them to be watching TV, but ATUS might consider them to be doing housework. It’s also possible that the ATUS’s and Nielsen’s samples differ in characteristics that might correlate with different amounts of TV watching.

But while the two estimates may differ, they point to the same overall historical pattern: People are watching a lot more TV than they were decades ago. Liana Sayer, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who studies time use, cited two main theories as to why.

The first, she says, has to do with the thesis Robert Putnam put forward in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone—that Americans have, collectively, withdrawn from communal activities and civic life. The popularity of TV, Sayer told me, reflects “people’s desire to wind down and relax in a setting that they’ve got total control over.” Many people may feel that socializing with neighbors is taxing, while, Sayer notes, “TV is there, in your house, and it’s always available.”

Sayer attributes the second theory to sociologists such as Harriet Presser, one of the early researchers to note the rise of nonstandard working hours and inconsistent shift work. “She makes the argument that if individuals are working either very long hours or they’re working hours that aren’t in sync with other members of their family, or with their friends,” Sayer says, “their ability to engage in leisure activities that require the presence of somebody else, or require institutions to be open, is going to be far more constrained.”

Still, while these society-wide forces might be pulling people toward TV, it’s clear that this pull is a lot stronger for some groups than for others. Saying that American households watch eight hours of TV a day effectively captures the country’s enduring devotion to the medium, but it hides how unevenly that devotion is distributed.