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.