America’s Media Guzzling Ways

A new report on media consumption in the United States demonstrates the incredible scale of media available to us — while also confirming TV’s continued prominence.

What amounts to 14 feet of books, tightly stacked and spread across the entire continental U.S., Alaska, and Hawaii? Answer: the amount of media data, measured in printed text, that Americans consumed last year.

That’s 6.9 zettabytes—6.9 million-million gigabytes—to be exact.

“The media day is more than 24 hours when you add everything up”

Media is now so pervasive, and provides such a growing window on the world, that it has become important to grasp its magnitude. Figuring out how we consume media is, in the grandest sense, key to understanding how life plays out for the average American. This gargantuan number comes from a recent study, ‘How Much Media?’, that measures just how big the American appetite is for television, radio, gaming, and Internet among other things—and how tastes are shifting too.

Considering the diversity of media sources we embrace today, giving a numerical answer to the study’s question is far from simple. “This is a small attempt to take a piece of it and to explore that piece,” says the study’s principal investigator James E. Short, visiting research scientist at the University of Southern California.

 It also equals a startling 15.5 hours of media consumption daily

In measuring this magnitude, researchers assessed media flows from data providers like Neilsen and ComScore, and other sources, to households and individuals. Media flowing to the workplace was excluded. Data streams were split into ‘traditional’ sources of media, made up of television, radio, voice telephony; and ‘new digital sources’, which includes tablet computers, smartphones, mobile gaming and video.

The results show that an average American now consumes 63 gigabytes of media per day—almost double what we did in 2008. By 2015, we’ll be consuming over 74 gigs a day. That’s the equivalent of nine DVDs-worth of data entering your sphere every 24 hours. It also equals a startling 15.5 hours of media consumption daily.

Hold the sauce: 15.5 hours? Before you point out that seemingly impossible number, Short explains: “The media day is more than 24 hours when you add everything up.”

“By 2015 we’ll be watching 653 billion hours of television a year”

It’s a sign of our unwavering—and continually rising—demand for content, and a phenomenal ability to multitask. Think of yourself, sat in front of a television, checking emails on a smartphone, while surfing the Internet on your tablet device. As we run various streams of media simultaneously, we rack up more hours of media time than most of us can devote our full attention to. Short expects that this number will likely grow, as demand grows too; a sign perhaps that this media-saturated scenario is one that consumers desire. In the meantime, figuring out just how people multitask between these streams is still a challenge that industry experts face.

Other aspects of consumption aren’t quite as veiled. One finding of surprising certainty is that traditional media still takes the lead in our data-saturated lives. Americans currently spend three fifths of their media consumption by watching TV (traditional, delayed view, and streaming). By 2015 we’ll be watching 653 billion hours of television a year — up by over 100 billion hours from 2008. Traditional television also uses up almost half the annual byte load delivered to consumers each year.

Short isn’t surprised. “People seem to think a lot of new media will affect TV, and perhaps it will, but this has been a very long-running type of consumptive media.” Since we’ve become so hooked on smartphones and computers, we’ve grown used to traditional media, forgetting its steadfast—and pervasive—presence in our lives.

Since 2008, traditional TV consumption continues to rise, but its share of our media guzzling ways dropped from 46 to 40 percent. In the same time period, computer usage has risen 4 percent and mobile computers — including smartphones, and tablet computers — leapt to five percent from 1.2 percent.

“Media is moving towards being accessible anywhere and anytime”

Those viewing mobile TV channels will have leapt up by two thirds from 2008. The report calls this the “big story”, noting that smartphones, tablets and home computers almost doubled their annual byte consumption percentage between 2008 and 2012.

Lee Rainie, director of the non-profit Pew Internet Research Project, says, “I think there are a couple of major insights about digital life that are embedded in the study. The rise of mobile connectivity is a growing and important phenomenon, and the disruption to the old ways are going to continue to evolve.”

Since 2008, our media use in bytes has almost doubled. We are living in an age of ‘mass media’, in both the types and quantities available to us. Short’s report explains that in the 1960s, there was a media supply to demand ratio of 82 to one. That’s 82 media minutes for every one minute of available consumption time. By 2005, that ratio soared to 884 to one. The estimates show that today, the supply ratio is likely to be more than twice as large as it was in 2005.

The accelerated change reminds us that such a level of media saturation is something that 30 years ago people couldn’t have grasped, Short says. He is optimistic about the incredible quantity we have at our fingertips today, the direction of the changes we see, and the opportunity this brings. “Media is moving towards being accessible anywhere and anytime. That, I think, is just a tremendous capability.”