Article in Mobile, Technology categories.

Are Smartphones Killing Television?

  And just like that, the first commercial is over. Next, a dark, sexy, luxury sedan speeds through a depopulated city as a gravelly-voiced man…

And just like that, the first commercial is over. Next, a dark, sexy, luxury sedan speeds through a depopulated city as a gravelly-voiced man informs you of the wonders of 0.0 percent APR financing. “Who cares?” you mutter to yourself as you instinctively reach into your pocket for your smartphone. As you wait for Facebook’s molasses-powered mobile app to load, you glance back up at your television. A sumptuous looking, fast-food hamburger meets your gaze. You know that it won’t look that good in reality. Finally, the app loads and you find yourself scrolling eagerly through your newsfeed. At long last, mental stimulation. At long last, respite from repetitive and cliched commercials.
This scene is all too common in the lives of modern, connected Americans. On July 17, the Pew Internet & American Life Project released “The Rise of the ‘Connected Viewer’,” a study that found that 38 percent of cell phone owners (not just smartphone) used their phones “to keep themselves occupied during commercials or breaks in something they were watching." Furthermore, they studied what these viewers were doing during these breaks - 23 percent said they texted someone else who was watching the same program as them, and 22 percent said they used their phone to check the validity of something said on television.  While social media use wasn’t measured, the study found that 11 percent used their phone to see what people online were saying about the show and another 11 percent used their phone to post comments about the show online. Another 6 percent used their phone to vote for a reality show contestant, sadly confirming that American Idol shares the American government’s problem with voter turnout.

In order to put these statistics in context, we first need to determine what percentage of Americans use cell phones (91 percent and growing). Additionally, over 50 percent of Americans own a smartphone. As of 2011, 96.7 percent of Americans own television sets. So, as we can see, the number of Americans who use their cell phones during commercial breaks is a very significant portion of the total television-viewing population. These viewers are ignoring the television ads and instead turning their eyes to their phones. Ergo, they are reducing the effectiveness of the medium and raising the blood pressure of old-school advertisers. And the number will continue to climb as more and more Americans become accustomed to smartphone use.

The Reports of my Death are Greatly Exaggerated

Is this a sign of the television industry’s imminent demise? Not exactly. For the moment, television executives can sleep tight knowing that television is still, by far, the most effective advertising medium. According to a survey published by YouGov for Deloitte, an internet polling service, 52 percent of responders stated that television was the most memorable advertising medium. Furthermore, the Council for Research Excellence found that 86 percent of television viewers “remain with live TV” during commercial breaks, as opposed to leaving or switching the channel. This, of course, counts the people who are feverishly tweeting away while a joyous, middle-aged woman talks about the benefits of probiotic yogurt on TV. Nevertheless, the study found that the average adult “views” over 26 commercial breaks per day. The study opaquely revealed data about media use during the commercial break, saying that the most popular form of media consumed during the break was, of course, live TV.

The Future is Now

So can television executives sail their yachts happily into the sunset? Of course. Their companies, however, will be facing a turbulent future.  The 65+ age group watches live television the most by far (warning: PDF). The demographic that watches the least? The whippersnappers, of course. The 18- to 24-year-olds. You can see where this is leading. The young prefer to watch their shows using on demand services such as Netflix or Hulu. One can easily hypothesize that when this demographic is forced to watch live television, they’re the ones with the highest tendency to use their phones during commercial breaks. This trend will undoubtedly continue as the younger generations become more connected with new media.

Advertisers are taking notice of this shift. In their everlasting hunt for your eyeballs, they’ve flocked to smartphone and on-demand video advertising. In March, ABC began talking to media companies about purchasing packages of ads for both live television and on-demand. ABC estimates that on-demand comprises 10 percent of the network’s primetime audience. Furthermore, Turner Broadcasting conducted a study that found that online viewers were willing to put up with even more ads than live television viewers. On the smartphone front, EMarketer, a digital marketing research company, found that advertisers spent $1.45 billion on mobile ads in 2011, up 89 percent from 2010. These ads are particularly potent because of the data available to advertisers. Based upon your spending habits, location, and device, advertisers can hit you, as well as your wallet, with targeted advertisements. Already, smartphones are advertising gold mines and advertisers are getting ready to party like it’s 1849.

Presently, television advertising is a healthy, thriving industry. It has the largest advertising audience of any medium and the ads, as seen above, are known to be the most memorable and thus, effective. If the television advertising industry were a tree, the disease rotting out the roots would not be cell phone distractions. The disease would be the trend of young Americans turning to other media sources besides live TV for entertainment. Going forward, the television advertising industry should focus on ads for the expanding mobile and on-demand audiences. After all, the most interesting man in the world didn’t achieve his success by being complacent.

(Image sources: TECHi,

More Articles By Julian

Recent Articles

Previous post America: Startup Incubator July 23, 2012
Next post What Marissa Mayer Means for Women in Tech July 24, 2012