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April 1, 2019



The AdAge Marketing Fact Pack 2019 presented some interesting details on multitasking, taken from Simmons Research’s Spring 2018 National Consumer Study. Here, the question was, what activities do consumers do while also watching TV? The following compares the activities that consumers do “Often/very often” versus “not often/not at all.”

It should be mentioned that there are always issues regarding the vagaries of self-reporting. For example, “often” and “not very often” may mean different things to each respondent. And asking people to think back and respond to questions such as these may lead to impressionistic answers (e.g. “Hmmmm, do I ever text while I watch TV? Yeah, I probably do that a lot, so I’ll check off “very often.”). However, these issues are not unique to Simmons Research, and certainly don’t negate the directional usefulness of the findings. Taking a look at the activities that respondents claim to do often/very often, we see that texting and visiting websites on mobile phones were the most commonly cited, while relatively few people listen to radio or read a magazine/comic while watching TV. What’s revealing about this dataset is that, overall, a higher percentage of respondents reported rarely or never multitasking (34-81%, depending on the activity), while the range of multitasking activities done often/very often was between 13-47%. This would seem to indicate that perhaps viewers aren’t multitasking in a manner or frequency proportionate to the amount of coverage and analysis we read about in the trades. It’s certainly food for thought.


Timing also has an impact on multitasking. As we reported in the January 22nd issue of TV Dimensions Alert, Nielsen’s second quarter 2018 Total Audience Report found that digital media garnered 36-41% of the three-media (TV, radio, digital) usage total during the daytime, but in primetime, TV’s share rose to 52-57%, while digital’s dropped to 27-30%. So clearly there are limits to the amount of multitasking that can take place, based on reports of when activity occurs. If it were true that 100% of TV’s audience turned to their smartphones whenever a commercial appears on the TV screen—this being about 25% of TV’s total content—one would expect a much higher percentage of digital usage during primetime, which Nielsen’s data does not show.

While these small sample studies are interesting, for many reasons there has not yet been a nationally projectible research study on multitasking. One reason is the underlying fallacy in existing audience measurement that it actually determines who is watching program or commercial content. It doesn’t. All that is produced is a tally of device usage, cross-referenced with what content is on the screen. Secondly, there is no clear and functional definition of “viewing.” Is eyes-on-screen the gold standard? Should it be combined with duration—how much of the ad was seen? Are people who only watched part of the ad included? Finally, there are the issues with self-reporting that we discussed in part one of this analysis. However, multitasking is an issue that merits our attention, even if it is not done to the degree one might expect. The fact is that, with more and more options available to them, viewers’ attention is drawn to many sources, and particularly among younger viewers, the multiscreen experience is a part of their lives. It therefore behooves the industry to work on ways to accurately measure this phenomenon, as it isn’t going away, and will likely only increase.



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