As further evidence of how complicated — and widespread — multimedia multi-tasking has become, researchers are now evaluating whether the TV set or the computer is the primary screen during a "telewebbing" session.
For the sake or advertisers and program producers, it's important to understand whether "viewsers" are concentrating on the computer and using the TV set in the background.
Or to know if they're primarily watching TV, then turning to the PC when spurred by a televised trigger — or boredom with the program or commercial.
Until full broadband interactivity comes to the TV set or set-top box, this two-screen approach continues to gain ground. And becomes a valuable training ground.
Nearly two-thirds of U.S. PC households have a TV set in the same room with a computer, a ratio that is growing as Wi-Fi cards enable users to plop their laptops into any room in which they watch television.
BIG Research Inc., a Columbus, Ohio, retail-strategies firm, has been exploring how we use "simultaneous media" (or "SIMM," as BIG labels it, although others dub the two-screen experience as "telewebbing" or "synch TV").
Overall, 32.7% of males and 36.4% of females who are online regularly watch TV in the background.
In the key 25-to-34 segment, online is the favored "foreground" experience: 40% of males and 37% of females in that age group say they "regularly" go online, and also watch TV while doing so.
That compares to just under 30% of males and 28% of females in the 25-to-34 age group who "regularly" put their TV viewing ahead of their online usage.
30% never teleweb
The eyeball emphasis evens out a bit more when viewsers were asked if they "occasionally" use both screens at the same time. About 37% of both men and women in BIG's 20,100-person sample group put TV first, while 32% of men and 30% of women "occasionally" add TV viewing to their primary online experience.
Perhaps most significantly, only about 30% of homes that can teleweb say that they "never" do so.
Lest this look like a kids' phenomenon, it's true that 26% of persons under 18 years of age regularly use both screens at the same time. But even in families without a child under 18, a similar 27% say they regularly watch TV and go online simultaneously.
Gary Drenik, president of BIG Research, contends that understanding SIMM behavior is vital because it allows merchants and consumer-product manufacturers (his primary clients) to couple their media campaigns for maximum effectiveness.
Drenik claims simultaneous media usage enables advertisers to boost their return on investment (i.e. advertising productivity) by at least 5%.
His findings also provide valuable harbingers for broadband companies during today's telewebbing phase.
Cable networks were among the first to exploit the two-screen experience, accidentally discovered during a Showtime prizefight in 1996. The premium network invited viewers with computers and Internet access to log onto a Web site to score the Mike Tyson-Frank Bruno bout.
Showtime expected response to spike at the end of the match, when fight fans went to another room and booted up their PCs. Rather, the site began tracking hits with every punch.
Someone quickly figured out that the two screens were co-located, and viewers were already logged onto the Web.
Since then, programmers and advertisers have been experimenting with cross-platform promotions.
BIG's data offer additional reasons to examine how, not just if, both screens are in use. Drenik and his vice president of research, Joseph Pilotta, point out that the multitasking experience extends to other media relationships — especially radio.
About 16% of respondents regularly go online and listen to radio simultaneously. That's another opportunity for digital music distributors – including broadband packagers – who can expand the current offerings of "Internet radio" stations to all those online/radio SIMM customers.
Few paper readers
Not surprisingly, barely 5% of online users in selected BIG samples read a newspaper while online – and those were probably dial-up customers who wanted to keep occupied while waiting for pages to load.
BIG's research has not yet differentiated dial-up and broadband users, the topic of future study.
The findings — if they continue in the same direction as current results, with the emphasis on PC screens in the foreground — will offer even more opportunities to exploit simultaneous media.
Looking ahead to the days of a single-screen experience, the BIG findings suggest that a Web-like interactive experience may dominate passive linear viewing.
We're breeding a generation of viewers who put their online activity before their background video.
For advertisers as well as program marketers, that audience will have new demands about what is put in front of them.
Contributing curmudgeon Gary Arlen opines regularly for Broadband Week.