Saturation Media

New studies by researchers at Ball State University show that media consumption has become so pervasive that people are often unaware how much time they spend absorbing prepackaged thought — often using two or more media simultaneously. While the studies have a practical use in helping publishers and advertisers understand audience habits, I want to think about the consequences of this media saturation and how it might change as more content becomes user-generated and audiences start to talk back.

One recent study was neatly summarized in a story in the Christian Science Monitor, a section of which I excerpt below:

“(According to) a report from the Center for Media Design at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., (r)esearchers watched the behavior of 394 ordinary Midwesterners for more than 5,000 hours, following them 12 hours a day and recording their use of media every 15 seconds on a hand-held device. About 30 percent of their waking hours were found to be spent using media exclusively, while another 39 percent involved using media while also doing another activity, such as watching TV while preparing food or listening to the radio while at work. Altogether, more than two-thirds of people’s waking moments involved some kind of media usage.”

Take a breath and think about those findings: nearly a third of the day spent focused on media, another third with media in the background. It should seem both obvious and stunning. Obvious because it probably describes how we — reading the newspaper on the train to work while listening to music via headphones. Stunning because it suggests that most of the day some thought is being whispered into our ears or flashed before our eyes
And for the most part, we’re not even conscious of this. Though not subliminal, media consumption has become so subversive we don’t even think we are consuming. That was the noteworthy result of an older study by the same Ball Researchers who published those results in the spring of 2004. (Visit this page and click on the link on the right to download the lengthy but readable PDF.)

In essence what the researchers found in that earlier work was that traditional media-use studies, which relied on telephone interviews or personal diaries, tended to understate media consumption. They discovered this by using observers to watch and tabulate media use in subjects who joined the study. Quoting from the report abstract:

“Diary tabulations of media use documented more usage than did the telephone survey, but it was still 12.9 percent below observed use.”

In this 2004 study the total time spent with media was huge — especially when the researchers separately clocked multiple-media use, for instance, by counting a 30-minute train ride spent listening to music and reading the paper as an hour of total media use. “Summing all media use by medium results in a staggering 15.4 hours per day,” when multi-media consumption is laid out in linear fashion, accoring to the abstract.

That seems like a lot of exposure. Is this good, bad or indifferent in terms of behavioral impact? And how will media influence change as thousands and ultimately millions of prosumers create content? I’ll wonder about that a bit tomorrow.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media