USC News

Menu Search

Are we paying attention to the onslaught of digital media?

USC Marshall study provides a new model of media consumption in our ‘age of interruption’

digital media graphic
A new study provides a detailed picture of how Americans consume all digital media.

The average American receives more than 15 hours a day of digital media — from YouTube videos and Netflix movies to computer games and text messages.

But how much of that time are we really paying attention? And how can the media industry keep us engaged?

Those questions are front and center in “How Much Media 2: Paying Attention,” a new study from the Institute for Communication Technology Management (CTM) at the USC Marshall School of Business and CTM Visiting Researcher James Short.

On the heels of CTM’s “How Much Media” research last year, Short wanted to provide a more detailed picture of how Americans consume digital media.

Today we have more access to media than ever before, but we are also tuning a lot of it out: Most devices can be paused (even live TV), and we tend to use more than one device at a time — watching a movie while texting a friend, for example, or having the TV on the background while preparing dinner.

We are definitely in an ‘age of interruption,’ given the proliferation of mobile devices that are continuously on and can be interrupted.

James Short

“We are definitely in an ‘age of interruption,’ given the proliferation of mobile devices that are continuously on and can be interrupted,” Short said. “Viewer segments are becoming shorter and shorter, and longer-sequence media is in danger of being crowded out.”

Attention, everyone

In “How Much Media 2,” Short wondered how much media and what media do people actually pay attention to. After analyzing daily media usage and factoring in selective attention, multitasking and passive monitoring, he identified three primary types of media consumers:

  • The Young Mobiles, 18- to 29-year-old urban professionals and students who primarily use laptops, tablets, smartphones and DVRs, but who also use TV and Internet radio. They access subscription video-on-demand services, Netflix, Pandora, online news, social media and messaging. When selective attention and multitasking are factored in, their daily media usage is 6 hours, 52 minutes, with 39 percent of that time spent on video services and 26 percent on communications including social media, messaging and voice calls.
  • The Prime-time Crowd, professionals and young urban families with two or three children in school. Traditional TV and delayed-view TV dominate this segment: The group primarily watches TV and uses devices such as DVRs and DVD players, but also uses laptops for email and shopping, smartphones for video and console devices for gaming. Adjusted for selective attention and multitasking, the group spends 10 hours, 35 minutes a day on media, with 65 percent of that time spent watching video and 16 percent on communications.
  • The Average American Household is similar to the Prime-time Crowd in terms of devices used, but this group’s media time is much more interrupted (though less so than the Young Mobiles). The group’s adjusted media usage is 8 hours, 3 minutes a day, with 51 percent of that time spent on video and 22 percent on communications.

Short said companies that reviewed the findings were most surprised by the Young Mobiles, the ones with the most access to continual media but who watch that media in the most highly interrupted segments.

“They were expecting their media time to be the highest, but they did not expect that time would drop by more than half when factoring in selective attention and multitasking,” Short said.

Content challenges

How can content providers increase engagement with that demographic? One approach is that all media should be shorter and sent across platforms where users can control their viewer experience; that way, audiences pay attention and get the message, the research concluded.

A second approach is to be context aware. Mobile access is the key factor driving usage time for Young Mobiles, and that group wants media anywhere and anytime — and, most importantly, on its schedule.

The study identified additional priorities for content providers:

  • On-demand services: If a viewer has requested an on-demand service, it is much more likely the user will pay more attention and view it with less interruption. So as people get increased control over devices and applications, a possible future of cable could be unicast (media sent to an individual device) rather than broadcast (media sent to all connected receivers).
  • Advertising snippets, such as brand stories, will be told increasingly in small segments, echoing the fragmentation of media attention. Telling stories in snippets, with different narrative styles and a balance of information and entertainment, helps consumers find different narrative pieces in different places. 
Advertisers may consider telling their story across platforms (for instance, starting on TV, then continuing on tablet and smartphone) to increase effectiveness across platforms.

More stories about: , ,

Are we paying attention to the onslaught of digital media?

Top stories on USC News