By Sal Thomas

Not a day goes by that we aren’t treated to an announcement of a new media platform in our lives. If it’s not a new video service on the Internet or an app for the iPhone, it’s a new way to bring the Internet to your traditional TV.

The abundance of offerings is splintering the television audience, and evidence of who is watching what remains pretty much anecdotal. Two recent studies, however, bring into focus the shifting media landscape. One by the Nielsen rating service measures television viewership on various media devices. The other by the Pew Research Center tracks how we get our news. And the good news is? American are watching more TV than ever––about 22 minutes more per month per person––and we don’t have a wit more of intelligence to show for it.

By The Numbers, 288 Million Viewers

In its first 2011 survey of television viewing habits, Nielsen estimates that over the course of the last month 288 million Americans were in a room where the TV set was on for at least a minute, 190 million used a computer at home or at work, and 231 million used a smart phone or other mobile digital device.

The upper 20 percent of TV watchers tuned in for nearly ten hours a day; the lowest 20 percent watched an average of an hour a day. Overall, Nielsen reported, the typical American watched about 5.2 hours a day of television, including 9 minutes of video on a computer and 8 minutes on a mobile phone device (if it was equipped to received video).

Age Matters

As might be expected, viewing habits varied significantly by age. People over 55, for instance, averaged seven hours a day of home TV viewing while younger Americans (ages 12 to 17) spent at least a third of their Internet time watching videos on the net.

In the key 18 to 49 demographic, 20 percent of all Internet time was spent watching videos, and among mobile phone users with video capabilities, Nielsen reported viewers watching video on the phone rose 41 percent over last year and 100 percent since 2009. For the first time in its research, Nielsen said, a significant segment of the heaviest media consumers (especially younger viewers) now seem to favor streaming media over standard TV.

News Is The Leading Indicator

Large chunks of TV viewership (as measured in minutes) won’t begin to shift over to streaming media until full-length TV shows and movies are readily available on home computers and other digital devices. But the harbinger of what’s to come is how people get their daily news, and that’s where the biennial Pew Research Center report on consumer news habits comes in.

A year ago this month, the Pew Center surveyed 3,006 Americans over the age of 18 about how much time they spend every day getting news from television, radio, print and online sources and compared the results to previous surveys going back to 1994.

On average, the survey found Americans spend about 70 minutes a day with the news – the highest level of interest since the mid-90’s. While Americans seem to be reading newspapers less (10 minutes a day), they are watching TV news (32 minutes a day) and listening to news radio (15 minutes a day) at the same rate they were in 2000. But they also are spending another 13 minutes today getting news online, thus increasing the total to 70 minutes.

Don’t Watch, Don’t Care

Not surprisingly, highly educated people are most prone to getting their news from both the traditional and digital platforms (96 minutes a day). People younger than 30 spend just 45 minutes with the news, and people over 50 spend 80 minutes. (Among the youngest demographic, 18-24 year olds, 31 percent said they paid no attention to the news at all.)

“Digital platforms are supplementing the news diets of news consumers, but there is little indication they are expanding the proportion of Americans who get news on a given day,” the Pew report concluded. “Even when cell phones, podcasts, social networks, email, Twitter and RSS feeds are accounted for, 17 percent of American say they got no news yesterday, little changed from previous years.”

TV Strong, But Internet Catching Up

When asked where they “regularly” get their news, 58 percent of those surveyed said they watch television news, 34 percent listen to news on the radio, 26 percent read a print newspaper, and 57 percent said they regularly get news over the internet. Among the latter, 7 percent said they get news from social network sites like Facebook and 8 percent said they also get news on their cellphones.  (The numbers add up to more than 100 because most respondents get news from more than one source.)

There are large educational and income differences in who uses the Internet. Two-thirds of college graduates (66 percent) got news from a digital source yesterday, compared with 27 percent of adults with no more than a high school degree. Similarly, 64 percent of people with family incomes of $75,000 or more received digital news yesterday, compared with 27 percent of those with incomes less than $30,000.

Yahoo and Google Dominate Online News

When the public goes to the Internet looking for news, a full third (33 percent) start with a search engine, primarily Yahoo (28 percent), Google (15 percent) or MSN (14 percent).

Cable television news organizations with a web presence are also commonly sought out. Survey respondents cited CNN (16 percent), Fox (8 percent) and MSNBC (7 percent) as frequent destinations.

But broadcast news outlets on the web don’t fare nearly as well. The websites for ABC, NBC, CBS, BBC, CBS and NPR and print-oriented sites for USA Today, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post and Drudge Report are cited by only 1 or 2 percent of respondents as a frequent source of news.

Still it is worth noting: among newspapers and TV stations, one website stands out as an authoritative source. The New York Times is visited frequently by about 6 percent of online news consumers (8 percent of those under 30), who value its in depth reporting.

Who’s Watching What

Back in the more traditional world of television watching on TV sets, the Pew Research report found that cable news has supplanted the networks as the dominant news source. Currently, 28 percent of Americans watch the evening news regularly––pretty much the same percentage as watched a decade ago. But four-in-ten (39 percent) regularly watch cable news outlets and half of all Americans (50 percent) regularly watch the local TV news.

While local and broadcast television network news draw a roughly equal number of Republican and Democratic viewers, Americans quickly divide along partisan lines in their choice of cable news outlets and radio commentators.

Twice as many Democrats as Republicans watch CNN, and three times as many Democrats as Republicans watch MSNBC. But Fox News pulls in four of every ten Republicans (40 percent) but only one of every seven Democrats (15 percent).  And its commentators have an even more rabid conservative following. People who describe themselves as tea party supporters make up 75 percent of Sean Hannity’s following and 68 percent of Bill O’Reilly’s.

When it comes to radio, 14 percent of Democrats and independents––including 23 percent of all liberal Democrats––say they regularly listen to NPR, compared to 6 percent of Republicans. By contrast, 13 percent of Republicans––including 17 percent of conservatives––say they listen to Rush Limbaugh (and tea party supporters make up 76 percent of his audience.)

A Wild and Woolly Time Ahead

The breakdown of who is watching what news has major significance for the upcoming 2012 elections. The fact that 17 percent of Americans essentially don’t watch any news is serious, but little changed from earlier surveys by the Pew Center.

More alarming is the tendency of the ideologically committed to only get their news from sources with the same political leanings. This is compellingly clear in people’s choice of cable networks, and it is being re-enforced by the way Facebook and Twitter social networks work.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. In today’s media climate, Americans have the next best thing: their own news, gathered by cable networks proud of the liberal or conservative slant they put on it, then circulated in a closed circle of like-thinking friends and followers who hear only what they want to hear.

Yes, more people are watching more television news than ever, but they are only watching a narrow band of news sources that suit their biases. This can’t lead anywhere good.

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