You have probably heard that binge-watching television on platforms like Netflix (NFLX), Hulu, and Amazon (AMZN) Prime leads to depression, chronic illness, weight gain, sleep disorders, and even a suffering sex life. While those claims are still being debated against evidence that suggests cord-cutters are more engaged politically regardless of what they watch online, it is indisputable that television has changed drastically in form, interface, and content in the last decade.
Indeed, recent studies indicate that we are watching more TV than ever, mainly thanks to an increasing array of apps that are transforming TV into a fundamentally different process of production and consumption through engaging, sharing, and instantly commenting. With a team of researchers that I lead at Boston University, we call this TVing, and it is fast becoming the new normal in our always-on lives.
The media industry has shifted from a top-down hierarchical model of schedules and “must-see TV” at the time it is broadcast to apps that provide access to TV shows—often original series—regardless of where you are or when you want to watch. Recent high-profile examples include Apple (AAPL) budgeting $1 billion for producing original content, and Disney (DIS) starting its own streaming service. But the field also includes other players such as Newsy, Cheddar, Sling, and many additional apps and services that deliver TV a la carte.
In a recent, still-unpublished study of 420 nationally representative college students that researchers and I conducted through the Division of Emerging Media Studies at BU, we found the appetite for such apps is nearly insatiable. Here, just 10 respondents (0.2%) reported not subscribing to at least one television-viewing app, and 97.1% subscribed to between one and five services to watch television. A much smaller percentage—2.9%—of respondents had from six to 10 online TV app subscriptions.
Not surprisingly, the most common apps were Netflix (86.2%), Amazon Prime (42.4%), and Hulu (36.2%), but also included iTunes or Google (GOOG) Play (21.2%), HBO Now (15.5%), ESPN Now (6.0%), and Crackle (6.0%). The most commonly binge-watched programs were Stranger Things, Orange is the New Black, and The Walking Dead, and 36.2% binge-watched more than three television series in the last month.
Altogether, when considering the average time spent viewing across screens, we found that our respondents spent a total of 15.36 hours streaming television per day on all of their devices—sometimes used simultaneously. The majority of time (3.36 hours per day) was on TV through online streaming platforms like Xbox One, Roku, or Apple TV, but included another 3.02 hours of TVing on smartphones, 2.88 hours on laptops, 2.80 hours on traditional TV through cable, broadcast, or dish, 1.71 hours on desktop computers, and another 1.59 hours on tablets.
In terms of what people actually do while TVing, 98.6% reported multitasking in something else, with the most popular activities including eating (98.1%), browsing the Internet (96.9%), and interacting with friends via texting or online chatting (95.5%).
These findings suggest that engaging with streaming platforms, which use algorithms to personalize content options to users, is a substantively different activity from simply seeing “what’s on” broadcast or cable television. Rather than just watching TV in a more passive model of traditional TV consumption, streaming viewers are using a system that lets them watch whatever they want, whenever and wherever they choose.
These transformed processes of producing and using TV translates into agency, but also dependency, and effects. Our research thus far suggests that there are actual residual benefits of TVing more frequently, like engaging with and talking about politics more often, but just as importantly, it is clear that the marketplace for TV-watching apps will continue to grow, and audiences love them and the flexibility they provide.
Of course, this means that the market share for each will be less, and users will come and go more easily, but they will watch more apps and more television more often across more devices. More really is more, especially when it comes to TVing.
Jacob Groshek is associate professor of emerging media studies at Boston University.