Family TV night is coming back—thanks to smartphones

If one screen is good, 15 must be better.
If one screen is good, 15 must be better.
Image: Reuters/Eric Gaillard
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Remember those halcyon days when there was only one TV in the household and the whole family had to gather and agree what to watch? (Actually, if you’re American and under 40, you probably don’t.) But it turns out that people still like sitting in front of the TV together—as long as they have a smartphone or tablet to distract them.

The Communication’s Market Report for 2013 from UK TV regulator Ofcom showed that 91% of British adults use their living room TV set at least once a week—up from 88% in 2002. That confirms data from TeleScope’s study of viewing habits in March, which found that (while they actually own fewer TVs per household) Brits were watching about an extra half hour a day compared to 2006. The reason? They’re sitting together in front of the TV, but they’re not just watching it: 53% of them said they use another device (like a smartphone) simultaneously.

“Our research shows that increasingly families are gathering in the living room to watch TV just as they were in the 1950s,” James Thickett, Ofcom’s director of research, told ITProPortal, “Unlike the 1950s family, however, they are also doing their own thing. They are tweeting about a TV show, surfing the net or watching different content altogether on a tablet.”

That’s not surprising: A survey funded by Microsoft Advertising in March found that, of 3,586 global participants, 82% said that their use of multiple devices makes them “more efficient” (even if research suggests otherwise.) While 68% of them used them for unrelated tasks (like watching TV while checking email) another 57% used a second device for something related (looking up actors from a show, for example) and 39% shared their activities on one screen to social media via another. And advertisers know it, which is why there’s so much social media and TV integration happening right now.

It’s great that British families are spending more time together—in 2010, a study commissioned for National Family Week claimed that average clans spent less than an hour together every day. But is it good that their newfound quality time is spent behind individual screens, in addition to the shared telly? Sounds like fodder for another survey.