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Internet's Impact on TV Viewership Slight, Study Finds

Trends: Nielsen report meets with skepticism by contradicting long-held views of TV, computer industries.

November 12, 1998|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gaining access to the Internet has little impact on the amount of time households spend watching television, according to a study by Nielsen Media Research that contradicts conventional wisdom in the TV and computer industries, as well as the findings of several earlier studies.

The study, one of the first to track households' television viewing habits before and after acquiring Internet connections, found that TV sets were on in these homes about 26% of the time before and after they gained access to the Net.

Paul Lindstrom, vice president at Nielsen, cautioned that the results are based on a sample of just 72 households, and track behavior over a relatively short period, but he said the study should be reassuring to the television industry.

"TV viewing behavior is much more entrenched than even the people in the industry tend to give it credit for," Lindstrom said.

But executives in the computer industry greeted the news with skepticism, saying it is inevitable that Internet usage will eat away at television viewing because that represents a huge block of discretionary time for most consumers.

"Common sense says that people aren't always going to stay up later to surf the Net," said George Bell, chief executive of Excite Inc., a leading portal site on the Internet. "It's going to have to come out of television--that's where all the time is."

The study appears to contradict a number of earlier surveys, including some performed by Nielsen, that indicated the Net erodes the amount of time families spend in front of the TV.

Earlier this year, for instance, a study by Nielsen and America Online Inc. showed that households that had Net access watched 15% less television than those that did not. But Lindstrom said conclusions drawn from such studies may have been misleading because they did not track TV viewing habits in specific households before and after they gained access to the Net.

Indeed, the latest Nielsen study found that households with Internet connections tend to watch less television than those without, largely because of the upscale demographics of Internet households. Such households watched less television, he said, even before they acquired Internet connections.

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