Relax, TV programmers. The teen viewer isn't going anywhere.
The perception of today's teenagers is that of antsy kids bouncing back and forth between their computer screens and cellphones as they update their Facebook statuses and look at videos on Hulu and YouTube while texting their friends.
The reality is that for all the time teens spend staring at small screens, it's still the television screen that gets most of their attention.
"There is a popularized notion of the typical teenager constantly digitally connected.... In fact, teens consume the vast, vast majority of their video content via traditional television," according to Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. senior analyst Todd Juenger in a new report titled "Why the Internet Won't Kill TV."
Juenger, who follows traditional media companies including CBS and Time Warner, scrutinized data from Nielsen to show that "consumption of television by teens has stubbornly continued to grow, even as new devices have permeated their lives."
Currently, teens watch almost four hours of television a day. Although that is about two hours less than most adults, it is up from the roughly three hours they spent in front of the television in 2004. Adults have always watched more television than teens — even though it is generally assumed that kids, not their hard-working parents, are wasting their time in front of the boob tube.
This is not to say that teens are not embracing new platforms, but rather that those platforms are in addition to television. Teens on average watch only three minutes of video a day via computer or cellphone, which is less than 3% of their overall video consumption.
Advertisers spend about $60 billion a year on television. There is concern inside the TV industry that, as consumers migrate to new media, the commercial dollars will follow. But Juenger noted that, while newspapers have certainly taken a hit from the Internet in terms of both advertising and circulation, television viewing has not.
Teen viewing habits are a concern because networks and advertisers need to establish a relationship with consumers early. Research shows that as people grow older they watch more television. But there is concern that the emergence of new platforms will lead to a dramatic shift in consumption down the road.
The new research suggests that's not happening. Teen TV viewing is increasing at the rate of 2.5% a year.
"So far teens are following historical patterns, and in fact, their usage of traditional TV is increasing," Juenger said.
Juenger said that even if there were indications of teens taking their eyes off the television, it would take at least two decades "before it significantly impacts the size of valuable TV audiences for advertisers."
As for why there is a perception of teens spending less time in front of the television, Juenger blames self-reported surveys.
"It feels cool and hip to be doing the new thing," he said in an interview. "People would probably be embarrassed to admit they watch four hours of television a day."