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June 21, 2013

Can TV ever stop YouTube?

PALO ALTO, Calif. — It's difficult to overstate how completely we Americans are ruled by television. On a typical day, you and your fellow countrymen watch about four hours and 39 minutes of live TV, plus an additional 26 minutes of "time-shifted" (i.e., DVR'd) programming, according to Nielsen. That's more time, by far, than we spend with any other technology: more than we surf the Web, more than we use our phones, more than we play video games. In a given week, the average American child will spend more than a full day — nearly 27 hours — in front of the tube. And children don't even watch as much TV as adults. Generally, the older you get in America, the more television sucks you in. The average senior citizen spends more than two full days of every week in front of the TV.

It has been ever thus. In some ways the most astonishing fact about television isn't how much we watch now, but how much we've always watched, and how impervious TV has been to every cultural and technological shift in recent American history. Consider everything that's happened in society over the last few decades. More women went to work, everyone's working hours increased, we quit bowling leagues, we suffered through a handful of recessions and enjoyed a couple booms, and we endured several wars. We also got the Web, mobile gadgets, better game consoles, e-readers, DVRs, BitTorrent, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Other media industries — journalism, music, publishing, video games — have been transformed or decimated by these changes. But TV? Whatever else has happened in American life, TV just kept doing better. If you look at a chart of household TV viewing from 1950 to 2009, it's a straight upward arrow. In the last couple years, live TV-viewing has begun to dip just slightly, but the decline has been offset by a rise in time-shifted viewing. Overall, despite every technology that has come along to usurp or disrupt it, we watch about as much TV in 2013 as we've ever watched.

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