One of the most interesting surveys on our economic lives is the American Time Use Survey, which gathers all sorts of information on how Americans spend their time. How much time do we spend working? How much time do we spend doing chores? Watching TV? It's all in there.
For example, take a look at this chart on the average American's leisure activities:
In 2008, out of 5 hours of leisure per day, the average American spent 2.8 hours watching TV, but only 16 minutes "relaxing and thinking," only 20 minutes "reading," and 17 minutes "exercising."
Most people would take this statistic to be an indictment of American culture. After all, our youth are spending time watching television, rather than exercising. The relative inactivity of watching TV means that our kids don't have a chance to burn off all of those calories from their high-calorie diets. TV is, therefore, a leading contributor to obesity in America. Setting aside the causation-correlation issue, there have been plenty of news stories (on television) that make this point.
Because we spend so much time watching television, we are well aware of these news stories on the dangers of inactivity. So, why don't get off the couch if the television is so bad for us? I think the answer is that the quality of entertainment on television has gotten better relative to other forms of entertainment. The average American recognizes that inactivity has its costs, but watching TV has its benefits. As time has gone on, television as entertainment has gotten better, tipping the cost-benefit calculation in favor of watching more TV.
At a personal level, I'm not going to lift up Road Rules as the height of entertainment, but there are several things you'll see today that you couldn't see 20 years ago if you turn on the television: All of which are attracting larger audiences.
First, the variety of channels is increasing dramatically. With our basic cable package, we get about 80 or 90 channels. Movies, news, comedy (bad or good), sitcoms, dramas, reality television... you name it. No household can watch all of the channels all the time, but if you have a preference for variety of entertainment, the variety on television is better now than it has ever been.
Second, the quality of the most-watched programs is improving. Top television shows like Lost, 24, Grey's Anatomy, Castle, The Office, and the like have become increasingly more intelligent with twists and hidden information. For these shows, the audience isn't just watching passively. People are speculating about the next twist. They are engaging with the story. So, to some extent, watching television isn't a substitute for thinking. Rather, it gives us something tangible to ponder. Even on comedy series, there are plot lines that span multiple seasons that make for even better humor (For Friends fans, Ross saying "We were on a break" is a funny line in Season 10 because it was first said in Season 3).
Finally, the flexibility of watching television has increased dramatically. It never used to be that you could follow two television shows that air at the same time. You would have to choose, or wait until one came out of DVD. Setting aside the greater ease in recording television, On-Demand viewing through cable providers has become commonplace. If I miss 24 because I was watching Dancing with the Stars, I can just go online the next day to watch last night's episode. This flexibility in choice makes television an even more attractive option.
With the ever-expanding variety, quality, and flexibility of the television-watching experience, it isn't surprising that Americans have been spending more time on the couch. Viewed from the perspective that the experience has gotten better, it isn't clear that this trend toward watching more television is a bad thing. In fact, when a product becomes better, isn't our first instinct that it makes its consumers better off?