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Consumers aren’t just watching TV anymore. According to Nielsen’s latest cross-platform report [download page], they’re watching TV and checking email on their tablets, visiting social networks on their smartphones, and shopping. While it’s important to keep in mind that this kind of multi-screen behavior is limited to mobile device owners (and smartphone and tablet ownership isn’t yet as ubiquitous as it might seem), it’s becoming clearer that TV viewing is taking place alongside other activities. Some of these could benefit TV advertisers.

To put some figures to the trend: According to Nielsen’s report covering Q2 connected device activity, 85% of tablet/smartphone owners use their device while watching TV at least once a month. 41% of tablet owners and 39% of smartphone owners do so daily. That latter percentage rises to nearly 50% among 18-24-year-olds. And from a GfK report [pdf], 41% of tablet owners’ total TV time is devoted to 2-screen viewing – that goes up to 46% among Millennials.

How these consumers approach their multi-screen usage will likely determine whether this is a positive or negative phenomenon for TV programming and advertisers. Data seems to currently point to the potential for it to have a positive effect. Research from the IAB, for example, has found that even while multitasking, viewers give TV most of their attention, and surprisingly, that multi-screen activities boost TV ad recall. (It’s worth pointing out that the GfK study cited above finds that tablet owners who use their devices while watching TV split their attention almost evenly, so the jury might still be out on whether or not mobile devices prove to be a distraction.)

Besides ad recall, though, multi-screen usage can have other positive effects. The Nielsen study finds, for example, that 36% of 35-54-year-olds and 44% of 56-64-year-olds use their tablets to “dive deeper into the TV program they are currently watching.” And close to one-third of 25-34-year-olds shop on their smartphones while watching TV – suggesting that TV advertisers could see immediate benefits if they’re able to engage with these young viewers. It also indicates that advertisers would do well to consider a multi-channel approach.

Still, some of the effects of multi-screen usage will hinge on the extent to which the simultaneous activities being performed relate to the TV content (and advertising) being viewed. If the 44% of 18-24-year-olds and 50% of 25-34-year-olds that visit social networking sites on their smartphones while watching TV are sharing thoughts and creating buzz about what they’re watching, that’s a substantial benefit. Alternatively, if mobile activities such as social networking and emailing are unrelated to TV and increasingly act as a distraction for these consumers, ad recall and program engagement might suffer.

GfK research (see link above) suggests that tablet multi-taskers, at least, are visiting unrelated sites more often than TV-related content. Looking at a typical week, GfK found that while watching TV and using a tablet, 55% visited unrelated websites. Fewer performed TV-related activities, such as posting comments about a show they were watching (34%), visiting a network or show’s website, fan site, or application (25%), or looking for more information about a show they were watching (21%). However, 28% looked up a product advertised during a show they were watching, and 12% bought a product advertised during such a program. Those figures bode well for TV advertisers, and might play a part in continued TV ad spending growth.

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