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American adults have for many decades spent a significant amount of their time in front of the TV. But growth in the adoption of smartphones across all generations has created competition for TV. Now in 2019, eMarketer forecasts that a key threshold will be reached – that US adults will spend more time each day on their mobile devices than watching TV.

The average US adult will spend 3 hours and 35 minutes watching TV each day, but mobile use will inch 8 minutes higher (to 3 hours and 43 minutes) to take the lead.

It’s worth noting that these figures do include multitasking – that is, 1 hour spent watching TV while using a smartphone or tablet is counted as 1 hour for each device. Nevertheless, this does represent an important milestone.

This change has been expected for some time, with younger consumers having made the switch to spending more time on their mobile devices in earlier years. In 2017, Millennials (aged 18-34 in the data) made the leap to spending more time on smartphone web and apps versus traditional TV.

The latest public data from Nielsen on traditional TV viewing in Q3 2018 showed a continuation of this trend. Americans aged 18-34 watched less than 2 hours per day of traditional TV in that quarter, while time on smartphone web and apps was more than 1 hour higher. But going into the Gen X demographic (i.e. those aged 35-49), even though TV viewing was higher and the decline not as pronounced, these consumers also spent more time on mobile internet (3 hours and 44 minutes daily) than traditional TV (3 hours and 34 minutes).

As eMarketer doesn’t break down the average across age groups, it’s hard to conclusively say whether older Americans have also passed the mobile versus TV threshold. But that’s unlikely given that older groups continue to be heavy TV viewers.

Marketing dollars appear to also be following this pattern. In terms of advertising spend, TV also falls below mobile – recent online and traditional media advertising estimates from PwC puts mobile advertising spend at $86.3 billion this year, versus $70.6 billion on TV (which includes digital advertising formats delivered during TV viewing).

The forecast from eMarketer through 2021 shows that mobile usage will continue to rise, albeit more slowly, to reach just shy of 4 hours (3 hours and 54 minutes). Meanwhile, the average time for TV will decline to less than 3.5 hours (3 hours and 22 minutes).

Regardless of device and media channel, there is one constant that remains – the moving image continues to capture attention from both consumers and marketers looking to reach them. Video is the dominant ad format in the US according to Standard Media Index, capturing 58% of major advertiser spend, meaning that traditional media companies such as Walt Disney and NBC still command a larger share of the major marketer’s media pie than Facebook. Meanwhile, figures from the IAB show a planned increase of 25% on digital video marketing budgets. Data from Tubular shows Facebook and YouTube viewing times are up in double-digits quarter-over-quarter, while new formats such as captioned video and Stories appear to be winning consumer engagement.

About the Data: Time estimates include multitasking (e.g. 1 hour of multitasking on a digital device while watching TV is counted as 1 hour for each. TV time estimates exclude digital.

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