Swimming the Channels

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Thanks to cable and satellite dishes, television devotees are increasingly likely to start surfing during commercial breaks and never look back. Although families spent a record number of hours in front of their television sets this year, their loyalty to favorite channels is at an all-time low, according to Media Dynamics. In 1950, viewers tuned into the latest technological craze 33 hours a week, compared with more than 50 hours in 1998. At the same time, viewer loyalty has plummeted. Fifty years ago, households devoted nearly 12 hours a week to each channel viewed. Today, households spend a mere 4 hours a week per channel.

After an initial drop as more people got access to more stations, the amount of time spent on any given channel stayed relatively stable from 1960 to 1980, at 8 or 9 hours per week. The real erosion in viewer loyalty began with the introduction of cable in the 1980s and sped up with its increased penetrations and the appearance of satellite systems in the 1990s. Between these services and regular network programming, the number of channels beamed into our homes has skyrocketed from an average of 3 in 1950 and 6 in 1960 to 47 today, and may well increase in the future. Given a range of choices from the Sci-Fi Channel to ESPN, viewers are tempted to check out other programs during commercials and not return to the original show.

Even though viewers are increasingly trigger happy with the remote, they still only watch a fraction of the channels they receive. In the pioneer days of television, households tuned into all the channels they could get, while couch potatoes today watch an average of less than one-fourth of the channels in their television guides. Among those channels, adults spend 8 hours per week watching the three networks, 5 to 6 hours watching independent stations, around 4 hours watching pay cable, and less than 3 hours watching basic cable and PBS.

For more information, see TV Dimensions '98 from Media Dynamics, Inc.,18 East 41st Street, Suite 1806, New York, NY 10017; telephone (212) 683-7895 or visit http://www.mediadynamicsinc.com.

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