Advertisers can exploit multi-platform TV viewing habits

I Love Lucy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, Frasier, Porridge, The Likely Lads, Man about the House, Friends, The Simpsons, The Last of the Summer Wine. All great sitcoms.

Sue Unerman: chief strategy officer at MediaCom
Sue Unerman: chief strategy officer at MediaCom

All, according to one internet guru, part of the tranquilising TV glue that held society together for the best part of the 20th century.

Following the Second World War, both American and British society experienced a sudden increase in spare time, brought about by a combination of labour-saving devices, at work and at home.

More people worked only a five-day week. Vacuum cleaners, washing machines and fridges changed the way time was used at home. And more people lived longer as healthcare improved.

But as soon as the spare time - or "cognitive surplus" - appeared, it was swallowed up by TV viewing. Now that we're in the internet age, will society undergo a revolution as people lean forward to their computers instead of leaning
back to watch TV?

Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, which examines how the worldwide web has influenced groups, thinks it will. He believes there will be many more services such as Wikipedia, more maps, more networks and more creativity.

Shirky has calculated that the whole of Wikipedia took 100 million hours of human thought to construct. But he also calculated that this represents just one average weekend of TV viewing in the USA, where 100 million hours are spent watching ads alone. So, a small shift could make a big difference.

Of course, it's not news that more people are spending time on the internet. But is a cultural switch from passive viewing of TV, where people sit giggling at running gags to mass, active creative participation online going to change the world?

No, and let me tell you why. Let's get real. Doing something else while watching TV is not new. We've known for some time that most people spend most TV viewing time doing something else. Reading, talking, knitting, the list goes on.

This is the flaw in Shirky's argument and for a long time it has been an annoyance to advertisers. The big difference, and the huge opportunity, is that we can track far more of what people are doing while they are watching TV and interact with them.

Many more people are watching TV with a laptop or mobile in front of them and are accessing the internet at the same time as watching ads.

This phenomenon has a great and growing potential to allow us to create strategies for advertisers that build movements, drive direct sales, raise money for charity and educate in new sectors. If only we had one currency and one live audience research panel across the media industry - but that's a column for another day.

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