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Internet vs. Television: which screen commands our attention more?

Public relations practitioners and evil aliens want to know

A Super Bowl commercial has been haunting me this week. It’s the one where Alec Baldwin plays an evil alien working in Hulu.com’s secret underground lair deep beneath the Hollywood Sign. In the spot, Hulu, the online video site that is a joint venture between NBC Universal and News Corp., pokes fun at itself and its mission to make TV episodes and other video content available free on the Web. “You know, they say TV will rot your brain. That’s absurd. TV only softens the brain, like a ripe banana. To take it all the way, we’ve created Hulu,” Baldwin says. “And the best part is, there’s nothing you can do to stop it. I mean, what are you going to do, turn off your TV and your computer?” Shortly thereafter, a green alien arm reaches out of his jacket to adjust his tie.

It got me wondering, is there good information out there about how much time Americans spend online as compared to watching television? What about mobile devices? To what extent can and should this kind of information drive strategy in PR campaigns? If the aliens know, we have to know too.

Of course, there is indeed research on this topic. Two studies released last year piqued my interest, one from The Nielsen Company, and the other from industry research firm IDC. Last July, Nielsen put out a report comparing the attention we pay to the “three screens”: TV, the Internet and mobile devices. It found that in May 2008, Americans were spending 9 percent more time using the Internet than they had a year before. But that additional time isn’t the time we used to spend watching TV: time spent watching TV at home was up 4 percent in the same period. The study found that the average American spends 127 hours per month watching TV at home, 26 hours per month online, and 3 hours watching video on a mobile phone.

The IDC report makes the aliens look even more successful in their quest to gelatinize our brains, though it includes only people who call themselves frequent Internet users. Released in February 2008, it found that those folks were spending 32 hours per week online, 16 hours per week watching TV, and just under 4 hours per week reading newspapers and magazines.

Do these numbers mean PR campaigns should reflect these divisions in the time and resources they devote to exposure in these various media? Not necessarily. For one thing, not all the content we consume via any medium is pitchable from a PR standpoint. Also, if you know whether your target audience has particular tendencies in this regard, that’s even more helpful. Ultimately, your specific goals will determine how much effort you direct toward each medium. If the aliens have their way, you’ll continue to have plenty of options from which to choose. What are your thoughts?

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