Among the few accepted constants of American television is that, as the population continues to grow, American television-buying will continue to increase. Also, every year a network will put Jimmy Smits in something. These two things have remained more or less consistent since 1992, but this week the Nielsen’s annual “Television Audience” survey reported that, for the first time in nearly two decades, TV ownership has actually declined, dropping from 115.9 million homes with a TV to around 114.7 million. Of course, that’s not a huge loss—especially if you factor in the growing number of households with three or more televisions, who now account for 56 percent of the nation and are also barely speaking to each other. And those who do have TVs are definitely watching enough television to make up for those who don’t, with the average amount of viewing time per household hitting a record high of 59 hours and 28 minutes a week that has, somewhere, just caused a librarian to explode.
But still, this is one of those reports that those who are always presaging the death of old media love to look at, and this year should give them plenty of statistics to point to, which they can then crumple in their fists and wave about while yelling at people on street corners. For example, TV ownership is down 2.7 percent in the 18-49 demographic, homes with DVD players are down to 85 percent, and the percentage of households with zero television sets is at 3 percent—the highest it’s been since 1975, when many Americans simply threw away their TVs once Mannix ended its run.
And naturally, some will point to those numbers as further evidence of a gradual shifting away from traditional modes of viewership (though incidentally, both cable and satellite subscriptions have remained steady), and a growing embrace of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, once more heralding the oft-predicted day when TV sets and computers are no longer separate entities. But obviously, a more logical explanation would be that consumers saw this year’s rash of reports on how watching TV is slowly killing you, then jettisoned their sets out the window in a fear-induced panic. Unfortunately, stupid Nielsen doesn’t track those numbers.