We swim in an ocean of media

The media "ecosystem" surrounding Americans - not just TV, radio, and newspapers but also the Web, PDAs, MP3 players, cellphones, video games, and more - keeps getting more widespread, personal, and diverse.

The world is seeing "a Cambrian explosion" of media usage, says Paul Saffo, a director of the Institute for the Future, a think tank in Palo Alto, Calif.

A new study bears that out, providing data to back up the feeling many have that they're immersed in some form of media nearly every waking moment. That's close to true, says a report from the Center for Media Design at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. Researchers watched the behavior of 394 ordinary Midwesterners for more than 5,000 hours, following them 12 hours a day and recording their use of media every 15 seconds on a hand-held device.

About 30 percent of their waking hours were found to be spent using media exclusively, while another 39 percent involved using media while also doing another activity, such as watching TV while preparing food or listening to the radio while at work. Altogether, more than two-thirds of people's waking moments involved some kind of media usage.

Using more than one medium at once

"The extent that we saw that was quite remarkable," says Michael Bloxham, a Ball State researcher who helped prepare the report, which was released Monday at a media convention in New York.

What's more, of the time spent using media, nearly one-third was spent consuming two or more forms at once, such as watching TV and surfing the Internet, or listening to music while playing a video game.

One theory the study lays to rest, Mr. Bloxham says, is that this media multitasking, which the researchers call Concurrent Media Exposure, "is the province of only the young or the tech savvy." All age groups multitask, he says, though the pairings may differ. Those over 50, for example, were more likely to combine TV viewing with newspaper reading. Younger people might listen to music while sending instant messages.

Watching television remains by far the most popular media-related activity. More than 90 percent of those studied viewed TV, for an average of about four hours per day. About three-quarters used a computer, for a little more than two hours per day.

While much has been written about how computer use may be eating into TV watching, the report suggests that the reverse may be true as well. "As, over time, the computer becomes a vehicle for more rich media content (often related to TV programming), the line between the two media is likely to blur further, calling into question the TV-centric mindset," it says.

Surprisingly, 18-to-24-year- olds were found to spend less time online than older age groups, perhaps because many older people go online as part of their workday, as well as during free time.

"The overall amount of time spent in a day with media is enormous," says Jane Clarke, a vice president for Time Warner Global Marketing, who attended a presentation on the study. The study, she says, represents "the best approach I've seen for measuring all combinations of concurrent media usage."

Observing how people use media isn't new, Ms. Clarke says, "but quantifying observed media behavior - in 15-second intervals - for a large sample is a breakthrough."

The lesson for advertisers: You'll need a "holistic" view of media. "If you're advertising in one medium, you can complement the message by combining it with another medium," Clarke says. "The findings suggest creative ways to combine and package media for advertisers to get their messages to consumers."

Advertisers might want to look more closely at less-conventional forms, such as computer software and mobile phones, as new advertising media, Bloxham says. Overall, the study concludes, "From an advertising perspective, there is good news and bad - both an array of new media outlets along with the challenge of more outlets competing for attention."

Defining media broadly, including mobile phones, was definitely the right approach for the study, Mr. Saffo says. "A cellphone is no longer just a communication device, it's a media device," he says, one on which people enjoy music, share photographs, and even view video clips, suggesting that the new industry might be called "Cellu-wood."

Still in the midst of a revolution

"I think what we're in now is still every bit a media revolution ... but it's a personal media revolution," Saffo adds. Media are becoming more intimate and two-way, he says. "We can answer back if we want."

Despite all the competition, today's leading medium, television, won't go away, Saffo predicts (though he admits to being a fan of watching AP news video clips online, which he finds most easily at a Japanese website). Movies didn't disappear when television arrived. And radio adapted when TV came along. "Radio, which had been the centerpiece of American living rooms, reinvented itself as audio wallpaper," he says.

The report, "Observing Consumers and Their Interactions With Media," is the second on media usage produced by the four-year-old Center for Media Design at Ball State. It follows in the tradition of the "Middletown Studies" of the early 20th century, in which sociologists observed the inhabitants of Muncie, Ind., which they considered to be a typical American community.

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