ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
On average, Americans see over an hour of commercials every day. That fact comes courtesy of a new study out today by the Nielsen company. They're the people also responsible for television ratings, but as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, their findings go far beyond your TV.
NEDA ULABY: The study covered everything with a screen: television, email, video games, GPS and texting. To figure out who uses what, when, where and on what device, researchers actually walked behind 450 people for two days from after they woke up to before they went to bed. Every 10 seconds they recorded updates on their subjects' media consumption.
Mr. MIKE BLOXHAM (Ball State University): It is logistically very demanding. I often refer to it not as research, but as logistical masochism.
ULABY: Mike Bloxham of Ball State University helped lead the project. His team answered questions about media consumption that have bugged ad executives since the days of the man called the father of modern advertising.
Ms. SHARI ANNE BRILL (Advertising Consultant): John Wanamaker said that, you know, 50 percent of my advertising dollars is wasted, but I don't know which half.
ULABY: That's advertising consultant Shari Anne Brill.
Ms. BRILL: And then there's been numbers floating around the industry saying that consumers are exposed to, on average, 500 ads a day. And a lot of those numbers are pretty much fictional, to use the most polite word.
ULABY: Brill says this study gives definitive data to advertisers used to hearsay and unreliable self reporting. For example, it shows that most consumers average about 8.5 hours daily in front of a screen. Makes sense when you think about computer usage at work.
Mr. BLOXHAM: Conventional wisdom is very much that younger people spend more time with media, spend more time with screens. Interestingly, we found the group that spent most time with media was actually what we think of really as the younger boomers.
ULABY: Bloxham says 45 to 54-year-olds spend an hour a day more on average than old people or teenagers. Traditional TV is by far the most popular screen, but what we watch and how we watch is changing.
(Soundbite of TV show, "ER")
Unidentified Man #1: Probable aortic injury.
Unidentified Man #2: We need a 28.
Unidentified Woman: By the hallway.
Unidentified Man #2: Whoa, whoa.
ULABY: Take a show like "ER." At its peak in 1996, it drew over 30 million viewers, says James McQuivey. He analyzes media at Forrester Research.
Mr. JAMES MCQUIVEY (Media Analyst, Forrester Research): Nowadays a show is concerned a hit if it gets six, seven, eight million households. It's a smash hit if it's in the teens.
ULABY: The days of mass viewership are essentially gone. And this $3.5 million study is part of a desperate effort by numerous industries to figure out how to get ads on the screens we face for much of our waking lives.
Mr. MCQUIVEY: Everyone's nervous because just around the corner they see everyone going off a cliff.
ULABY: TV has never been more popular, says McQuivey, but it's changing in ways that not everyone gets and that no one can control.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.