TV Vs. Video Games: Who's Winning? Both video games and television have radically improved in the past two decades. Have they also changed the way Americans spend their time?
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TV Vs. Video Games: Who's Winning?

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TV Vs. Video Games: Who's Winning?

TV Vs. Video Games: Who's Winning?

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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Hey, everyone. It's Stacey and Cardiff. And this is THE INDICATOR from Planet Money. So a few weeks ago, the streaming service Netflix told its shareholders something kind of surprising - that it faces more competition from Fortnite, the online video game, than it does from HBO, the television channel. Here is Netflix CEO Reed Hastings on a recent conference call.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REED HASTINGS: I think about it, really, as us winning time away - entertainment time from other activities. So instead of doing Xbox or Fortnite or YouTube or HBO or a long list...

VANEK SMITH: All of this got us really curious about this competition - not the competition between Netflix and Fortnite, the video game, but, you know, the overall competition between video games and TV and, you know, how people spend their time because in the past couple decades, you know, TV, video games - they've been getting a lot better.

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

Yeah - way better. I mean, people can now watch pretty much any movie they want or they can binge whole seasons of great shows...

VANEK SMITH: Oh, yeah.

GARCIA: ...Like "The Good Place"...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD PLACE")

WILLIAM JACKSON HARPER: (As Chidi) Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

KRISTEN BELL: (As Eleanor) This is the bad place. I forking knew it.

GARCIA: ...Or "The Americans"...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE AMERICANS")

MATTHEW RHYS: (As Phillip) Super-secret spies living next door - they look like us. They speak better English than we do.

GARCIA: ...Or if you're like Stacey and me, History Channel's "Vikings."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VIKINGS")

TRAVIS FIMMEL: (As Ragnar) I don't believe in the gods' existence. Man is the master of his own fate not the gods.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, so good...

GARCIA: Thank you, Ragnar Lothbrok.

VANEK SMITH: ...So good.

GARCIA: It's a guilty pleasure.

VANEK SMITH: Ragnar.

GARCIA: We're allowed.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: And video games have also become more sophisticated. And because of the Internet, video games are now something that people can play together, even when they're physically stationed in different parts of the world.

VANEK SMITH: A social event of sorts.

GARCIA: Exactly. So are movies and TV shows and streaming videos really in competition with video games? And if so, who's winning?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA: OK. Real quick, to get this out of the way - for the purposes of this episode, we are going to refer to all television watching plus watching movies plus watching video on a streaming service, all those things combined, as just television.

VANEK SMITH: And to answer our question about how people spend their time on television versus gaming, we can turn to the American Time Use Survey, which is an annual survey of people in U.S. households. It is run by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

GARCIA: And so we found someone who really knows how to analyze the data from this survey.

GRAY KIMBROUGH: I'm Gray Kimbrough. And I'm an economist at American University.

GARCIA: What Gray has done is to look at the data in the American Time Use Survey from two different periods of time so that he can then compare how people have changed the way they spend their time between those two periods. So the first period was from the years 2003 to 2005. The second period was more recent from 2015 to 2017. We're just going to refer to these two periods as last decade and then this decade.

VANEK SMITH: Gray looked at the trends individually for men and women, because there are differences between the two, and also by age group, because there are especially big differences in the habits of the young versus the habits of the less young.

GARCIA: Nice.

VANEK SMITH: So let's start with television watching of the older age groups.

KIMBROUGH: What we actually see is that there has been a dramatic increase in TV watching time for people over 40. So for both men and women, they're not really increasing their gaming time. But they are increasing the already large amounts of time they were spending on TV.

VANEK SMITH: People over the age of 40 have been loving this golden era of prestige TV. And we can break this down further. For example, from ages 41 to 64 - so about from middle age until retirement - men now watch about 22 hours a week of television. Women watch about 18 hours a week because, you know, we're reading books and bettering ourselves, I imagine.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: And in both cases, that's about two hours more than they were watching last decade.

GARCIA: But the real television-watching champs are people who are 65 and older, so retirement age. Women in this group watch about 27 hours of television a week. The men - 33 hours. And once again, that number has gone up from last decade to this one.

KIMBROUGH: It seems substantial to me. And, certainly, the societal impact of watching significantly more TV could be substantial. I don't think there's been a lot of research into what older people are doing with all of this TV time and how that's impacting their lives and society.

VANEK SMITH: For people over 40, it really is Netflix versus HBO. It is not Netflix versus Fortnite. In other words, companies that produce television have mainly been competing with other companies that produce television not with video games. Middle-aged people, for example, play less than an hour of video games per week on average.

GARCIA: OK. Now, let's look at the youngest category that Gray analyzes - people between the ages of 21 and 30, so young adults. The story here is a lot different. Both young women and especially young men spend more time playing video games now than young adults did last decade. And, obviously, every week has the same number of hours. So if they're spending more time playing video games, they have to be spending less time doing something else.

VANEK SMITH: And that something else is watching television. The amount of time each week that young women and young men watch television has fallen by about two hours. So they now spend about 14 to 15 hours a week watching television, which already was a lot less television than older adults were watching.

GARCIA: And as young adults have spent less time watching television, they replace some of that time - again, not all of it but some of that time - by playing more video games. Young men now play on average about four hours of video games a week. Women - almost an hour and a half. And when Gray scrutinized the data, he found some interesting things about, specifically, which groups of young adults have increased their video game time the most.

KIMBROUGH: We see a lot more of an increase in gaming in men who live with their parents, which is pretty dramatic, actually, that we see we see much more there. And we see more gaming in men who are either unemployed or out of the labor force. So if they're not working, they're more likely to spend a lot more time gaming.

GARCIA: And this has led some people to suggest that video games themselves are to blame for keeping these young men out of work. The argument there is that because video games are so good now, young men are choosing to play them rather than take an entry-level job that doesn't pay very much.

Gray disagrees. He does not think that's what's happening. He doesn't think it's supported by the data. He says that if video games really were tempting young men away from working, then you would expect that young men who just left their jobs would be playing more video games than the young men who are still in their jobs.

KIMBROUGH: What I see instead is that people who have recently become unemployed or left the labor force are not gaming significantly more than people who are still employed. And they're gaming quite a bit less than people who have been out of the labor force or unemployed for a longer period of time.

VANEK SMITH: Instead, Gray suggests a different possibility for why young men are gaming more and watching TV less, which is just that video games themselves have gotten way better, way more sophisticated. And yes, they are more social now than they used to be because you can play with and against people all over the world.

GARCIA: And maybe because video games have improved so much, it has also become more socially acceptable for young men to play video games further into their adult years. So it used to be that after the high school and college years, there was a big drop-off in hour spent playing video games for men in their early 20s. But Gray says that drop-off has been starting later and later.

KIMBROUGH: So part of this could be a change in how games are accepted, how gaming is accepted at universities and so how students are gaming. And then for people who are living at home with their parents, that that's a more accepted behavior as well.

VANEK SMITH: To summarize all this data, people over the age of 40 don't spend that much time playing video games, but they have increased the amount of time they spend watching television by a lot in the past decade. Young adults in their 20s have done the opposite. They're playing video games more and watching television less, especially young men.

GARCIA: You might notice that we left out people in their 30s. This group actually spends the least amount of time overall on both television and video games combined. And this overall amount of electronics leisure time has gone down for people in their 30s from the last decade to this one.

Like the older age groups, people in their 30s don't spend much time playing video games on average, even though the men are playing a little bit more than they used to. And for people in their 30s, watching TV has slightly declined. It may just be that this group is busier doing other things, whether that's working, building a career, chasing around young kids or - who knows? - producing an economics podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA: Also, we want to note that the data from the Time Use survey that Gray used technically combined both video games and other games like board games into one category. But for the young adult group where the changes in gaming hours were most pronounced, it is very likely that most of the change was because of video games not other kinds of games. We know this, Gray says, because of other surveys.

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Darius Rafieyan. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch. Our fact-checker and intern is Willa Rubin. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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