Watching television has been a major way Americans have spent their time since the mid-1950s, when televisions were commercially available at a price people could afford. In the mid-1960s, color TV became available at affordable prices. Programming was only available “over the air” then. The introduction of cable-delivered programs available on a wide basis was years away. The TV set could be used to view VHS tapes, DVDs and then streaming over the period from the 1980s until a decade ago. Netflix was not founded until 1997. Recently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) set out to see how many hours a day Americans actually watch TV.
In its American Time Use Survey Summary, the BLS measured the use of time roughly during the second half of last year, from May 10 through December 31. It made comparisons to the same period in 2019. It chose this period because of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on when data could be gathered from individuals. As might be expected, how people spend their time relied a great deal on when the pandemic was at its worst, compared to when the numbers of cases and deaths were lower.
The American Time Use Survey set out to measure how much time in the day people “worked, engaged in leisure and sports activities, provided childcare, traveled, and more. Estimates about where and with whom Americans spent their time also are provided.”
The time people spent working dropped by 17 minutes between the two periods. This could be because they were able to telework and did not have to commute.
Among the largest changes was time spent on leisure and sports activities. This rose by 32 minutes to 5.5 hours a day. Among the things included in this category, watching TV was up 19 minutes a day to 3.1 hours. The researcher who conducted the survey pointed out that “Watching TV was the leisure activity that occupied the most time in 2020.”
For a sense of how much time Americans spend watching TV, note that it is about a third of the time they spend sleeping.