Nielsen media chart tells the wrong story

Nielsen Original

The Nielsen Total Audience Report is essential reading for those trying to predict the future of the TV and media industries. So I was shocked when I ran the numbers from the Q1 2015 report, released on Tuesday, and saw that one of their charts tells a profoundly incorrect story.

The media coverage has focused on the graph above, which at first glance seems simple. Americans 18-34 watch less TV than other age groups, and across all five major platforms (TV, radio, PC, smartphone and tablet) they also spend less time consuming media each week. True enough. But the chart also seems to show that 35-49 year olds spend less device time than average, and the column for those over 50 is about the same height as for all adults.

As I was crunching the numbers, things started to look weird. You have to convert the hours and minutes watched to hours in decimal form, and add each of the five categories together, but the results do NOT match the picture that the Nielsen chart portrays. The youngest age group does have the lowest total usage at 51.7 hours per week. The average adult is 65.1 total hours, while 35-49 year olds are 67.4 weekly hours. I have redone the chart TO SCALE, and added gridlines, below. I tried to keep the same colours and so on as Nielsen:

Revised Nielsen

Although the chart shows Gen X as noticeably lower than all adults, they are in fact higher. Next, the population 50+ isn’t about the same level as all adults, they are using these devices 73.7 hours per week.

You might think I am making a mountain out of a molehill, but that mis-depiction distorts some important facts. The first is that although 18-34 year olds spend about 13 hours less on the five devices than average, those 50+ are about 9 hours more. This a critical truth about media measurement: young people spend more time studying, socialising, and being outdoors while older people are more sedentary, and spend more time on various media devices. That’s not a new trend – it has been true for decades.

Now that we’ve established that, take a look at the chart below. It is a stacked chart, where each category on the X axis will add up to 100%. It hides the fact that 18-34 year olds spend less time on devices, but it does correctly show how they allocate that time. Of the total time spent on the five devices, younger Americans spend about 42% of their “device time” watching TV. That is lower than the average for all adults, but it’s not terribly different than the 49% for 35-49 year olds. The original Nielsen chart doesn’t show that relationship properly.

Nielsen percentages

Don’t get me wrong: younger Americans watch less TV than older Americans, and less than they did three years ago (about 25% less, in fact.) And they will likely watch less in the future. But for now, the “generation gap” between millennials and Generation X is much narrower than you might think.

[Edited. I had a wonderful phone chat with the folks from Nielsen. Other people noticed the error too, and they have already redone the chart. If you download the report, you now see the version below. Kudos to Nielsen for the quick response, and obviously caring enough to do it EXACTLY right.]

Nielsen Chart Revised

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