Is Television Taking Up More of Our Time Than We Think?


Published: December 10, 2009

Thursday night only means one thing: the thank-god-it’s-almost-the-weekend television line up on NBC! It starts at eight o’clock sharp with “Community.” Then at 8:30 p.m., you watch “Parks and Recreation” for a half hour, with “The Office” to follow, then Tina Fey’s self-deprecating humor at 9:30 p.m. in “30 Rock.” But even after all this, the night has just started; “The Jay Leno Show,” “The Tonight Show,” and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” keep you busy for at least three more hours. You have watched about five and a half hours of television in one night already. All the while, you are TiVo-ing “Vampire Diaries” (don’t lie, you watch it) as well as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice.”

If this is your typical Thursday night, you’ve met the statistical quota. The Nielson Company revealed in a recently released study that the average American spent four hours and 49 minutes a day watching television during the most recent television season. This is a peak in television history, clocking in at four minutes more than last year’s statistics and at about a 20 percent increase over the past 10 years.

It is ridiculous to think that, for nearly five hours a day, the average American would slouch lazily on the couch, snacks or a meal in hand, and flip through the digital cable on screen guide. But most Americans I’ve ever met—namely college students—are too absorbed in other activities and responsibilities to sit for hours straight watching television. Sure, Thursday night prime-time might be an exception for some people; however, for the most part, these four hours and 49 minutes are being accumulated gradually over the course of the day. According to the report, the average American only watches an hour and 12 minutes of television during prime-time programming, whereas the television is left on in a typical household for an average of eight hours and 21 minutes each day. It may not seem like we spend that many hours in front of the tube, but it is sucking up a lot of our time.

It is a sad reality that television has taken over our lives. We turn to it for every question or problem we have. Whether we want to learn about what is going on in the world, hear the weather or watch Oprah give away free merchandise to entire audiences, we use television as a cure-all.

What does this information say about our priorities as Americans? Especially as overworked college students, how do we find enough time to sleep, eat, do homework, socialize and still get our television fix?

Unfortunately, one of the most common sacrifices that we make is sleep. In fact, the average American is sleeping an hour and two minutes less each night on workdays in 2009 than in 2008, according to surveys performed by the National Sleep Foundation. Sleep is suffering dramatically, which can hinder performances at work or in school.

An explanation for this pandemic may be that it is a common misconception among Americans that television is an equivalent to relaxation. Television programs are often stimulating rather than calming. A 2007 study by Sleep and Biological Rhythms, a Japanese society of sleep research, proved that television actually stimulates the brain in a way similar to sunlight, making the viewer feel more awake. The light interferes with the body’s internal clock, thus disturbing sleeping patterns. By watching television, you are not revitalizing your mind; you’re tricking it. “Grey’s Anatomy” is not a substitution for sleep, no matter how McDreamy it may be.

One of the more concerning aspects about the five-hours-a-day statistic is that it may be under-calculated. The report only includes live viewing and any television playbacks within seven days of its original airtime, which means it does not factor in online viewing of television shows. It has become easier than ever to gain access to television shows online, through torrents and free streaming Web sites like and Just doing a quick Google search for your favorite shows can yield hours of television entertainment. In reality, the statistic could be much higher than five hours a day.

So maybe it’s about time we stop mindlessly turning to the television rather than fluffing up our pillows. Many people drone through the day, looking and feeling miserable because they haven’t gotten enough sleep. The next time you decide to stay up late to watch a rerun of “Seinfeld,” you may want to keep in mind that the episode you’ve seen seven times will not change just for tonight, but your dreams will definitely be different.