The 99% are watching four to five hours of TV a day, and other tales from the present

I’m reading “Streaming Dreams: YouTube turns pro” and noticed this:

But there is one category in which YouTube has made little progress. The average ’Tuber spends only fifteen minutes a day on the site—a paltry showing when compared with the four or five hours the average American spends in front of the TV each day.

Emphasis added; the quote is from The New Yorker; Nielsen, who does the most TV tracking, agrees with the four hours number. In all of the contemporary reports and newspaper accounts and blog posts about income equality, I’ve never seen TV consumption mentioned. To me TV consumption is astonishing and might also be linked to Americans’ larger economic problems—I can’t imagine that most successful, people who earn a lot of money watch anything like four hours of TV a day, because where would they get the time? I also doubt TV probably isn’t imparting the skills and knowledge that future high earners need to be high earners. It could be that I’m succumbing to the availability bias and assuming that the high earners I know are representative, but the fact itself still amazes.

This also reminded me of Bryan Caplan’s post “Kahneman, Greed and Success,” in which Caplan says: “Kahneman highlights an important, neglected reason why some people are rich and others are poor: some people care about money more than the rest of us. People who want to be rich make the choices and sacrifices conducive to that end – and on average they succeed.” The key words there are “on average,” but that’s probably true of most things people want: the ones who really strive to achieve something are on average more likely to get it, though no one foresees the future and even those who strive to do everything right may still fail. Those of us who spend four hours a day watching TV, however, are probably not trying—which means it shouldn’t surprise us when we fail to earn as much as we otherwise could. And, to me, skipping TV doesn’t even look like much of a “sacrifice,” because so much of it is boring.

I’m reminded too of friends and acquaintances who mention their artistic aspirations in writing, movies, or music. When they say they want to make movies, write, or record music, I ask to read, see, or hear their work. Very few of them have any to show, or blogs, YouTube shorts, or albums online, and when I express surprise, they seem disconnected from the art they claim they want to make. Which makes me think their ambitions aren’t real ambitions: they’re conversational pieces, or status poses. Or the holders of false artistic ambitions are stuck in antiquity, waiting for someone to give them permission or degrees or deadlines. Whatever the case, I’ve learned to be very skeptical of the people who claim they want to be artists but aren’t actively being artists. Given the proliferation and low cost of the tools necessary to make art, the only thing standing between people and being artists is themselves.

Income doesn’t work quite that way, but the people who really want to make money are taking proactive steps to make money. The people who say they want to earn more but instead watch four or five hours of TV a day are posing, or complaining without taking action, like my would-be artist friends and acquaintances. The obsessives are the ones who succeed as artists. They also appear to be the ones who succeed as startup founders. It looks increasingly like the complaints about income inequality are really based on resentment—not just of those with wealth, but resentment of the complainer’s earlier consumption and time choices, and it comes from people who haven’t chosen professions based on income—like journalism, teaching, or professing. It comes from people who made trade-offs away from earning more and toward consuming more (like TV), but who eventually find that they don’t like the trade-offs they made.

Some might also not realize they’re making choices; I’m reminded of John Scalzi in “Being Poor,” where he says “Being poor is having to live with choices you didn’t know you made when you were 14 years old.” But that probably applies to a minority of people, not a majority, and it would be stupid and misleading to compare the median to the genuinely poor.*

A lot of us probably aren’t, as Caplan points out, “racing for the same finish line: material success” (and, as we’ve been exhorted numerous times, maybe we shouldn’t be). If you race for that materialistic or monetary line and not some other, it’s hard to imagine “normal” behavior more detrimental to getting there than watching four hours of TV a day. The people who are making the money are the ones building YouTube, not watching YouTube and TV. I suppose four hours of TV is an improvement on, say, four hours staring at a wall. But very few people are really building what economists call “human capital” when they watch TV. They’re instead regressing to the mean, in income and in so many other fields.


Read too Scalzi’s later essay, “Why Not Feeling Rich is Not Being Poor, and Other Things Financial,” where he cautions people again the mistake of using “Being Poor” as a stick to beat the wealthy—even those wealthy whose comparison groups make them think they’re not wealthy. One thing that might make us all feel wealthier is simple: not comparing ourselves to our wealthiest neighbors or the people on TV, especially since the extravagance depicted on many TV shows is so astonishing compared to what normal people have. Such a principle doesn’t apply solely to wealth, either: subconsciously assuming that the people you date or marry should be as hot and witty as TV stars is as unwise as using such people for financial comparisons.

EDIT: William Gibson in Distrust That Particular Flavor: “I suspect I have spent just about exactly as much time actually writing as the average person my age has spent watching television, and that, as much as anything, may be the real secret here.”

10 responses

  1. Hey, Jake. I think I see where you’re coming from here, but unfortunately, your many sweeping generalizations take all the bite out of what could have been a probing post. In the end, you just sound condescending about people who watch television. :)

    You have a clearly biased assumption that watching television is an unredeeming passtime, but let me ask you: what is the difference between a poor person watching television for four hours and a rich person watching a football game from the fifty yard line for four hours? Everybody needs leisure activities.

    I also do not buy this whole idea that rich people got that way by working their asses off day and night. There are some up-by-their-own-bootstraps stories like this, sure. Or that there are people who, niggardly and Scrooge-like, refuse to consume much of anything. But in such cases, we might argue that their sacrifices were too great too, that working your ass off for lots of money and then refusing ever to buy anything with it doesn’t make you any happier than working less and consuming more.

    But in any case, I do not believe that the majority of high-earners work harder than low-earners. If you think so, the burden is on you to convince me. Rather, I think rich people are mainly better at avoiding losing money, because our entire economic system is skewed this way. They spend just as much; they consume just as much. That their consumptions isn’t necessarily television is beside the point. What they consume may be different, but I think the average rich person spends just as profligately as the average poor person — more in per capita dollars. You just don’t have the same bias against what they consume (be it rounds of golf, fine wines, football season tickets, automobiles, or what have you).

    And coming to that, I would like to know how these average televison consumption numbers were established. What about a two-person home where a stay-at-home-mom watches eight hours of television, and a working husband none, but they each therefore “average” four hours? Nonsense. I think this “average Americans watch four to five hours of television a day” is the worst kind of generalization, doing little more than revealing bias. What percentage of it is watching sports events, any given one of which could almost account for the entire daily average? But nobody seems to complain about sports spectators. Why aren’t we denouncing that the average American listens to hours hours of music a day? Or whatever it may be.

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  2. Oh, and one more thought. Isn’t it interesting how people seem to automatically regard four hours of television a day as bad, but four hours of reading a day as good? It’s a clear bias, but the burden of establishing which is good or bad and why is almost never taken up.

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  3. A few thoughts. Do people who watch for 4 hours really “watch” TV? Or do they keep the TV on while doing other things?

    I think how valuable the TV experience is depends on how you watch it. Bill McKibben wrote a great book, Age of Missing Information about recording 24 hours of TV on 200 cable channels and watching every channel closely and then writing about it(He published excerpts in the New Yorker about a decade ago). When I or you watch TV, I suspect we watch it with different perspectives. I feel that the scripts for TV today are as sophisticated as Shakespearean plays (some of them anyway).

    I want you to promise to read Augusto Monterroso’s short story “Leopoldo(His Labors)” which touches upon the same themes you mention. It’s about a “writer” who spends all his time absorbing knowledge and observing human characters and society without actually writing anything of value. I’m reviewing Monterroso’s book “COmplete Works” now.

    I think one reason people engage in economically useless activity such as TV watching (etc) is that either they lack the skills to do something more productive, their goals have been thwarted by various things or they are too damn exhausted.

    One problem with your indictment of TV watchers is that even talented and motivated people face human limits as to what they can achieve. I’d love to write video games or something equivalent; I have a small degree of talent. The reason I haven’t done it is simply that I am focusing on other goals like writing. i doubt a working mother would have time to work on a project like this. For her the ability watching TV would be a scarce luxury

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