Competing for Consumers’ Dwindling Time

The Challenge of the Fourth Dimension

by Peter Hutchinson

StopwatchBack in the ’70s, Sandy Denny wrote a song called, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” It’s a darn good question.

Americans have experienced a steady, three decade-long erosion of their leisure time. The chief culprit is work – people are working longer hours today than they did in the 1970s. Naturally, this reduces the time that people have to devote to personal pursuits.

According to the Harris organization, the average American adult enjoyed 26 hours of leisure time per week in 1973. Today available leisure time averages 19 hours per week.1

In her 1992 book, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline in Leisure, Harvard economist Juliet Schor noted that between 1969 and 1987 the hours American workers spent on the job jumped the equivalent of more than a month’s worth of labor per worker, per year. Schor found this trend among both men and women, and among both professionals and low-paid workers. That increase in work time in the 1970s reversed a century-long trend of declining hours spent in paid labor. Unlike workers in every other industrialized Western nation, she says, Americans are “choosing” money over time.

This erosion of leisure affects lots of things, but it plays an especially important (and potentially damaging) role in the worlds of media and advertising. A closer look can be thought-provoking and rewarding.

Fighting for Time

Although the rate of decline in available leisure time has slowed in recent years, competition for that time has increased. New activities carve chunks from time invested in established activities like reading, hobbies, sports, and so forth.

Foremost among these is the emergence of new media competing for the consumer’s attention. In the past three decades, cable television, video recordings, video games, and, of course, the Internet have all claimed a significant share of available leisure hours.

New sports and recreational activities also compete for people’s shrinking leisure time. Although established activities continue to occupy major portions of Americans’ leisure hours, many people have taken up newer, “trendier” activities as well, like jet-skiing, Pilates, or rock climbing.

According to Harris Interactive, the six most popular ways of spending leisure time today are:

    • 1. Reading


    • 2. Spending time with family


    • 3. Watching TV


    • 4. Fishing


    • 5. Going to the movies


    6. Socializing with friends and neighbors

Here’s some trend data from Harris in selected categories:

Favorite Leisure Activities: American Adults (“Top two or three favorites”)

  1995 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003
  % % % % % % % %
Reading 28 28 30 27 31 28 26 24
Spending time with family/kids 12 12 13 12 14 12 11 17
TV watching 25 19 21 22 23 20 15 17
Fishing 10 12 11 13 9 12 8 9
Going to movies 8 7 8 8 6 7 6 7
Socializing with friends/neighbors * * 2 5 6 4 5 7
Playing team sports 9 9 9 8 5 5 7 6
Exercise (aerobics, weights) 2 4 3 3 6 5 4 6
Computer activities 2 3 3 7 6 7 4 5
Gardening 9 11 14 15 13 10 8 6
Walking 8 8 7 9 8 6 4 4
Hiking 3 3 2 2 1 * 3 3
Bicycling 4 3 3 3 2 3 3 2
Running 2 1 1 2 1 1 2 1
Camping 4 3 3 4 4 3 2 1

Comparison: 1995 vs. 2003

















Spending time with family/kids




TV watching








Going to movies




Socializing with friends/neighbors




Playing team sports




Exercise (aerobics, weights)




Computer activities















No change













Comparing ’95 with ’03, it’s interesting to note growth in computer activities and decline in traditional media use. It’s also interesting to speculate whether increases in sedentary activities may be fueling current concerns with obesity. Harris writes that activities requiring exercise have declined as favorites from 38 percent to 29 percent.


For us mortals, time is a finite resource. Given the need to sleep, eat, and work, time to ourselves is limited… and increasingly precious. Generally speaking, any new leisure activity will have to displace an established leisure activity in order to gain a spot on a person’s schedule.

Sometimes, however, emerging technology can fill the spaces in our lives by allowing multitasking. Introduction of the Walkman in the early ’80s, for example, enabled consumers to listen to music and exercise at the same time. Perhaps that can be characterized as a modest gain in leisure time.

Unfortunately, the same principle works in reverse. Commuting used to be a time to read the newspaper and unwind – leisure, in other words. Now it’s the time when we catch up on our phone calls, thanks to cellular technology. On any given cross-country flight, what percentage of the plane’s passengers are watching the movie or reading… and what percentage are typing away on their laptops?

“Media multitasking” has emerged as a concern. According to some advertising professionals, the number of people who use two media at the same time, such as reading a newspaper while watching television, has reached significant levels.

If people’s leisure time was already constrained in the mid-’90s, what effect did the emergence of the Internet (and other computer-based media) have? Obviously, new media displaced other activities in people’s lives. One European study2 indicates that 56 percent of broadband Internet users are spending less time watching television.

All of this demands that people manage their leisure time by establishing priorities, which they do on an ongoing basis, consciously and unconsciously. Priorities are constantly shifting.

Time and Advertising

Nowhere is competition for the consumer’s time more obvious than in the world of advertising. The amount of money spent per capita on advertising has expanded in every year except one in the past decade. In 2002, American organizations spent about $237 billion on advertising. That’s approximately $850 for every man, woman, and child in the U.S.3

Naturally, this expenditure is built into the cost of goods and services that are advertised, and therefore represents a “tax” which consumers pay as they buy advertised products.

The tax is rising. Advertisers spend increasing amounts, at least in part, because their options are expanding. Advertisers don’t know where their prospects’ eyes or ears will be at any given moment, and place their advertising in more media in order to maintain reach. Often this has the effect of irritating consumers.4

Between 1997 and 2002, advertising expenditures in the ten largest media categories5 increased 26 percent. Three of those percentage points came from the emergence and growth of the Internet. Other types of media grew as well. Expenditures on cable TV doubled. Outdoor advertising tripled. Only one category, business publications, declined (by three percent). The oldest media – newspapers and consumer magazines – grew right along with the newest.

The advertising tax underwrites a fair amount of media cost which would otherwise be born by the consumer, including the cost of all commercial broadcasting, most business publications, some cable TV content, about two thirds of the cost of consumer magazines, about 85 percent of the cost of newspapers, the full cost of yellow pages and other directories, and lots of online content. So – as with most taxes – there is social benefit that results from the taxation.

The challenge that media face when they compete with one another for advertising is usually expressed in terms of space. After all, “space” is what media sell (or “air,” which is only marginally more substantial). Ads are “placed.” Advertisers compete in “market spaces.” The Web lets you advertise in “cyberspace.”

But in the market, the challenge is decided in terms of time.

Despite the fact that they’re are putting more ads in more places, a vital concern for advertisers is not simply where consumers may be exposed to advertising… it’s whether consumers have time to see and comprehend it.

Increased use of a new medium can erode the time that people spend with established titles, channels, or stations. Ask ABC, CBS, or NBC. Growth in the number of cable stations has eroded their audiences significantly… while emergence of the Internet has shrunk the time people spend watching TV at all.

Naturally, the same thing holds true for magazine audiences. Circulators are experiencing declining newsstand sales and depressed response to direct mail, as the number of magazines continues to grow.

Advertisers are really spending larger amounts of their money in an attempt to “buy time” – not space or air. It used to be that an important aspect of ad sales was context – that is, how the content surrounding an advertisement could enhance the ad’s effectiveness. Today, the critical question is whether a medium can deliver value in the form of time – that is, consumer attention measured by the clock.

Time and Media

Let’s look at how consumers spend time with various media.

According to Veronis, Suhler, and Associates,6 the average American consumer spends 78 hours per year reading magazines, 1,610 hours spent watching TV, 149 hours spent reading newspapers, and 192 hours spent using the Internet.

The average time spent per year reading books, newspapers, and magazines is 326 hours in total, about one fifth of the time that people spend watching TV. In the Harris data, more people said that reading was one of their favorite activities (24 percent) than the number who said that TV watching was a favorite (17 percent).

This raises some intriguing questions. Are people watching television against their will? Do they have the television on while they’re reading? Do they turn on the TV and then leave the room?

Time spent reading magazines declined one percent between 1998 and 2003. This compares with a 3.8 percent decline in broadcast television, a 9.3 percent increase in video game use, and a 21.0 percent increase in Internet use.

Interestingly, use of media with significant advertiser support (broadcast TV, radio, newspapers, and magazines) declined 10.3 percent between 1998 and 2003. Time spent with consumer-supported media (recorded music, books, video recordings, movies, and video games) increased 30.7 percent in the same period. Of course, time spent with new media (cable TV and the Internet) increased too.

Since the cost of different media varies, the cost per hour to use them varies as well. Broadcast television and radio, for example, are free. Movies cost about $2.55 per hour on average. Magazines cost $.56 per hour on average.

Books, video recordings, and movies are all significantly more expensive per hour than magazines. Magazines are roughly in the same league as the cost per hour of video games ($.46), the Internet ($.38) and newspapers ($.37). Of course, if you factor that ad tax into the picture, costs shift a little: ad supported media go up by about ten cents per hour.

Time and Thought Leadership

Conventional wisdom holds that the most desirable and influential customers in a market segment are the heaviest spenders – those who invest the most money pursuing their favorite interests. In a time-constrained world, however, it may be that the investment of time is more meaningful than the investment of money – that the most desirable and influential customers in a market segment are those who invest the most time pursuing their interests.

It seems reasonable to suggest that the greater a person’s passion for a given activity, the more time he or she will spend engaging in it. And if time reflects passion, then influence and spending will link to time spent.

A medium devoted to a leisure activity is an extension – and an amplifier – of that activity. If I’m a bicyclist, the time I spend reading Bicycling magazine extends the pleasure I get from bicycling. And, conversely, the knowledge and enthusiasm I gain by reading Bicycling magazine encourage me to bicycle more – the magazine amplifies my interest.

This means that the quality of a special interest magazine can be measured in terms of time: the longer the magazine engages its readers, the better it serves its advertisers.

The nature of a special interest magazine is to extend the time a reader spends with a pleasurable activity. If the “thought leaders” – those who heavily influence the direction a market takes – are those who spend the most time in the market, then readers of targeted magazines are likely to be among the most influential people in the market. This is because the time they spend reading is extra time spent thinking about their favorite activity – and related purchases.

Companies that hope to reinforce their bonds with the most influential people in a market are increasingly recognizing the value of providing special interest magazines to their best customers and prospects. Custom publishing has grown dramatically in recent years, as organizations like Roland and Saab produce high quality, engaging magazines that extend the time musicians and drivers spend with their products.

For the publisher, the ultimate benefit of custom publishing may be the ability to claim a larger portion of the time a customer spends engaged in a favorite activity. This naturally reinforces brand loyalty, drives repeat business, and enhances the customer’s lifetime value.

Of course, custom publishing is a manifestation of the communities that form around successful brands, and reinforcing customers’ sense of community is probably the best way to keep them as customers.

As a brand manager, you might ask yourself the following questions. I don’t know the answers to any of them. I imagine you know the answers to some of them. The point behind each of them is that the best customers in any segment are the ones that spend the most time in the segments – as enthusiasts, buyers, and engaged members of a community. END

Peter Hutchinson has 31+ years of experience in the publishing industry. He has held executive positions at many of America’s leading publishers, among them Miller Freeman, IDG, McGraw-Hill, and CMP Media, where he ran a $50 million group of properties in the software,music, and information technology markets. In addition to his experience with magazines, Hutchinson has also managed book publishing, custom publishing,trade show, and web businesses. He has successfully managed seven major launches and numerous acquisitions. He has worked with organizations as diverse as major universities and public broadcast stations.