Do Americans Really Watch 8 Hours of TV Daily?

It’s no surprise that Americans are world-champion couch potatoes, but just how bad are we? According to this chart in the Economist, we watch more than twice as much TV than other countries:

TV Watching

More than eight hours of TV a day!? That’s disturbing. (So is that kid zoning out to nothing but static.) When a friend posted this graphic on Facebook yesterday, it spurred a mild meltdown in the comment thread. But then, the disbelief was coming from statistical outliers such as me. My family’s TV set lives in the closet with a “Kill Your Television” sticker on it. I recently discovered that I’d let yet another digital TV converter coupon expire and missed my final chance to get another one, making me the last American under 75 with a now-useless analog-only TV. (Maybe that kid watching static is unlucky enough to have a parent like me. No wait—parents like me don’t let our kids watch TV.) Still, the eight hours a day stat seems nuts. But is it?

First off, the stat is for households, not individuals—something the Economist‘s chart neglects to mention (it’s mentioned on the web page, however). Reassuringly, this means that very few Americans spend 8.2 hours a day channel surfing. But things get murky from there. I downloaded the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development report that the stats were taken from, and it’s impossible to tell how they were generated or what they truly mean. If a family of four watches Dancing With the Stars together, does that count as one hour of TV viewing or four? Hard to say. But assuming that the figure represents the aggregate number of hours of TV watched by every member of a household, that would mean that a typical American is watching closer to 2 to 3 hours a day, which seems unremarkable.

Just to make sure those smug, TV-hiding Europeans weren’t trying to make us look bad, I downloaded the US Census stats on TV watching. The results are even uglier. According to the US government, the average American watched 4.6 hours of TV a day in 2007. Multiply that by the size of the average household (2.59 people), and you see that the average household watches not 8.2 hours of TV a day but 12. (Add in video watching and it’s closer to 12.4) Yikes. Please don’t tell the Swiss about this.