TV’s 50 percent tax

81766440_ee1bf84b5e_mPeople watch vast quantities of television. According to the 2012 American Time Use Survey, the average American spends 2.75 hours per day watching television as a “primary activity.” That means (basically) butt-on-the-couch watching time, not having the TV on in the background while you do dishes. Even the people we often think of as busiest — working moms with kids under age 6 — spend 1.58 hours per day watching TV as a primary activity. (Employed fathers of young kids spend 1.97 hours per day; SAHMs of young kids spend 2.59 hours per day watching TV). Whenever people tell me they would love to find another hour in the day, TV time is the first place I suggest they look.

But it turns out that TV has another time cost, beyond the hours lost in front of the screen. According to a study published in 2012 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, each hour spent watching television (after age 25) is associated with a 22 minute decrease in life expectancy. Since an hour-long program is, in essence, 44 minutes of content plus commercials, TV is extracting a 50 percent tax in time for every minute of actual programming.

To be sure, there is a lot of correlation vs. causation mischief going on here. When you turn on the TV to watch an hour-long show, you do not immediately summon the Grim Reaper 22 minutes closer. Instead, watching a lot of television is associated with a sedentary lifestyle, and that is associated with decreased life expectancy. If all of your television watching is done on the treadmill, you are probably pushing death farther off with every minute, rather than inviting it in. If you spend all day in front of the computer, rather than the television, you’re probably not helping matters, and so the ranges in these calculations are huge.

Nonetheless, numbers like this give a good way to think about the decision to plop down on the couch after work and stay there for the rest of the evening. A really good show might be worth dying 22 minutes earlier for. But most stuff probably isn’t.

Do you have any shows you’d give up 22 minutes of life in order to watch?

Photo courtesy flickr user *USB*

17 thoughts on “TV’s 50 percent tax

  1. There actually are a few shows that I think are worth dying a bit earlier for: The Wire, The Newsroom, The West Wing and Game of Thrones. Though goodness knows I don’t only watch quality programs :/

    1. Nadia…I couldn’t agree more!

      I also think that with On Demand, Netflix and TV on DVD; you can watch more quality programming when you do have tv time as opposed to just watching whatever is on. Years ago I gave up a lot of tv time for reading time but there are some shows that I do just love and frankly won’t apologize for. 🙂

      1. @Arden – I am all in favor of watching TV mindfully, embracing the shows that add to your life and eschewing all else. I do wish people would recognize that television is leisure time, and it is a choice. If you have time to watch television, you have time to do lots of things that people claim they don’t have time for. Like exercise. Reading. Doing a hobby. Getting more sleep. Whatever.
        Now as for whether DVRs save time… my answer is no. Because it makes watching shows possible that wouldn’t be possible otherwise…

  2. I don’t watch much tv: usually my husband and I will watch an old show on DVD, 3 episodes a week. Right now it’s Gilmore Girls.

    But last night I clocked nearly 3 hours (and stayed up way too late) watching my team in the NCAA final. Right now I feel like it’s killing my productivity and probably my life expectancy. I need coffee, and a nap!

    But a Final Four appearance is a rare thing, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Assuming I make it through the day. 🙂

    1. @Anne – the NCAA championship is probably worth a few minutes off your life expectancy. I bet a lot of hoops fans would gladly have traded in the hours to see their teams in that game!

  3. Whenever I read about the amount of time most people spend on TV watching, I find it hard to believe. We have a TV but no cable, and since the TV is in the basement it gets no channels. So, it’s a DVD machine. I watch maybe ONE movie a month. Half of those I feel are a waste of time and end up regretting that time.

    I think I’ve turned into a TV snob because when I go to a friend’s home for dinner, the TV is already on. I hate that. I can’t think or talk to my friend because the bigass TV is taking up all the space.

    1. @Carrie – I, too, can’t stand having the TV on in the background. It kills conversation and interaction. I remember when house hunting we toured one house where there was literally a TV on in every room. No one was in most of those rooms but the TVs were on, I guess in case someone wandered in and felt lonely.

    2. My grandmother and mother-in-law are widows who have the TV on much of the day, partly for the background noise. This isn’t my preference, but I suspect the averages are significantly skewed by such people.

      1. @TG – if the TV is just on as background, though, it wouldn’t be counted as a primary activity for American Time Use Survey purposes. It’s counted as a primary activity if when asked what the person was doing from 2-2:30 p.m., she says “watching TV.” The Nielsen figures are higher than the ATUS figures because Nielsen doesn’t necessarily distinguish by primary activity. The 2.75 hours a day average comes out to 19.25 hours per week, whereas Nielsen puts the number as well north of 30.

        1. OK, well, she’s 90 and naps while watching TV all day long. So however the time use survey counts napping while watching TV.

  4. I actually watch more TV than I used to because I watch TV shows from iTunes on my iPad on the stairmaster and the exercise bike. (I can’t run every day– too hard on the old joints!). I watched all of Mad Men that way and now I am making my way through Friday Night Lights. I am trying to extend my exercise time so I definitely get up to an hour of iPad TV some days. Still, I am pretty confident this won’t kill me!

    1. @Judy- that’s the way to watch TV! If we all did all our TV watching while exercising, imagine how fit we’d be. 2.75 hours a day! You can train for an Ironman in that quantity of time.

  5. I didn’t have a TV during most of my time in college. Didn’t miss it all that much, though it was kind of a treat to watch it at my mother’s house over semester break. We have TVs now, but we’ve never had cable or satellite.

  6. 2.59 hours a day for moms of young kids?! This is shocking to me. I don’t want much TV – maybe an hour or two a week with my husband. There are so many more interesting things to do. Although, if I want mindless entertainment, there’s no shortage of that for me on Facebook or my Google Reader.

  7. Hmm. Wouldn’t necessarily give up 22 minutes of my life per episode for it, but at an episode a week I doubt The Mentalist will do much harm. If that were all I was watching. I think that’s about it for the shows currently on TV… Sometimes I’ll watch TV because it’s what everyone else in the house wants to do, though, and I want to do it with them. I know I did a ton of that the week I logged for you. Of course I was sick, too, but still… left to my own devices, I think I would’ve read more.

    Now, of shows on DVD, I’d die for Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5, and pretty much every Joss Whedon show.

  8. I watch all of my TV on the treadmill via iPad or DVR’d cable TV. The shows I’d give up 22 minutes for = Mad Men, Game of Thrones, True Blood, Breaking Bad, The Wire, the original 1966 Star Trek, and Star Trek: Enterprise.

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