Joe Viewer and the Internet  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE ONLINE FRONTIER    
From AJR,   December 2002

Joe Viewer and the Internet   

He has a laptop on the coffee table. Use the Net to keep him engaged.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     


A cross-promotion nightmare: Joe Viewer is watching the evening news in his easy chair when he learns that he can find more information about a particular story on the Internet. (More information? Wow, that sounds great!)

So, Joe trots into the home office, launches the dial-up modem and spends 15 minutes locating the item mentioned on TV. In the process he finds more interesting things to look at--and what about checking e-mail? Soon Joe has forgotten all about the television in the next room. He is a lost viewer.

There is a large contingent of traditional media managers who won't support or promote their own Web sites for fear of "sending people away" to the Internet. The perennial response of Internet backers has been that multiplatform delivery is the future, that loyal Web visitors are hardly "lost." Now there's another answer: You can't lose people to the Web if they're already there.

The Internet is moving into the living room, merging into the media mélange of our lives. The real risk is not that Joe will turn off the TV and turn to the Internet, but that he'll drift away on eBay during the newscast or that his Sunday paper ritual will be interrupted by incoming e-mail. The challenge is to re-engage him through one medium or the other--or both.

To do that, we should know a couple of things about Joe. He doesn't have to dial into the Web; he has a high-speed, always-on broadband connection. His computer isn't in another room; it's right there in the living room. Perhaps he has a wireless laptop that sits on the coffee table next to the remote control. He often uses the Internet and the television at the same time, for completely unrelated activities.

Joe isn't every viewer, but he has plenty of company. At-home Internet use has surged in the past few years, largely because of the spread of broadband. By May 2002, more than one in five Americans had high-bandwidth Internet access at home. These people go online far more often, for longer periods of time, than dial-up users. According to a report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, one in nine people moved their computers after getting broadband. A separate survey by comScore Networks Inc. reported that 48 percent of Internet users have a TV and a computer in the same room.

Next these folks will be in the throes of the wireless revolution, liberating millions of computers from desktops and placing them on coffee tables, kitchen counters and other casual places. "Always on" will assume a whole new meaning.

That will encourage the already widespread habit of consuming multiple media at the same time. In a survey released in October by the Retail Advertising & Marketing Association, 69 percent of men and 76 percent of women who use the Internet said they regularly or occasionally have the television on while they go online. They also tend to watch TV while reading the paper, read magazines while listening to the radio and so forth. Simultaneous media use is characteristic of today's consumers.

Yet the multiple media environment is an opportunity--an imperative--to engage people in new, deeper ways. According to the comScore survey, 15 percent of people with a computer and a TV in the same room had visited a Web site about a show they were watching, and 11 percent sent e-mail or chatted online about a show. Seventy-four percent engaged in online activities unrelated to the shows they were watching.

Consider the potential of a well-coordinated TV-Web (or radio-Web, or newspaper-Web) partnership that assumes Joe Viewer is already multitasking and gives him something related to do online. Instead of a half-attentive viewer, he'd be a fully involved one. The ingredients are simple: the same content Web sites already offer, combined with effective cross-promotion. The challenge is to overcome the mind-set that traditional media are at war with their own Web sites.

By the way, none of this should threaten the Internet-at-work, TV-at-home paradigm that's enabled something close to symbiosis between broadcast newsrooms and their Web divisions. With Internet use peaking during the day and sagging during prime time, the two media seem more complementary than competitive.

Fortunately, both TV and newspaper sites will continue to dominate during the day. Few but the largest sites can staff around the clock, and there's clearly more ground to gain with the vast, active and captive workday audience.

But in the broader universe of Internet activity--e-mail, entertainment, information-gathering--prime time is all the time. A broadcaster or newspaper that effectively incorporates its Web presence throughout the day isn't sending people away; it's bringing them back.

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