Digital viewing on the rise but still small

Though consumption of the boob tube is declining as viewing on new platforms increases, Nielsen isn’t giving digital options all the credit.

The measurement service’s quarterly cross-platform report issued Thursday noted a drop of one half of one percent in total traditional TV time in the fourth quarter of 2011 versus the same period a year ago. That accounts for a loss of 46 minutes per month, which Nielsen chalks up to a range of reasons beyond just growing alternatives to TV.

“This maybe the result of leveling off after a period of sustained growth, weather and economic factors or of other viewing options,” wrote Nielsen exec Dounia Turrill. “As more homes adopt DVRs and transition to timeshifted viewing, timeshifted TV growth has offset the bulk of live TV declines.”

Though viewing on DVR, game consoles and wireless devices registered small increases across the board, they are lumped into “other potential factors” by Nielsen, which emphasizes that TV time still dwarfs viewing on digital platforms.

But in a separate reseach note also issued Thursday, Nielsen reported that the total number of TV households in the U.S. will register a small decline for the second consecutive year after decades of consistent growth. The projected drop will take Nielsen’s TV “universe” from 114.7 million next year to 114.1 million in 2013.

While the number of viewers watching traditional TV dipped 1.7% to 284.4 million in the fourth quarter versus year ago, timeshifted-TV viewers increased 4.9% to 143.9 million and Internet video watchers rose 4.2% to 147.4 million. The number of mobile subscribers watching video on their phones is comparatively tiny–33.5 million–but up tremendously, by 35.7%.

Perhaps the most marked improvement is coming in video viewing on gaming consoles. Q4 console usage soared 30%, which may reflect increased gaming activity as well. Consoles including XBox, Wii and Playstations are now in 45% of TV homes.

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