TV Long View: The Mind-Blowing Amount of Time Americans Spend Watching TV

The 52 billion — yes, billion — minutes Netflix users spent streaming 'The Office' in 2018 doesn't even come close to the top of the charts in terms of total consumption.
Photofest (2); Joe Sargent/Getty Images
From left: 'The Office,' 'Friends' and the NFL were among TV's most-consumed programming in 2018.

The news that The Office and Friends will leave Netflix in the next couple of years meant that a number of news stories about the moves highlighted the massive amounts of time users of the service spent watching them.

Netflix users streamed a whopping 52 billion-plus minutes of The Office in 2018, according to Nielsen figures, and 32.6 billion minutes of Friends. (Nielsen's figures, huge as they are, are probably somewhat low, as Nielsen's SVOD content ratings only measure viewing on TV sets, not other devices.)

Those are nearly inconceivable amounts of time (more on that in a moment) — and also not even close to being the most-consumed properties on television in the past year.

Simply put, in a country with a very large population like the U.S., where TVs are present in nearly every household, the capacity to consume television content is just about limitless.

Consider the 52 billion minutes Netflix users spent watching The Office in 2018. Over the course of the year, Netflix had roughly 56.6 million subscribers in the US. (that's the average of the company's subscriber count for each quarter). That would mean that the average member account watched about 920 minutes (15.3 hours) of the former NBC series — at 22 minutes per episode, that's almost 42 episodes for every subscriber.

Applying the same calculation to the 32.6 billion minutes spent watching Friends on Netflix would mean the average Netflix member household watched 576 minutes (9.6 hours) of the sitcom, about 26 episodes' worth.

Those 52 billion minutes of The Office are equivalent to 99,103 years — an amount of time that would stretch back to the Pleistocene epoch, around when, scientists hypothesize, pre-modern Homo sapiens began to use language.

It's also, believe it or not, nowhere near the top of the charts of TV consumption in the recent past. Fox Sports executive vp and head of strategy Michael Mulvihill (whose Twitter feed is full of excellent TV arcana) noted that in 2015, the most-watched program in terms of minutes viewed was Law & Order: SVU at a mind-bending 161 billion minutes, thanks mostly to its near-constant availability on USA. That's 306,316 years' worth.

Even that pales in comparison to the amount of time Americans spend watching sports. Last year's figures got a little extra boost from the Winter Olympics and the men's World Cup, but across the big four broadcast networks, ESPN, ESPN2, Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network, viewers watched more than 1 trillion — as in 12 zeroes after the 1 — minutes.

Almost 437 billion minutes were spent on the NFL's and college football's regular seasons in 2018, with Fox (137.9 billion minutes) getting the largest share. In February 2018, when NBC aired both the Super Bowl and 18 days of Winter Olympics programming, the network racked up 113.8 billion minutes of sports consumption — more than 4 billion minutes per day.

None of the preceding, incidentally, is intended as a finger-wag about media consumption habits. The numbers are just so staggeringly large that it's hard not to sound incredulous about them.

There's a reason broadcast and cable networks pay huge money for rights to air major sports, and there's a reason Comcast and WarnerMedia are paying a ton of money to bring The Office and Friends back to their respective places of origin (even if the odds of replicating their Netflix consumption levels are not terribly high). The numbers in these cases don't lie: They're as close to sure things as the current TV environment offers.