Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

The World Wide Web as a Functional Alternative to Television

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

The World Wide Web as a Functional Alternative to Television

Article excerpt

1997 was the year that viewing television and navigating the World Wide Web (WWW) began to collide. Microsoft entrepreneur Bill Gates bought Web Tv from Philips and encouraged cable television networks to adopt his digital standards, a kind of TVML for HTML (Caruso, 1997; Markoff, 1997). On-line search engines like Yahoo! began reaching more adults than many popular network television shows: 25.4 million unduplicated users per month (Simpson, 1997). The Internet service AOL, led by MTV-founder Bob Pittman, officially adopted the TV-channel metaphor of presenting on-line content (Lohr, 1997). A study of teenagers in Connecticut found that many were adapting their television zapping behaviors for use on the Web (Weber, 1997). It was thus no surprise that industry observers and media scholars began to wonder if the convergence of Internet users and television viewers was finally a reality (Clark, 1997).

Not everyone is sanguine about the merger of the old and new webs. Some writers are concerned that the WWW will isolate people and lead to a fragmented society (e.g., Stoll, 1995). Parents and educators worry about the availability of indecent content on the WWW compared to the relatively "decent" (albeit violent) programming on television. And television broadcasters worry about losing their status as a dominant medium as WWW surfing displaces television viewing.

This study explored the similarity of television viewing and World Wide Web "surfing." Specifically, we were interested to see whether the WWW is a functional alternative to television viewing for a sample of young adults who have both Internet access and computer experience: college students attending "wired" universities. We focused on the reasons they go to the WWW, how much time they spend on the Web, and what sites they visit. Although the WWW is only one use of the Internet, we focused on it rather than e-mail, newsgroups, or other uses because it is the Web that has drawn media-related industries and multimedia content that resembles that of other mass media.

World Wide Web

The World Wide Web has captured public attention. Exponential growth in Internet hosts (CommerceNet, 1997) and personal computer adoption has led to dramatic increases in on-line activity. A CommerceNet/Nielsen Media Research Survey (CommerceNet, 1998) estimated that 79 million Americans were on-line in June 1998 (with 68 million using the WWW). The same study estimates the number will continue to increase to about 126 million WWW users by 2000. While overall numbers are still small compared to the size of the television audience, there is evidence that in the near future the WWW may find a role as a mass medium. Although search engines are among the most popular Web sites (Nielsen Media Research, 1997), music (e.g., Sony, MTV), television (e.g., CBS, NBC, FOX), movie (e.g., Movieweb, Disney) and news (e.g., USA Today, CNN) sites are also the most popular (100 Hot, 1997). Top sites for women surfers are Barnes and Noble and Warner Bros. Men's favorite site is ESPN (Investor's Business Daily, 1998). Young people have embraced the WWW. A Newsweek survey ("Teenagers and Technology," 1997), for example, found that 61% of teens aged 12-17 surf the Web regularly.

WWW use and television viewing. A major concern of research on home computing has been how the computer affects time spent on other activities, especially the mass media. Many believe that traditional media use will diminish. Coffey and Stipp (1997) cited these three reasons. First, limitations on free time mean that, as computer use increases, other free time activities have to decrease. Second, computers, especially the interactivity offered by the Internet and WWW, are more interesting than other media because of greater mental engagement. Third, today's children will grow up using computers more than their parents' generation.

Most studies do conclude that computer use is associated with declines in media use. …

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