March 5, 2007 8:33 AM PST

Study: U.S. game console ownership rising rapidly

Media research company Nielsen released a study Monday showing that the number of U.S. households supplementing their televisions with video game consoles has risen more than 18 percent since 2004.

The study, detailed in a report called "The State of the Console," was conducted from the fourth quarter of 2004 through the fourth quarter of 2006 by the company's Nielsen Wireless and Interactive Services division. Nielsen found that the number of U.S. households with televisions that also have video game consoles has risen from 38.6 million to 45.7 million homes over those two years. That's an 18.5 percent expansion, and Nielsen highlighted the fact that the total number of U.S. households with televisions has risen only 1.6 percent over the same span of time.

This report was the first in a projected series of studies about trends in the video game industry, according to Nielsen. Additionally, the company announced last year the debut of its GamePlay Metrics ratings, which will offer console use statistics intended to identify which games are played most frequently and the demographic groups that play them. With this data, Nielsen is hoping to target the burgeoning in-game advertising industry.

Most of the study's findings are not particularly surprising. Nielsen found, for example, that two-thirds of all men in television-owning households between the ages of 18 and 34, and 80 percent of those between 12 and 17--prime gamer demographics--have video game consoles in their homes. Additionally, while 93.8 million Americans (a third of the country) report to having played at least one in-home console video game for at least a minute at some point during the study period, it's still the hard-core gamers who are dominant. Almost three-quarters (74.4 percent) of console use came from the top 20 percent of American gamers.

The Nielsen research also looked into what television networks are the most frequently watched by console users. Not surprisingly, cartoon and pop-culture channels ranked high on the list: the Nicktoons channel, a cartoon subsidiary of Nickelodeon (owned by Viacom's MTV Networks), was ranked at the top. The Cartoon Network-owned Adult Swim channel, recently thrown into the spotlight with the security brouhaha surrounding its Aqua Teen Hunger Force program, was second on the list. Sports channels such as Walt Disney's ESPN failed to crack the top 20.

Meanwhile, a study from market research firm IDC projects a sunny outlook for Nintendo's Wii console, a device that has capitalized on the growing demand for Internet-enabled game console features. The Wii features Opera browser functionality, and a handful of third-party Internet companies have been optimizing their products for it. IDC's research, which was published last Thursday, points to Nintendo's willingness to broaden its reach beyond the traditional gamer market as the key to the Wii's success.

Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3, according to IDC, will likely continue to slug it out for a bigger share of the hard-core gamer market while the Wii cements itself as a family-friendly, feature-rich console that's at home in the ordinary living room. This penetration of video game consoles into households whose residents would not identify themselves as "gamers" will likely be responsible for continued growth of console ownership that Nielsen has detailed in its report.

Perhaps the most interesting of Nielsen's findings concerned "connected console" habits. About 4.4 million U.S. households reportedly subscribe to services that link their game consoles to the Internet, and Nielsen noted that this statistic was produced before the market penetration of the Internet-friendly PlayStation 3 and Wii.

But the "State of the Console" report may not be truly indicative of recreational gaming habits in the U.S. Nielsen spokeswoman Karen Gyamesi confirmed to CNET News.com that the study accounts only for game consoles that hook up to televisions, like Sony's PlayStation line and Microsoft's Xbox 360. PC-based video games and online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft are not included, nor are handheld gaming devices such as the Nintendo DS.

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