Is the Web losing its leisure-time appeal?

If a PricewaterhouseCoopersConsumer Technology study is to be believed, Web surfers are spending less time surfing and more time watching the waves, spending time with their families, or engaging in other leisure activities.

"What shocked me about this year's survey is that, last year, the average person spent five hours a week on the Internet for non-business reasons and, this year, they're spending four," says Michael Kelly, entertainment and media partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "But I think one reason for that might be that people are becoming more proficient with the Internet and are also using it primarily for e-mail."

One finding suggests that the broadband industry has more selling to do if it expects to continue an effective rollout in the United States.

With regard to demand for broadband, 85% of those surveyed said they use normal telephone lines for Internet access. Among those users, the top complaint about broadband was that it is too expensive, with 24% making that claim. An additional 10% said they don't need it, another 12% said they have no specific reason and 12% don't know.

Related to the absence of enthusiasm for broadband was the lack of interest in downloading streaming videos or short films, which may go a long way to explaining the woes of the online-entertainment industry. According to the report, 89% of users are not downloading streaming videos or short films; 41% of those said they have no desire to do so, 17% reported that they don't understand how, and 11% said it takes too long to download or search.

On the flip side, of those 11% who do stream videos, 75% find it easy to do. However, 60% of them also said they would not do it if they were required to pay for downloads.

So why are people visiting the Internet? The two top reasons reported by respondents by far are research (90% of those surveyed) and e-mail (89%). Shopping was next at 42% while interactive entertainment like gaming was listed by 37% of users.

Another surprising aspect of the consumer study, Kelly found, was the question of where time would be spent in lieu of surfing the Internet.

The percentage of people who would spend that time watching TV was only 27%, down 11% from 1999. The biggest gainer was spending time with the family, with 8% of respondents saying that they would spend that time with their family, a 5% jump over last year's response.

"I think what this reflects is what you may call a sociological wave of people who view the Internet like a hobby. Interest peaks, and they want to spend more quality time with their families," Kelly explains. "Searching the Internet is a very solo experience, even in instant messaging, and I think people miss dealing with their family."

Overall, 2,502 telephone interviews were conducted in each of five countries: the U.S., UK, France, Germany and Australia. The numbers reported here reflect the U.S. responses.