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Wi-Fi, Hulu, DVR, and the end of the tube as we know it

TV viewers ride a wave of devices into a new era of self-programming.

By Matthew ShaerCorrespondent / October 27, 2010

Most Americans watched television in one room, on one comfortable couch, in front of one old-fashioned television set.

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Until relatively recently, Nicholas Bowman, an associate professor of communications at Young Harris College in northern Georgia, watched television the way most Americans did – in one room, on one comfortable couch, in front of one old-fashioned television set. On a typical night, Dr. Bowman recalled recently, he and his wife might spend two hours flipping idly through the channels, before settling on a prime-time drama, a reality program, or a college football game.

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Then about a year ago, the couple, who live over the North Carolina border in the Appalachian town of Hayesville, made two fateful decisions. First, they purchased a sleek new laptop. Next, they acquired a next-generation smart phone, fitted out with a Wi-Fi antenna and a generous high-resolution display. These days, the Bowmans do the bulk of their television watching across a range of screens – laptop, smart phone, and TV set, often all at once, in cacophonous concert.

"I'll be watching Hulu," Bowman says, "and my wife will be watching old episodes of 'Project Runway' on her laptop, and then, in the background, we'll have the TV tuned to a football game, although we probably don't even know the score. There are plenty of nights where we are sitting next to each other, both watching different things, for hours at a time." Bowman, who studies trends in entertainment media, maintains that his situation is in no way unique – from Main Street to his own living room, he has observed a profound shift in the way Americans watch TV.

A more solitary pursuit

"Take away the Super Bowl, and television, at least in the way I see it, is becoming almost a supplemental media choice," Bowman says. "It's one of those things, like radio, that we do when we're doing something else. Twenty years ago I would have been watching the same thing everyone else was watching," he adds. "Now we're all paying little bits of attention to lots of devices, instead of paying a lot of attention to one device. In 2010, it's much harder to argue that television is the big storyteller in American culture."

Television, of course, isn't exactly an endangered medium. Nielsen, a tracking firm based in New York, recently predicted that the number of American homes with television access will increase to an all-time high of 115.9 million during the 2010-11 television season – up 1 million from the same time last year.

Furthermore, Nielsen estimates that the number of the people in those "TV households" will also increase, for a total American audience base of almost 300 million.

And as Bowman acknowledged, major television events are still an enormous draw – 24.2 million US viewers watched the 2010 season finale of "American Idol"; 106 million US viewers watched the New Orleans Saints beat the Indianapolis Colts at Super Bowl XLIV, making that game the single most-watched television broadcast in history. (By comparison, the next most-watched television broadcast, the 1983 "M*A*S*H" finale, drew 50.15 million viewers, according to Nielsen.)

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