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 , Correspondent

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    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.

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.

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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.)

Still, there are signs that a major shift is under way, one that will change not only our television-viewing habits, but the very foundations of television culture itself.

A new range of tools

The origins of this shift are primarily technological: In 2010, Americans have more ways to watch television than they ever have before. We can watch TV on smart phones, laptops, and tablet computers, from the Apple iPad to the forthcoming BlackBerry Playbook.

We can watch TV on stream-on-demand video platforms such as Hulu and Netflix, which open up access to troves of popular television shows. We can tape programs with TiVo and DVR devices – the latter of which are now provided by many cable companies – or download video directly from network sites. We have become accustomed to having the newest television content a button-press – or a mouse-click – away.

Nielsen recently released a report showing that the number of Americans who regularly "time-shift" – industry parlance for recording a TV show and watching it later – has grown 18 percent since last year, to a record 94 million users. According to Nielsen, a third of American households have a DVR, and a quarter of American households have at least one smart phone sophisticated enough to stream video. Since last year, the number of Americans who regularly watch programming on those smart phones has grown 51.2 percent, Nielsen says.

"What we are seeing is that consumers are not switching from one medium to the other, but instead adding to their viewing by adding new devices and platforms," Gary Holmes, an analyst at Nielsen, wrote in an e-mail message. Perhaps most astonishing of all, the average time an American spends simultaneously watching TV and surfing the Web has soared to almost 4 hours, a 9.8 percent jump year over year. Nielsen reps predict that Internet video will continue to flourish, with the emerging tablet computer market providing myriad "options for media consumption anytime, anywhere."

"The television-watching environment that most adults today grew up in – it's undergoing a revolution," says Paul Levinson, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in New York City, and the author, most recently, of "New New Media." Dr. Levinson says that watching television is increasingly becoming a one-to-one interaction, like reading a book.

"The traditional television model dictated one particular viewing time, and that was the only time a program was available. People had in effect to make an appointment with their television set," he continues. "Now what's happening is individuals decide when and where they want to watch TV."

For the time being, traditional television retains a vital role for many Americans, if only because it is the one place we can watch the newest episode of our favorite programs. (We might be able to catch an episode of "Modern Family" on our Apple iPad – via Hulu – but not until the episode has already aired on ABC.) And yet there are signs the networks' lock on live content is splintering.

In August, Verizon announced it would use its FiOS high-speed network to bring live, streaming television to tablet computers. Verizon is still reportedly hashing out the terms of the deal with cable providers, but if Verizon gets its way, subscribers will be able to watch live TV on the fly.

Meanwhile, Slingbox, a device manufactured by the California-based company Sling Media, allows consumers to tape live television content, which can then be accessed from a range of mobile devices, including smart phones and laptops. The cost of the Slingbox remains almost prohibitively high – the entry-level device costs $189; the Slingbox Pro HD goes for just shy of $300. (To play back content on a smart phone, users must also pay $29.99 for the Slingbox app.)

But tech writer and columnist Chris Pirillo argues that if the prices of the device and the app come down, Slingbox-like gizmos will be the future of TV. "Device independence will be the biggest change we'll experience, I believe – the idea of having to tune into a certain station at a certain time to see a certain show is asinine by today's standards," says Mr. Pirillo, who has written a handful of books on Web 2.0 technology. "As producers continue to loosen their grip on channel-reliant programming, we'll be able to experience entertainment on our own terms, in our own way."

More interaction, not less?

Levinson of Fordham University says this openness will be especially liberating for viewers. "In the old days, television was a replacement for the fireplace – rather than sit around the fire, we'd sit around the TV. It was a way of getting the family closer together," he says. "I think we're going to see less and less of that. But I wouldn't use the word divisive. I think it's actually pretty good – it allows people to schedule their lives more effectively. And people still like to get together and talk about television – they just talk about it in different ways."

TV Guide, for instance, once the bible of American television watchers, has weathered a precipitous drop in readership, as viewers find themselves no longer bound to a set prime-time lineup. But to peruse the hundreds of television blogs – or to browse the reams of Twitter broadcasts on any weekend afternoon – is to find evidence of a vibrant and enduring TV-watching culture, where dissections of the latest episode of "Gossip Girl" are bandied about with glee.

"The iPad has changed my expectations of how I should be able to view TV," says Frederique Porter, a photographer based in New York and a self-avowed tablet computing addict. Ms. Porter says she now wants "to be able to watch TV anywhere outside of my house. I expect and want my cable company to understand that and facilitate that experience for me."

The Web, Porter says, hasn't destroyed television. It's merely opened it up – made it omnipresent and perpetually accessible.

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