Televisions have changed a lot, in form and content, since the days of the large, heavy, wooden box. While the evolution toward slimmer, lighter, and more multi-faceted TV has been going on since its inception, the way we watch is constantly reinvented as well.
I do not own a TV. That is to say, I have a set I play DVDs on but it isn’t hooked up to cable or satellite. A couple of years ago my husband and I decided to do away with a traditional television. Things had changed. Many of the programs we enjoyed were becoming available for free online. As for the others, they seemed like sacrifices worth making for the greater good of one less bill to pay. People thought we were totally crazy, but it seems we were merely (if unwittingly) ahead of the curve. Last week Steve Jobs unveiled Apple TV. Concurrently, this month’s Wired magazine navigated the waters of new streaming TV technology. If these technologies, paired with some still in the works, such as Google TV, take hold, we may well be forging into a future in which all TV is on demand. So, as a fortuitous pioneer in tubeless television, I feel it is incumbent upon me to report what my TV-free TV watching has taught me.
The most striking difference about an only on demand relationship with television is that I must seek out everything I watch. I never get caught up and accidentally watch anything. This is a great perk of services like Hulu, Netflix, and the new Apple TV. It is equally an experience that has long been available, though not necessitated by, TiVo and DVR. Selecting each program means I make deliberate TV watching choices.
The downside is that this experience is wholly tailored to my personal interests. This is particularly tricky when it comes to the news. I have taken up listening to talk radio more because without the sounds of morning news programs coming from my television, it is too easy to avoid clicking on depressing news stories and end up knowing little about what is going on in the world. Of course I always had such choices and no one made me watch the news before. Avoidance of uncomfortable or “maybe later” subject matter has merely gotten a bit easier without my TV.
Concerns about informed citizenry aside, there has been a marked change in the battle for my attention to entertainment since I shut off scheduled programming. I never thought I would say it, but I miss channel surfing and I increasingly believe the practice to be worth missing. I may have been more susceptible to time-wasting before, but at least, remote in hand, I was vulnerable to exposure to the new and the different. I never really wander with Internet accessed television and am therefore rarely surprised.
Watching television always involved preference and choice, but it still ran on its own schedule. TV has gradually been switching over to our schedules—it’s pausable, re-playable, with less ads and more viewer control. The new apple TV is just another chapter in that story, but one that raises some interesting questions.
Apple TV marks a big step in the direction of what you want, when you want it television. It differs, however, from other on demand forms of viewing in an important way. Netflix, for example, charges a small monthly rate (around $10). Hulu and shows broadcast on network websites cost, at least for the moment, no more than what you pay for your Internet connection. The new Apple TV, while still offering services like Netflix and YouTube, presents a different take on how we may be paying for television in years to come. The a la carte structure works like iTunes with individual episodes running 99 cents per show (no word on whether the price differs for shows that are ½ hour rather than an hour long). This is largely being hailed as a great deal; however, if Apple TV is indeed the way medium is headed, it warrants a closer cost analysis. In 2009, the average American watched 151 hours of television per month. At that rate, streaming Apple TV would run close to five dollars a day and–brace yourself–$1,793.88 per year.
Perhaps new, more costly forms of TV watching will cut back on the time we spend in front of a set. Perhaps the trend that only brings us what we ask for will lead to more mindful choices and subsequently better programming. I am neither for nor against the way TV is evolving, but it is a good time to ask ourselves what TV is worth.