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Friday, January 23, 2009

The Boob Tube

On Tuesday I saw change come to America, twice.

First and foremost, as I stood on the Mall in Washington, one of millions in a crowd that truly encompassed the great variety of Americans. The prevailing feeling was a happy anticipation of the needed and past due end of one presidency and the amazing ascendancy of another. The peaceful transition of power, now — after everything, in the midst of all this — it’s amazing...and beyond that, for it to be such an important first. I saw it on the faces of everyone I passed: people who traveled to Washington knowing that they would not be within eyesight of the action but nonetheless, needing to be there.

Witnessing this historic inauguration was a profound experience. Standing with my friends, about halfway down the mall, in easy camaraderie with the people surrounding us, it was a type of technologically assisted witnessing that has become normal. It was all directly ahead of us, but we looked to the Jumbotrons and followed the action through that edited feed. There were four screens between me and the Capitol - I could see the images repeated and reduced until the eye was drawn back to where history was happening. That has become commonplace, but over the shoulder of a neighbor in the crowd I watched the CNN footage of what I had just experienced myself: the crowds emerging from the Metro, massive but orderly, the filling up of the Mall and also the events unfolding inside the Capitol. A live experience added to and mediated by having the televised experience in your hand.

And then when it was all over, we returned to my friends’ apartment. After an intense nine hours, of course what we wanted to do was to watch more! To check out the parade and catch up on the coverage of the event itself. After peeling off our layers we collapsed on the sofa — and our host turned on his computer. He doesn’t have cable. He doesn’t even have a TV antenna. All his viewing comes over the internet. And generally, he says, that works fine. He’s an avid follower of a few shows and an extremely well informed person but he doesn’t care if he catches things as soon as they are on or a day later, so he sees no reason to have cable. He has no plans at all to get it ever again. For the entertainment industry this is a game-changer.

I know this might sound like a sublime to ridiculous juxtaposition, but bear with me a moment. The trend to do without cable has already started for college students - they go on to not pick it up when leaving school for their first apartments. But my friend is not in the 18-34 bracket, just someone at ease with computers.

Setting something up so it works and having it able to do what you want is not necessarily the same thing. It is still the early days of internet access to what has always been the purview of cable and network channels, but content is out there, if you can find it.

If Tuesday was a good example, web TV is a scattershot world. Mostly we searched and surfed, without finding what we wanted. Googling by topic doesn’t work very well. It was great to go to YouTube and watch the videos that people had already uploaded to the site about their experiences that day, but that’s not the same as real news coverage. On sites like CNN, ABC or Comedy Central it was not always easy to find if they had live or earlier event coverage streaming. And using the mouse and keyboard, even wireless, was continually awkward, especially when it was sharing the coffee table with snacks.

Some of you might have already given up your cable box and are, like my friend, doing the solely web TV thing. I’d love to hear how it is working for you but this experience didn’t convince me. If I had been home I would have taken full advantage of the two tuners in my box and the Picture in Picture capabilities of my television to keep one channel up and wander around to see what else is being reported, then switch when I found something of interest. On my high-def screen I would have seen the details, the resolve on President Obama's face during the speech or the tears in spectators' eyes. It would have been as real as being there in some ways. The full screen streaming was not even as sharp as regular television and some of those parade costumes deserved to be seen in detail.

My friend was OK with it, despite the shortcomings. He thinks it will only keep getting better. And I think he is right; eventually it will. Both in how you find the content and the quality. It already has for non-live events - look at Hulu. Sooner or later they will find a way to normalize and monetize video on the Internet. The question is how long will that take? Change is happening, but right now, with a struggling economy and an unsure industry, what will the effect be to the production of content if more people make the decision my friend made and don’t subscribe to cable?

Tips from TV Land on catching your favorite shows.

Our TV correspondent Lisabeth Laiken has been scrutinizing television since they got the breed of dog wrong on Little House on the Prairie. After ending her college years watching movies and television critically in a joint Film Studies and Semiotics program, she went on to use two VCRs to collect and catalog all her favorite shows (over 500 tapes) long before DVR was a glimmer in anyone’s eye.

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Seth Fortin said...

I'm the same as your friend -- I don't have a "TV," but I watch lots of TV online. I agree that the news networks haven't really gotten together with the search engines to create a clear, easy way to search for live news footage on a given topic. My roommate and I had to hunt around quite a bit to watch the debates, for example. But I feel sure someone will create that tool soon.

That's not to say I don't occasionally get annoyed with trying to half-watch something on the internet when I'm also trying to use my laptop for actual work. So I suspect most people in the near future will have at least 2 computers -- a media computer, which would have a nice big screen and basically look like a TV, and a work computer, which would have a keyboard and applications and such.

Anonymous said...


What I think will be a tipping point is when someone comes up with a Hulu for all the news and documentary content that is out there. It would be great if someone like The Annenberg Center for Communications would take it on. But there are still content providers who just don't have their programs up. PBS gives you bits and pieces of The Newshour, but what if I want to watch the whole show? Or BBC Americas news program.

I watch with a laptop next to me and I am always looking stuff up and checking things out, but I wouldn't want that floating on top of whatever show I am streaming as a PiP situations which I've seen suggested. I agree with you that separate is best.