Technology changes the way people watch TV

The fall season always brings speculation about whether people will huddle in front of their TV sets in the same numbers. Yet what if they’re using the television, but not actually watching TV?

Technology-wise, the prevailing wisdom the last few years has centered on the advantages of having what amounts to a TV in your purse or on your belt loop. Portability and mobility have been the key.

The flip side of that freedom, though, is the option of using a full-sized TV screen for all sorts of activities and functions previously associated with a computer, from perusing photos to long-distance chatting with relatives to playing games or frequenting chatrooms.

In other words, as Hamlet might put it: TV, for not TV.

All these experiences already exist, naturally, via the computer. But there’s the possibility of enhancing them by migrating onto a living-room-sized high-definition display.

A couple of months ago, Comcast announced plans for a trial program with Skype allowing subscribers to place video calls through the TV, albeit with help from an adapter box. Those with Apple TV, meanwhile, can surf YouTube or listen to their personal music libraries directly through the tube.

Admittedly, people aren’t going to chuck ingrained viewing habits overnight, and what works online doesn’t automatically translate to being consumed via the TV. Google’s struggles with its Google TV interface, in concert with Logitech, provides ample evidence of that.

Nevertheless, there’s considerable excitement about Apple’s interest in cracking the TV-set market with a new product. And as Bloomberg reported, the retail price for TVs has in some instances slipped below that of the iPad, an innovation that comes closer than anything thus far in delivering a satisfying viewing experience with all the convenience and portability of a laptop.

Additional insight about the Web-connected TV comes courtesy of Knowledge Networks, the research and analysis firm that studies technology penetration and use.

Among the trends the company identifies are the mainstreaming of TVs equipped with Internet connections, Web-compatible Blu-ray players, the growth of Netflix and “greater acceptance of the videogame console as an entertainment hub.” Combine these factors with the prospect of expanded content, improved search and the incorporation of social media, and “the TV set that used to be a dumb monitor has now become an Internet-connected device, with all that entails,” the latest report states.

Like most thoughtful analysis of new technology, the surveys stress that traditional TV viewing remains a dominant medium, and whatever audience is lost to alternative use of the TV at this stage is largely offset by self-reported additional viewing.

Peering down the road a bit, however, reveals some of the frightening issues for traditional media that digital video recorders have presented, beginning with Knowledge Networks data showing connected-TV homes are “an advertiser’s dream,” tending to be “younger, have more kids and higher incomes.” The fact that teens and college-age adults are more comfortable with these new modes of consumption — hardly a surprise — should also sound alarms regarding how they’ll behave as they mature.

It’s hardly extreme, then, to contemplate a day in the not-too-distant future when a young couple might sit down and spend a couple of hours in front of the TV — paying bills, chatting with mom, perusing newly posted photos on Flickr — before actually watching a network or program. And when they do enjoy a TV show or movie, the experience could easily be shared with others tuning in, creating a communal environment that’s interactive, as Knowledge Networks notes, in a way not originally envisioned by the term.

Plenty of “the sky (or Skype) is falling” predictions about shifting media usage haven’t come to pass as quickly as anticipated, but others have taken off at unsettling speed, bringing what once sounded like science fiction to life. (Look no further than the recent snickering over Samsung challenging Apple’s patent claims by contending that what resembles an iPad was featured — more than 40 years ago — in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”)

So do programmers have a new threat — one where using the TV doesn’t mean actually watching their content?

Today, maybe even tomorrow, probably not. But “2001” might be closer than you think. Brian Lowry
brian.lowry@variety.com
variety.com/lowry
@blowryontv TUNING IN

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