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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The future of television?

A few weeks ago I was ranting about how television, as a medium of narrative literature, had largely become deliberately predictable so that it could function as background noise and not require a lot of attention on the part of viewers. For example, if you happen to tune in halfway through an episode of any sitcom and the hero is living in a different house than he usually does and all his friends are treating him differently, well, you know automatically that he has been lying for years to some distant friend or relative about his circumstances and now all his friend are improbably trying to continue the charade while this friend or relative visits. And, if you can’t watch until the very end, well, you know anyway that the conspiracy will be found out and everyone will learn An Important Lesson about honesty.

This predictability isn’t limited to sitcoms. I can come up with similar formulas for such other packaged TV entertainment fare as police dramas, medical dramas, Olympic games, and presidential campaigns.

There have been ostensible attempts at changing the disposable nature of television. The major networks have tried to create Event Television, with blockbuster miniseries that you are meant to arrange your schedule (or at least learn how to program your VCR) to watch for several nights, like everyone did for Roots in the 1970s. In the 1980s NBC tried to popularize Appointment Television, which meant actually scheduling time on Thursday nights to sit in front of the TV to watch Cosby and the rest of its hit comedy lineup. But television for most people largely remains noise in the background to keep things from being too quiet.

But is this state of affairs changing? There is a new appliance out there that envisions nothing less than revamping the way we think of and deal with television broadcasts. Will it succeed?

They are called personal video recorders, and so far there are two of them. One is Tivo, which I am very familiar with since I bought one almost immediately. The other is Replay, which I do not know at all, but which I understand works very similarly. (There are pages out on the web that do detailed comparisons between the two.) At first glance, these devices appear to be replacements for the video cassette recorder, and this is largely true, but not totally. But for now, it is hard to think of them in any other way because what they offer is a radical departure from the way we deal with television. Just as the VCR was a major development in that it liberated us from having to be in front of the box at a certain day and time to see a particular broadcast, the personal video recorder goes a step further and makes it relatively simple and foolproof to record all our favorite programs without the hassle of cassettes and with a minimal amount of programming the machine. In other words, it time-shifts programming to give us practically total control of our viewing schedule. Even real-time broadcasts can be paused and rewound, meaning that there is no longer any reason to miss a single minute of a TV program. Except, of course, force of habit and a lack of anything compelling to watch.

For compulsive people, like myself, it is a godsend. Finally, a machine that makes sure that you don’t miss a single episode of a favorite program, even if the network changes its timeslot. Well, within certain limits anyway. These machine have to rely on published TV schedules and so may be ignorant of last-minute changes, sports events going into overtime, special news coverage or the fact that some networks get sloppy about starting and ending programs on schedule. But, generally, it works amazingly well. It took a relatively short amount of time before I had ceased to think about when a given program was “on” but rather when it would become “available.”

Best of all, and this is the detail that marketers of these things are, for obvious business reasons, being very careful about, these devices make it very easy to skip over commercials. Hallelujah!

Is this the future of television? Most likely, it is an interim step. What is unknown is how willing the public will be to change the way it thinks about television. Also unknown, in usual chicken-and-egg fashion, is whether the producers of televised entertainment will produce more content that will cause the public to think of television as something to sit down for and watch attentively. Both of these propositions will require major (excuse the jargon) paradigm shifts.

In the end, when broadband is common enough to allow it, television will undoubtedly evolve into the long-promised “video on demand,” i.e. instead of your own Tivo or Replay box in your home, there will be a giant box somewhere that will have everything stored, and you will simply download real-time or pre-produced content when you are ready for it. A big question in that scenario is: can such a system be supported by advertising or will you have to pay to see each episode of Friends or whatever is the hot sitcom of that era.

The other big question, of course, will be the same one that has dominated television since it was first invented: how much of it will be worth watching?

-S.L., 19 October 2000

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