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Larry Magid Headshot

Tech and the Decline of Traditional TV

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I find it ironic that TV screens are getting bigger and smaller at the same time. Like a growing number of households, our living room is endowed with a big-screen TV, yet I also watch video on my laptop, my iPad and occasionally even on my Android phone.

And when my wife and I do plop ourselves down in front of the TV, some of what we watch comes via our satellite dish (for other people it could be cable or an antenna), but, increasingly, we're viewing content that's streamed via the internet.

My young adult kids don't even have TVs in their apartments. They watch everything on their PCs and sometimes their smartphones.

It seems that, for the foreseeable future, we're going to have a mixture of form factors and sources for the video we consume, and with all those choices, time spent watching traditional TV is bound to keep shrinking. A 2010 study by market research firm Morspace found that 52 percent of U.S. viewing time is spent on "live" TV. For 18-34-year-olds, it's only 41 percent. By live, they mean watching TV in real time, not necessarily live programming.

TV's Been Sliding for Decades

The gradual decline of TV watching didn't start with the Internet. The VCR, which enabled us to choose from thousands of titles from the shelves of the now endangered neighborhood video store, gave people their first major alternative to what could be found by turning the dial.

Now there's almost no end of options when it comes to what we view and where we view it. For the most part, that's a good thing because it forces everyone in the media business to up their game in an effort to get our attention. Broadcasters (and by that I include media delivered via cable and satellite) will have to come up with compelling reasons to get us to tune into live TV. TV makers will have to continue to dazzle us with better screens and speakers so that they blow away the experience we get from our smaller devices.

Companies that stream media will have to increase the amount of content they offer, especially if they want people to pay monthly subscription fees. In the meantime, makers of mobile equipment -- including tablet PCs -- are having to make sure that the quality of their screens and audio systems are up-to-par.

That's certainly the case with the iPad, which is a great way to watch video.

I know we're not typical, but viewing patterns at my house have changed dramatically since we connected a Roku to the TVs in our living room and bedroom. The Roku (starting at $60) lets you stream Netflix, Amazon and numerous other "channels" of Internet video.

We almost never watch DVDs anymore, and we rarely watch movies on HBO or Showtime, though we do enjoy some of the exclusive programs offered on those channels. Most of the movies and a growing number of the TV shows we watch are streamed to the TV from Netflix via the Roku. It doesn't (yet) bring us current episodes of shows, but there are plenty of old shows that I never got around to watching when they were on TV. (My wife and I are working our way through eight seasons of Monk.)

When we want to watch newer movies, we pay to stream from Amazon's video-on-demand service and, last week, Amazon added another option for video streaming. Anyone who subscribes to the company's $79-a-year prime service can now stream movies and TV shows to their personal computer or internet-connected TV for no extra cost. Prime is a service that gives you free two-day shipping and $3.99 per item overnight shipping on most items sold or distributed directly by The streaming service isn't nearly as extensive as Netflix (about 5,000 titles at launch compared to about 20,000 from Netflix), but I'm sure it will grow rapidly as Amazon negotiates deals with content providers.

About the only thing we can't stream to our TV is live news, and even that's changing. In the midst of the Egyptian crisis, Roku started live-streaming Al Jazeera. It's a niche market, but it's a start.

Still, there are holdouts. Networks that let you watch programs on the Web block TV access to devices like Google TV. And Comcast's great Web-based, video-on-demand service works only on PCs and Macs. When I asked a Comcast executive why that was the case, he said it was because they want their customers to use the traditional cable service when watching TV, even though it's OK for them to watch online when they're sitting in front of a computer. An attitude like that will lead the company toward extinction. It's time for consumers, not companies, to decide what screen to use for whatever program we want to watch.

This post originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News and also appears on

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