The year is 1999.
It’s a Tuesday.
My bulky cordless house phone rings obnoxiously.
“Hello?” I answer.
“Hi, Davey! Wanna come over?” My friend, Heather, asks from the other line.
I glance at the clock. It’s 7:45.
“I can’t, Buffy is going to be on in 15 minutes.”
How strange that exchange seems today, in our world of DVRs, Hulu, and Netflix, but it wasn’t very long ago that we all had to be home to watch our favorite shows. Of course, there was always the option of taping (how strange it seems to use that word now) these shows and watching them later, but you risked the tape being bad, or your VCR screwing up, or even worse, your family accidentally taping over your show before you had a chance to watch it. This was also before TV on DVD was all the rage. Back then, if you missed an episode, you’d have to wait to catch a repeat.
There’s no need to worry about these problems anymore. Even if your DVR doesn’t record the show, you can always find the show online on one of the many websites that stream television shows. Now, it’s pretty much impossible to NOT find the show you’re looking for if you look hard enough. Often, you can find an episode almost immediately after it airs.
But so what? Having more technology and entertainment readily available to us than ever means we no longer have to revolve our lives around television schedules (because let’s face it, most of us did). In theory, we should all have a lot more free time on our hands. But do we really? And if so, what do we do with it?
According to a 2008 NDS survey, compared with other technological devices, 81% of Americans surveyed claim they can’t live without a DVR. The only device deemed more important than a DVR is a mobile phone. When compared separately with a list of useful household items, the DVR is ranked third most important, only losing to the washing machine and the microwave. That means people would rather live without their dishwasher or coffee maker than their DVR.
The DVR is not simply loved for its convenience. The same survey shows that 81% of Americans with families polled believe their DVR has improved their family life and 79% of those surveyed with partners believe it improves their relationship. TV is now impacting our real lives and our relationships with others. There’s less need to fight over what gets watched when multiple shows can be recorded at the same time. Even though fighting over something like TV seems silly, we all know that many arguments start out ridiculous until they escalate.
This disgruntled household seems abstract by most of today’s standards, but I get to see it in action. My mother is one of probably 5 people left in the United States without a DVR. She is still in complete denial that SOAPnet will be shut down sometime in January 2012, mainly due to DVRs rendering the network unnecessary. It’s not that my parents don’t embrace technology; they have a flat screen HDTV with surround sound and a Blu-ray player in their living room. Yet, the DVR is one piece of technology they refuse to accept. There’s no real rhyme or reason to this. It would only cost them an extra $10 a month. They watch at least an average amount of television. But to this day, if you stop by their house and my mother is trying to watch a show, she will completely ignore you or (if you’re my grandparents) rudely shush you. You would think that being able to push pause on the television in these instances would be worth the $10 alone, but they don’t budge. I’ve seen many arguments break out between my parents and my younger brother because he wants to watch something in the living room, but it could be completely avoided if they utilized just some of the technology available to them.
At least my brother, at the young age of 9, is beginning to realize he can just watch his shows online without having to deal with my parents. He’s not the only one abandoning cable. In July 2009, Hulu had about 4 million more viewers than Time Warner Cable, the second most popular cable provider in the U.S. In fact, Hulu was only beat that month by DirecTV and Comcast. However, the introduction of Hulu Plus in June 2010 has driven some viewers away. Users can still watch videos on Hulu for free, but older episodes and past seasons are now only available to subscribers who pay $10 a month for Hulu Plus. Most viewers don’t think the cost is unreasonable, but they know they can find their shows at less cost to them elsewhere.
Netflix has also become a cable alternative. While it was once primarily for movies, there is now a myriad of shows available to watch instantly on your computer or through your TV, some added to the catalogue the day after they originally air. Users still have to pay for Netflix like they would cable or Hulu Plus, but the Netflix packages start at just $8.99 a month.
But now that we can watch our favorite shows whenever we decide we’re ready, what do we do with all our extra time? It seems we watch more TV. According to Nielson’s Three Screens Report in 2009, the average American watches approximately 153 hours of television every month. That’s a 1.2 percent increase from the year before. However, the study shows that people still prefer to watch their shows on their television screens. Americans that watch videos on the Internet or their mobile phones only watch about 3 hours of video per month on these devices. However, the study shows 18-24 year olds seem to spend the same amount of time watching videos online as they do their DVR. The NDS survey shows that 59% of people believe they are watching more interesting programs now that they have a DVR and 83% say they are more likely to find something they’d want to watch when trying to find something.
Even though technological advancements ensure that our television programs will be there waiting for us when we’re ready for them, we’re using that spare time to get into new shows and watch more videos elsewhere. In the digital age, we’re not just limited to the shows that air on cable, but we also have access to foreign programs and Internet shows. I’m sure we all use the technology to go out and socialize as well, but the evidence to show that just isn’t there yet. And if you’re anything like me, you still try to be home to catch those few shows that you just can’t stand waiting to watch.
It’s Sunday night and my iPhone plays the Buffy the Vampire Slayer theme.
I can see that it is my friend Heather calling, who I am still friends with to this day even though we’re both grown up and hundreds of miles apart.
“Davey! How have you been?”
“I’ve been ok,” I say as I glance at the clock. It’s 8:50. “But I can’t really talk now. True Blood will be on in ten minutes.”
“Aren’t you recording it?” she asks. “I have it scheduled on my DVR.”
“Yeah, but I want to watch it while it’s on, before the Internet spoils the whole episode.”
“You’re right,” she says. “I better go watch it, too.”