Every once in a while when I’m flipping around the TV, I’ll come across a syndicated repeat of “The Office.” And because it’s my favorite show, I’ll continue to watch it to the end, whether there’s five or 25 minutes left.
While commonplace, this behavior is profoundly irrational. After all, if I really wanted to watch “The Office” I have a full set of DVDs to choose from. Or if getting off the couch to load a DVD is too hard, I could click on Netflix and watch any episode I wanted. Or I could take 30 seconds and record the show on my DVR since it’s running constantly on both cable and local stations. Or I could download it on my TBS for iPad app. Instead, I’ll watch the syndicated show because it’s the path of least resistance.
Worse, consider this. I never really liked “Friends” when it was running in prime time, but if it materializes while I’m channel surfing I’ll usually stop and see it to the end, because it’s “good enough” when I can’t find anything better.
It’s possible I’m the laziest viewer in the history of television, but more likely there’s something in the very nature of television that induces passivity. We like someone to curate our programming to offer us a limited selection of shows. Some programming is appointment TV, which we absolutely won’t miss, but some is just junk TV to watch when we’re bored.
To some extent, this column is an extension of my earlier piece about Seinfeld’s YouTube show “Comedians Driving Around Having Coffee,” which argued that content created for the Internet is not going to put traditional TV out of business. Most viewers don’t want to work hard to watch casual television and it’s currently difficult to identify and stream Internet-only shows over the living room TV.
This is not to say that the Internet isn’t going to play a big role in niche programming. If there’s something you really want to see, you’ll go through any inconvenience to find it. As a Red Sox fan, I spent many hours streaming baseball over MLB.com and I’ve also accessed Netflix to re-watch all three seasons of “Arrested Development” in anticipation of the upcoming new episodes.
The recent announcement that Glenn Beck will be distributing his steaming network TheBlaze.Com on The Dish Network and other traditional TV outlets is instructive in this regard. Despite being immensely popular when he had a show on Fox News, Beck opted out and set up his own Internet-only channel. By most standards (300,000 subscribers at $100 per year) Beck created a successful business model by building a committed niche audience. But as successful as his venture was by Internet standards, he still only had one-tenth his audience at Fox News. Hence the desire to return to traditional television, where he can reach many more fans who don’t want to go to through the hassle of signing up for TheBlaze.com.
Clearly it’s going to take many years to sort out the television vs. Internet debate. At some point the Internet and television will converge as a delivery system, but what about content? Will the broadcast and cable networks continue to have a role, or will new content platforms render them obsolete?
I might not be the best case study, since I and my sclerotic generation have been too acculturated to watching television the easy way. But I do happen to have a son in college, and I’ve been watching his video habits closely.
At college he rarely watches traditional television except live sporting events (a big exception, admittedly). The college administration has not seen fit to supply the dorm rooms with cable TV and DVRs, so during the school year he either goes to a common room to watch football or stays in his room using our Netflix and HBO*Go subscriptions.
At home this the past summer, he streamed a lot of old series on his laptop (he’s finally catching up on all those “South Parks” we never let him watch before), conforming to the stereotype of a cord-cutter who gets by fine without standard TV.
But here’s the thing. He’d prefer to watch the living room TV because the quality is better. And the content he does stream is all from well-known, network-created TV shows. He doesn’t watch any of the YouTube channels; in fact my wife and I were the ones who showed him Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars” show on YouTube.
He’s not as lazy as I am, but he does take the easy route when he can. Will he and the millions of other young viewers who have been streaming on their computers return to regular TV when they have their own places and can afford cable? Common sense would suggest so, as long as human nature doesn’t change. Of course by then I won’t care; I’ll be in the nursing home happily watching “Mary Tyler Moore Show” reruns on the easiest possible device.