Column: On The Record -- Television as a Change Agent

The average American family hasn't time for television." So wrote the sages of The New York Times in 1939, giving us one of those great quotes which in retrospect ranks with the confident predictions that the automobile would all but die after the end of World War II and that the world market for computers would top out at around 5 percent. The reality, of course, is that we seem to have little time for anything other than TV, the car is still going strong, and we hit double digits on the PC front quite a while ago.

Naturally, it's easy to scoff at such predictions decades later with the benefit of hindsight. But they do remind us how wrong expert opinion and conventional wisdom can be during times of change and innovation.

The cliché has it that the only real constant is change. Fair enough. But as we find ourselves in the midst of faster and more comprehensive technological change than ever before, we seldom stop to think just how wrong we are going to be about mass media in another 50 years, if indeed mass media as we know them exist in 50 years.

The proliferation of platforms, the advent of digital production and distribution, and interactivity are just some of the factors that have created enormous changes. Amid all the change, it may seem that the world of TV and the industries it supports have been hotbeds of creativity and innovation. But in reality, the last 50 years or so have seen little change of substance from the viewer perspective.

When the TV first entered the home, it rapidly became the focal point of the living room, with furniture oriented toward it and accessories and pictures adorning it, rather like the family shrine, with homage paid at appointed times ("I Love Lucy," "Ed Sullivan," etc.). Pretty much the same as today. Admittedly, we now have color sets and a great many more channels, and there are more and bigger sets dotted around the house. But for the majority of households, the experience remains fundamentally the same. We sit and we watch. Passively.

On the other hand, there have been subtle but significant innovations in digital technology and the Internet, which have raised big challenges for advertisers as they've offered more conveniences to viewers. The remote control started it all by providing couch potatoes everywhere with their very own weapon of mass destruction, wreaking havoc on the intrusive model of advertising simply by changing (or muting) the channel.

Although the VCR posed a threat, it is the digital video recorder, video-on-demand, and interactive program guides that have come to represent a massive viewer transition to more active engagement. This in turn is redefining the consumer's relationship with the medium itself, not merely his or her relationship with the content.

Emerging advertising formats that provide calls to action answerable by remote control create a wholly different relationship with advertisers, not to mention different metrics. The same applies to programming. Although this kind of TV remains in its infancy in the United States, results from global markets show that the phenomenon may soon demand a reassessment of how we define both TV and the viewer.

Our sense of what TV is and how it works will be subject to more change over the next decade than at any time since its invention. Expectations created by a decade of exposure to the Internet and the control that interactivity brings, along with generational shifts in expectations, have made these seismic changes inevitable.

Time-shifting, place-shifting, interactivity, and all the rest will forever redefine consumer behavior and expectations. At this point, young, Internet-savvy consumers are more influenced by multiplayer online video games than by conventional TV. The challenge will be to keep pace with them. In a recent conversation I had with a group of 25 college students, only two admitted to watching TV on a daily basis, whereas they all used the Web.

To those who say that people just won't change their lean-back mode of watching-watching behavior, I say that for some of our viewing that will be true, but not for all of it. If we only look to present and past behavior to inform our understanding of the future, we are doomed to maintain the tradition of those bold and confident predictions that proclaimed television, radio, the telephone, railroads, the automobile, flight, even the electric light bulb redundant or dead on arrival -- and we run the risk of becoming redundant ourselves.

Mike Bloxham is director, testing & assessment at Ball State University's Center for Media Design. (

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