I received my first TiVo back in 1999. It was a 14-hour unit, made by Philips. It changed my life. Now I don’t even mean that in that lighthearted way – it really did change my life. Prior to owning a TiVo I watched about 2 hours of TV a week, total. Since then, my hours have climbed to a staggering 10-15 hours per week! This is still significantly lower than the 4 hours per day of the average 2-person US household (unbelievable, ain’t it? it climbs to 8 per day when you include all US homes!), but it’s much higher than I’d really like. I’d blame it on Heroes, but there’s enough other stuff I watch that I have to accept responsibility for my actions.
In the early 2000’s I was still a (very) early adopter of the DVR (digital video recorder, the ‘generic’ category for what a TiVo is), always preaching its virtues to friends, colleagues, and strangers on the bus. I remember many times when someone would start talking about a TV show and I’d have to just walk away, not wanting to hear the details for a show I hadn’t yet watched. Worse yet, during the 2003 playoffs (hockey, of course), not one, but two games’ endings were spoiled by eager relatives calling while I was still an hour or two behind on the game. In each incident, I’d always exclaim “haven’t seen it yet – don’t say anything!!!” and then proceed to explain the DVR.
Nowadays, TiVos are fairly well-known in the mainstream (if you are reading this and thinking to yourself “what’s he talking about, everyone has a DVR!” you are very out of touch with the masses. DVRs are in roughly 1 in 5 or 1 in 6 of US households, that’s it.) and you see references in TV shows and movies (and even Sprite commercials). My Mom has a TiVo (she calls it Mister TiVo), my wife uses it, my in-laws have a DVR, my Dad doesn’t have one but knows all about it, etc. In fact, timeshifting (using your DVR) is so prevalent, it’s being tracked by Nielsen – who recently reported that DVRs are actually boosting show ratings.
Recently, however, I’ve noticed that there’s a lot less chatting about the shows themselves. While some are musing that TV viewership is down (the stats simply disprove this theory), others think that watching behaviors are changing. I agree more with the latter than the former. I believe the combination of timeshifting, TV shows on DVD, and online video is causing more of a social impact than a viewership one.
Today, when you watch a show and start talking about it, you hear responses that range from “I’ve got it in my Netflix queue” to “I haven’t watched it yet, it’s on my DVR” to “I’ll download it from iTunes tonight” and more. People seem a lot more prone to saving entire seasons for future viewing, so you can’t talk about Entourage when your friends are waiting for it to arrive from Amazon. Heck, I don’t even read many pop culture blogs or Web sites, for fear they’ll have divulged events from this week’s Heroes, which I just didn’t get around to watching.
I don’t agree at all that people are watching less television. I think they may watch it with less enthusiasm than they once did. I think they watch it with more distractions than they once did. They watch it at different times (and places) than in the past. They watch it on different devices.
My feeling is that social culture is changing to de-emphasize an episode of a show as something worth talking about. I haven’t quite figured out what’s filling that void, just as long as nobody ruins another show for me.