I RECENTLY visited a bar at U-Village on a Monday night and was bombarded with sporting events flowing from no fewer than 20 video screens. In every corner, high-definition TVs served up crisp images of football and baseball games in progress. The patrons struggled to talk to each other, all the while competing with the cacophony.
Driven by three technology trends, video has come to permeate American life and culture in a way that we could not have anticipated back in the analog days before 1980. With more than 1 billion screens and devices serving 315 million people, we have reached a saturation point that might be best described as “videocracy” — a cultural phenomenon that threatens to tear apart the old social fabric based on person-to-person communication and communal sharing of information.
Proliferation of the original home television set marked the first wave of our shift from written or spoken forms of communication to a video culture. This growth was rapid: At the dawn of the consumer TV age in 1950, only 9 percent of American households had television sets, but the number grew to 90 percent by 1960.
The second jump in TV ownership occurred when families began buying multiple sets per household. While 57 percent of American households had only one TV set in 1975, by 2010, 55 percent of homes had three or more sets. This proliferation reflected the desire of cable television to market not simply to a mass prime-time audience, but also narrowcast programming to specific demographics, such as Nickelodeon for young children and Lifetime for women.
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The old paradigm of the family gathering around the electronic hearth to watch “All in the Family” or another favorite show disintegrated with programming that literally pulled families apart, enabling advertisers to market to distinct audience segments.
The third video era began with streaming media on the Web, pioneered by Seattle companies such as RealNetworks in the mid-1990s, allowing a computer and later a smartphone to become a video screen.
For advertisers, who subsidized the expansion of the free TV model in the broadcast era, the new world of devices poses perplexing challenges. Advertisers seek to understand how many people are actually watching broadcast television — and even when the program is tuned in to a specific channel. Are people skipping through commercials on their digital video recorders or are they distracted from ads because they are multitasking with other screens — tablets, laptops or smartphones — while watching TV?
Nielsen and other measurement services need to get to the heart of these consumer patterns in order to accurately value a 30-second television spot, as the cost per thousand people (aka CPM) reached in a given audience drives the rates a programmer can charge for ads. On-demand video represents both a challenge and a boon to incumbent television programmers, at once competing for screen time and creating new economic opportunities to slice old content for new audiences.
There is little agreement as to how the ubiquity of video screens in our nation will shape our culture and discourse. Nielsen estimates that each person watches 5.11 hours of TV per day, with viewing hours increasing as we grow older. The data exclude video games or surfing the Web.
We used to gather in video-free zones to spend time alone or with fellow humans, yet we have come to expect video in airplane lounges, coffee shops and even bathrooms, as if the absence of a video screen will somehow disconnect us from a vital life source. With less time to read and absorb information from printed material, our perceptions are driven frequently by sensational images competing for our attention.
The old campaign to kill your TV now seems quaint in a universe of ubiquitous video. Perhaps the time has come to lock devices in a box when we come home from work or school and enjoy human companionship for a few hours each evening … at least until the next episode of “Modern Family.”
Alex Alben is an author and high-tech consultant, based in Seattle. Email firstname.lastname@example.org