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The transformation of American TV

By Helyn Trickey
CNN
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(CNN) -- It's been maligned for its content and accused of being the other opiate of the masses.

But despite some bad PR, television has long been one of America's favorite pastimes, outpacing print and radio media in popularity, and securing coveted spots in the family living room and bedroom.

Americans still tune in to watch in record numbers, though how and when we catch our favorite shows are changing dramatically.

During the 2004-05 TV season, the average household watched more than 8 hours of television a day, an increase of more than 12 percent from a decade ago, according to Nielsen Media Research.

And there's more programming to choose from, too. In 2006 the typical American home had access to 104 different channels, almost double the number available just six years ago, according to Nielsen.

But new technologies like digital video recorders, TiVo, digital cable and Web-based television are shifting the balance of power from traditional broadcasters to consumers.

"(Broadcast) television is no longer the king," says Peter Francese, a Demographic Trends Analyst for Ogilvy & Mather in New York.

"People are spending far less time on network television because ... the consumer now has so many more venues that they control. They don't have to wait for a movie to come on TV; they can download it off the Internet, watch it on their computers, television or iPods."

Indeed, even as Americans marvel at the more than 100 channels at their fingertips, they watched 7 percent fewer stations available to them in 2000, according to Nielsen.

"People don't watch television networks anymore," said Steve Safran, senior vice president at Media 2.0 and managing editor of lostremote.com, a blog about technology and the television industry. "They watch shows on their own networks. On the Steve network, I watch 'The Simpsons,' 'Battlestar Galactica,' CNN -- it's about programming my network for me."

For Jason Scukanec, a sports radio personality who broadcasts from Portland, Oregon, TiVo has completely changed the way he does his job.

Instead of tuning in live to each sporting event he needs to cover for his job, Scukanec sets his TiVo and goes about living his life. He can skip through commercials or unimportant plays, and tape multiple games.

"I'm not alienating my wife by watching 15 hours of football games on the weekends," he said.

If the sportscaster misses anything on television, he turns immediately to the Internet.

"YouTube is a godsend," he said. "If something happens in the world of sports, guaranteed it's on YouTube.com."

Francese believes this shift in power from broadcaster to viewer is profound.

"We will never go back to the way it was in the past. Before the invention of the VCR and the DVR, watching TV was a passive act. The broadcaster controlled content and the time you watched the content, and if you missed it, you could never see it again unless it was in reruns," he said.

So the power shift has happened, but where does TV fit in with the plethora of media choices? That depends on the consumer's age, Francese said.

"It's a very generational thing. Retired people, 60 years old and older, still watch TV and the nightly news. It's the young people who have turned away most from traditional broadcasting and are crafting their own personalized entertainment," he said.

According to Francese, young people are experts in multi-tasking and are not content to sit in front of the television and watch one program.

Instead, they are more likely to simultaneously IM their friends, work on homework, listen to downloaded music and watch a favorite television show or video. "I've had less time to watch the shows I'm interested in," said Valerie Wen, a busy college senior at the University of Portland in Portland, Oregon. "If I still want to watch them, I have to use other means like the Internet and sometimes I mooch off of friends."

Wen says she's a fan of "Grey's Anatomy" and "Law & Order SVU;" but you won't find her parked in front of the television set on the particular night they air. She's more likely doing homework or doing work for one of the environmental causes she values.

Instead, she finds them on the Internet when she's ready to watch.

So, is our love affair with all things televised over?

Not even close, according to lostremote's Safran.

"If anything, our appetite is getting bigger; we have more and more (technological) choices. There is this idea that there's only so much eyeball time, and I say, 'oh really?' Right now I'm watching 'Bones' on Fox, looking at Amazon ... we have to redefine eyeball time," he said.

"Without the technology, TV is obsolete," Scukanec, the sports radio personality, said.

"You won't ever replace TV, but without the DVR or the TiVo or access to the Internet, I would feel lost -- like I have my legs, but not my arms."


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