It happens with some regularity. Traditional media likes to float the declaration from time to time that television is moribund. If you work in digital media and marketing, you hear even more often that television is dead. The latest rounds of death knells, however, are less about television as a format for content and more about the device itself. No doubt its centrality as a physical device is in flux, but that awesome rectangle around which the most important room in your house is arranged is not going anywhere.
Television has been declared dead more times than Michael Myers (Dr. Loomis’ patient, not the erstwhile SNL cast member; though there could be some merit in that assertion, too). Especially among the early-adopting digerati, who frequently commit to the most cutting edge forms of content consumption, something as 20th century as TV couldn’t possibly survive.
Maybe calling it ‘death’ is too strong. At ad:tech NY last week one of the sessions there covered off on the transformation of television viewing from a passive recline to an active “socialcasting.” In the New York Times Sunday, in the Sunday Styles section, there was an article about how the television as we know it may no longer be relevant (For Millennials, the End of the TV Viewing Party). Not television content itself, but the actual, physical object.
It’s true that developing viewing habits among Millennials is not particularly habitual. WiFi and mobile devices have largely untethered viewing – or any content consumption – from time and space. This suggests that the reigning centrality of television as an object may be coming to an end.
Flat-screen television unit sales are down nearly 14% from 2012 to 2013 according to the NYTimes piece, but they were still 34.5 million. That decrease can be chalked up to a host of factors that have nothing to do with the demise of the device (no new innovations, everyone who’s got a flat-screen aren’t buying more)
Much of the history of consumer capitalism has been either a contest, or a quest for marriage, between convenience and quality. The Millennial is the first generation of American for whom maximum convenience is a categorical imperative – QSRs, instant oatmeal, on-demand media, GoGurt… Cost and convenience have almost always won out in history over quality when it was an option. This universal truth is often credited with the survival of democracy. When it comes to video, so long as the quality of the content is there, the friction of overcoming the quality of the consumption experience of that content is tolerated. I watched ‘Lost’ over Netflix on my iPad when it became possible to do so; the consumption experience was rough, but the narrative quality made up for it.
But when cost and convenience are introduced to a heretofore singular source of product, the old ways do not go away. They just become the domain of perceived desire rather than perceived need. The perceived need is that I must consume video content; the perceived desire is that I must consume video content in a way that takes into account the holistic elements of the experience, from image quality to environment (physical, social, temporal).
The video content consumption experience hasn’t been terribly satisfying outside of the TV screen until recently. There’s a reason the smartphone screen is getting bigger. If the iPhone 6-plus is any indication, I see a future where touch-sensitive Gorilla glass has gotten light enough (“transparent ALUMINUM?!”) so that we can carry a 15” or even 20” screen slung over our shoulders; a kind of durable touch-screen Macbook Air). As the fidelity of video images improves and is enhanced by mobile technologies, more of that kind of content will be consumed solo in places that it had not been before – and maybe shouldn’t be now.
But the device known as television isn’t going away. And even among the younger Millennial set, the appeal of a large screen delivering high-quality images into a space that is comfortable will not diminish. It’s true that Millennials are buying fewer homes and the large ticket items that come with it. But when they can afford it, you aren’t going to find a Millennial male who won’t want to opt for the big screen and the killer sound system to watch sports, his favorite show, or on which to play the latest iteration of Modern Combat.