Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anyone care? I know I don’t. I’m increasingly living in a time-shifted dimension disconnected from time and season.
I realized how disconnected I am from live television a few weeks ago, when I sat down to watch HBO’s autism benefit and had no clue how to watch HBO live, despite being a 20-year subscriber. I consume a lot of HBO content but almost always on HBO Go. So when I wanted to watch the benefit, I couldn’t remember what, you know, “channel” the network was on, and had to go through the laborious process of finding that information from my cable provider’s website.
And then it occurred to me: Except for sports and news, it’s been a long time since I watched any television show live. In fact, I know the exact date I did so: Sunday, March 7, 2016, the series finale of “Downton Abbey.” I was only watching live because I’d been recapping the show for a couple of years. Before that, the last time I watched a show live because I absolutely HAD to was the series finale of “Mad Men.”
For the record, I’m not a cord-cutter. We pay a lot to watch a full range of broadcast, cable, premium, and streaming channels. I just don’t watch live.
This means I’ve lost complete track of when my favorite TV shows air and even what network they are on. I literally have no idea what day “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is on — never mind the time — and have to think hard to remember it’s on Fox.
The way we watch TV in our house is, we look at the DVR recording guide to see what shows are in the queue (“Oh, ‘Modern Family’ was on last night!”). If nothing urgent is there, then we move on to HBO and Netflix. And if I have a spare half hour and want to watch a screen but there’s nothing I particularly need to see on Netflix, the last thing I’d do is channel-surf. Much more likely is that I’ll click over to YouTube and watch some favorite music videos, film clips or TV scenes.
People time-shift for many reasons. The original draw for VCRs was that they allowed you to fast-forward through commercials — and go out in the evening and catch your favorite show when you came home. Still, the understanding was that using a video recorder would be the exception, not the rule.
Two trends have pushed me into a full-time time-shifter. First, with all the high quality television available today, everything I watch is “Must-See TV.” I would never just turn on the TV and watch whatever’s on.
Just as important, the fragmentation of TV, with the broadcast network monopoly smashed to pieces, means I no longer feel compelled to watch a show when it’s live so I can talk about it with friends or colleagues the next day. No one’s watching what I’m watching, so there’s no water-cooler chatter about TV.
It’s funny how easily old habits die. I can barely recall what it was like to watch the clock to make sure I didn’t miss a favorite show. And yet back when I was younger and had a vastly more active social life outside the house, I somehow managed to consume even more television than I do now.
What I can’t wrap my head around is whether I am an outlier or a harbinger of future viewing habits. Clearly a lot of people are still watching live TV. Nielsen’s most recent Total Audience Report shows that the average person still watches nearly four hours of TV a day. That’s only down by about 15 minutes compared to the same period two years ago. (This would be a good time to remind everyone that only about half the homes in America even have DVRs, and fewer subscribe to premium cable channels).
But I don’t feel unique as a full-time timeshifter, certainly not with a 25-year-old in the family. He’s lived in his own apartment for three years and would no more own a television than a Sony Walkman.
So maybe I’m slightly ahead of the curve. A decade ago I pish-poshed futurists who said that live TV would eventually go away. But now that it’s happened to me, I’m not so sure.
After all, if an old-timer like me can abandon live TV, anyone can.