When I first met television writer Jason Lewis six years ago, we bonded over a shared love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. However, while I had watched that series semi-regularly on cable, Lewis had seen every single episode on DVD.
He clearly had the edge over me. He could plow through a complete season in one week if he wanted to; he didn’t have to endure a barrage of commercials; and he often had a stronger sense of a season's story arc than I’d gleaned from my fragmented viewing.
Online television is still the next big thing, but it has been held back by a combination of factors.
Back then, I didn’t even own a DVD player and I figured Lewis’s way of watching must be the wave of the future. Today, I finally have a player – just in time for the tech pundits to predict the demise of the DVD in favour of online TV. That got me wondering if my friend was once again ahead of the curve. Was he downloading shows from his computer now? Did he catch episodes of his favourite series on his laptop or iPhone?
It turns out his habits haven’t changed. "Since I spend all day every day working on my laptop, I loathe watching TV and movies on it," Lewis tells me. "The screen is small, the sound is poor – unless I use headphones – and also it makes me feel like I’m at work to watch things this way. Call me old fashioned, but I like piling onto the sofa to watch my TV."
He’s not alone. A survey last year by CBC’s research department discovered that Canadians still spend 97 per cent of their TV-viewing time watching the old-fashioned way. The survey, conducted among English-speaking adults across Canada, also revealed that 87 per cent of that viewing was "live" – i.e., scheduled – television programming. This, despite the fact that Canadians are world leaders when it comes to online consumption, watching more video via the internet than the French, Germans, Brits and Americans.
The CBC survey jibes with findings in the U.S., where a recent Nielsen report revealed that close to 99 per cent of television programming in the States is still viewed traditionally on a TV set.
But that’s not to say the pundits are wrong. Online television is still the next big thing, but so far it has been held back by a combination of factors. One is availability. Canadian networks are just starting to stream popular prime-time programs like Grey’s Anatomy and House on their websites. Apple only just made a bevy of hit shows available for downloading in Canada. And the treasure trove of content on the big U.S. network website Hulu.com, a joint venture of NBC Universal and Fox, still can’t be accessed in Canada due to international rights issues.
Then there’s the technology. For those like Lewis, who balk at watching on a laptop, there are various computer-TV hookup options. They include Apple TV, a box that gives you access to programs from iTunes, and gaming systems like the Xbox 360 that do double-duty as an online portal. But these methods require external gadgets –manufacturers have been slow to roll out television sets with built-in internet connections. Meanwhile, streaming long-form video on mobile devices is still unreliable.
"We are in the early stages of transition," says Kaan Yigit, president of Solutions Research Group, which tracks consumer trends. His data shows that 41 per cent of Canadian internet users have sampled online TV. But most of that is just snacking – a two-minute taste of Tina Fey spoofing Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live, or a one-minute bite of Bruno mooning Eminem at the MTV Movie Awards. However, our appetites are growing. Since 2006, the number of Canadians watching short videos online has doubled.
SRG's research also reveals that, while people are still mainly watching TV on sets, how they watch it has changed. That cozy image of Mom, Dad, Sis and Junior hunkered down in front of the box is pure nostalgia, Yigit says. "Sure the TV is on, but [it’s] not always dominating the viewer attention as it used to. The bar for engagement is higher." Today, every family member is likely to have a personal viewing device, whether a laptop or a BlackBerry or a Nintendo DS. "With multiple screens going at the same time, the battle is not for eyeballs," Yigit says, "but the attention of the person in the room."
It sounds like just the latest chapter in the ongoing fragmentation of TV viewership. It began in the 1980s, with the cable explosion (the so-called "500-channel universe") and the introduction of the videocassette recorder. Today, DVDs and online fare have been added to the menu, while the VCR has been replaced by the personal video recorder, which can "time-shift," or rearrange, on-air programming to suit the viewer’s schedule.
While Americans are the bigger PVR users – according to Neilsen, 30 per cent of U.S. households have one – Canadian use is increasing. Ownership has more than doubled since 2006, to 13 per cent. The CBC survey shows that, of the various personal TV technologies – including DVD recorders and cable video-on-demand – the PVR is the firm favourite.
"PVR penetration is still relatively low, but owners clearly integrate it into their daily TV viewing experience," reports Mark Allen, CBC’s manager of industry analysis.
Yigit is predicting that PVR use will continue to increase, but only for the next few years. He says it’s already being supplanted by online streaming, especially with younger viewers. "When you miss a show, you can go to, say, GlobalTV.com, and watch for free." The CBC survey backs him up. It found that Generation Y – people aged 18 to 28 – is the biggest consumer of internet TV, watching it an average of 2.2 hours a week.
SRG focus groups suggest that Gen Y viewers are migrating away from the TV set and the broadcast schedule. They favour convenience over quality. Others have noticed that, too. "They don’t seem to have a problem watching low-res video on their cellphones," says Lewis, who is in his 30s. "I just can’t do it... sound and picture quality is certainly a concern for me."
However, that may be more reflective of their transient lifestyles than a harbinger of a viewing sea change. When today’s 20-year-olds hit their 30s, start buying homes and having babies, they could be drawn back to the big screen. Even those in the online TV biz think the death of the traditional television is a long way off.
"You don’t really see any houses being built without a living room and a spot for the TV and sofa," jokes Trevor Doerksen, founder and CEO of Calgary-based MoboVivo. His fast-growing company not only sells downloadable television programming, such as The Tudors and CBC’s The Hour, but also provides it on all viewing platforms. "We see the technology of today as being a backdoor to the living room," Doerksen says, as opposed to competition with the TV.
According to a Pew internet survey, downloading television content was the fastest-growing online activity for American adults in 2008. While comparable Canadian statistics aren’t available, Doerksen says his own four-year-old business has seen sales grow by more than 170 per cent in the past year.
Where does that leave Lewis’s (and now my) beloved DVD technology? Yigit confirms our worst fears. "DVDs as a transport vehicle will decline, as did CDs with music," he says. While it won’t happen overnight, he adds, there are "signs of stress on that business now."
So we'll just have to suck it up and prepare to download. But we won’t be getting rid of our big screens anytime soon.
Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.
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