96% of TV Watching Isn’t Purposeful. Will That Ever Change?

As a kid I spent a lot of time in front of the TV. A LOT OF TIME. That was a cheap, cheap cliché way to start a post so I’m not going to go into the rest of “we only had 6 channels back then and, and, and . . .”

I’m just imagining myself back then if I’d been told “and when you’re a grownup, you’ll be able to watch ANY TV SHOW OR MOVIE EVER MADE, WHENEVER AND WHEREVER YOU WANT TO WATCH IT!!!!!”

I guarantee I would’ve invented time travel and gotten my ass to 2015 or so. We’re almost, but not quite there yet with the promise of the ALL CAPS statement above. But, before I go any further, I must disclose that I haven’t had a TV in my home since at least 5 years ago (aside from monitors used for production work which I don’t use for entertainment). All video content watched in my home is watched on a laptop or iPad.  My wife grew up without a TV, and won me over eventually regarding how we wanted to raise our own kids.

I personally don’t miss the experience of watching things on a big screen. That’s just me. But the majority of the world sure ain’t me, and so with deference to those of you that want to watch TV on a TV but think that cable/satelite pretty much stink (relative to the money you have to pay and the customer service received – or not received) there are plenty of ways to get what you can get “on TV” via the internet in some way, shape, or form. You can also get your local TV channels for free, by purchasing an antenna (which is the top selling item at Best Buy nationwide).


OK, I’m not pulling them out of my ass — the 96% and “top selling” claims were made by the gentleman Andrew Kipen, VP of Marketing for Boxee at a demo I watched at the Streaming Media East conference last week. Where he got them from I don’t know, as he didn’t cite a source in his preso (so consider that a disclaimer, but I have no trouble believing it regardless). Anyhow, Boxee is one of a number of products on the market that basically do the same thing: connect to your TV set much like a cable or satellite box would, and offer a (varying degree of) user interface not altogether dissimilar from what you might use to navigate and play the content on your cable or satellite box, but provide the content that is available on the internet instead (to be blunt many of these products user interfaces stink, but I thought Boxee looked pretty good for the limited amount of time I got to look at it). Some products in this space will also take the input from your cable/satellite so you can get everything from a single UI (have only heard negative reports about the experience of using these).

What our friend from Boxee also demoed was how you can attach a TV antenna to the thing, and get over-the-air (OTA) TV signals as well. If you’re in a metropolitan area with good signal, the picture and sound quality can be BETTER than what you get on cable or satellite for channels broadcast OTA. So for the ever-shrinking variety of what you can get on those channels, it’s free for the price of the top selling item at Best Buy nationwide.

With all this content, why NOT “cut the cord” and kick cable/satellite to the curb? After all, you can get something quite close to a “TV-like experience” with one of these products, and save quite a bit of money at that.

Well, first, let’s get to the bottom of what “watching TV” means. And remember, 96% of that “isn’t purposeful,” meaning 96% of the time, the majority of Americans turn on the TV with nothing particular in mind to watch. Therefore, the traditional model of TV watching goes something like “just entertain me and let me forget my problems.” We flip through the channels and find something to watch. Or not, just flip through for awhile, it really doesn’t matter sometimes.

There is no product on the market today that gives you that experience other than cable/satellite. Not a single one.

So, if 96% of people today consume TV this way, those of us in the “online video business” might be coming at this from only one angle. Yes, the reality is the 96% number will shrink over time. The kids today will never know life without a TiVo, Netflix subscriptions, YouTube, and the rest of what comes down the line in the future (which will evolve faster than we can imagine — one of the reasons why I love working in this biz). But the question I now find myself pondering is will “just entertain me and let me forget my problems” prove to be too strong of a human trait to change people’s viewing habits the way we all think it will? How does that inform the decisions of those of us pushing the envelope in the world of online video?