TV is losing its grip on America.
There has been a ton of talk recently about cord-cutting and streaming, binge-watching and full-season dumps, Netflix and Hulu. As America’s demographics continue to shift and merge, television networks, cable providers, advertisers, and everyone else are scrambling to figure out how to monetize (and control) the next generation of couch potatoes.
There is so much back-and-forth about millennials and how they differ from baby boomers. Some point to the fact that they live in vibrant cities rather than escape to the suburbs, while others bring up the trend that twenty-somethings have far less disposable income than their parents and grandparents at the same age. But there is another, more basic fact that often goes ignored: younger people watch television differently because they have a completely different relationship and history with TV than baby boomers.
For those of us under 40, TV is just another appliance.
For baby boomers, it was a revolution.
The previous (“greatest”) generation had world wars, great depressions, and radio. Their children can remember a TV being brought into the house for the first time. They were the ones that waited for the picture to appear as the tubes warmed up, fiddled with rabbit ear antennas, and changed the channel by hand. This was the time of three stations, gathering around the television to watch Disney on Sunday evenings, and an American flag being shown after they signed off for the night. A time when newsmen like Walter Cronkite were not only trusted, but unimpeachable. Reality television? This generation watched actual reality like Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald and U.S. troops under fire in Vietnam, all of which was juxtaposed with the promise of the (white) American Dream on Leave It to Beaver and My Three Sons.
It’s not like the setting of Mad Men was a mistake. That show, which in many ways itself changed TV, portrayed how TV changed our country and its people.
The television became an extension of themselves, their culture, and their world. This is a condition that has not changed. Forgive me for using anecdotal evidence for support, but I’ve seen this portrayed over and over again in my life. My parents are both retired, but they still keep many of their same routines, like reading the newspaper in the morning and watching the local news several times a day. They usually watch it in the morning, often before bed, and sometimes at noon, but if they’re home, they will not miss the evening news. Local news at 6; world news at 6:30. Like clockwork.
It’s been this way my entire life. I saw Jim Gardner and Peter Jennings almost every weeknight of my childhood. My parents even tell a story about my older brother dancing in his crib whenever the “Action News” theme song came on. I wonder if it’s because he heard it every single night.
My in-laws have a television in the kitchen so that they can watch it while cooking or doing dishes. Growing up, my parents also had a small TV hanging from the bottom of one of the cabinets. From game shows to soap operas to talk shows, this generation cannot get enough television. I realize that I’m generalizing, but the proof is in the numbers. It’s true that the older you get, you’re not only less active yourself, but you’re also not shuttling kids from school to practice to recital, so you’re home more, but just because you’re home doesn’t require that you watch television.
There are still things called books.
This is not the case for most of my peers and certainly not myself. We don’t wait for the news to give us our news. We have Twitter and push notifications. My generation certainly hasn’t eschewed TV – Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, and others are certainly popular – but those are specific instances. People 40 and under watch specific shows and live events, but fewer and fewer just keep a TV on for hours at a time, letting one program roll into another. The idea of a lead-in is not nearly as important as it once was.
Remember the late night TV wars? You had to choose between Letterman and Leno. It’s not like you could watch both. None of that matters now, because you can watch Jimmy Kimmel’s “Celebrity Mean Tweets,” James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke,” and a John Oliver rant on YouTube all in the time that you would’ve watched just one of those shows previously.
Television isn’t dying, but it certainly is changing.
We have more options, sure, but it’s more basic than that. For us, television is a given, something that has always been there that we engage when we feel like it. Just like the radio. And it’s even more true of our children. My kid knows about Netflix and DVR and cartoons being on all day. She even has trouble understanding why I can’t always rewind something. That’s not true of the boomer generation. Just like I’m old enough to remember a time before the internet or having to wait until Saturday morning for cartoons, our elders can recall an era before television at all. Its inception and ubiquity has informed their experiences for a half-century. That’s a lot of programming to try to undo.
So the next time a parent or relative asks you why you’re always on your phone, just ask them why their TV is always on.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, Medium, The Cauldron, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.