My family joined the 21st century last week.
No, no, we didn’t just crawl out of a time capsule. Rather, we finally bade farewell to our ’90s-era CRT TV. You know, the kind that kill backs to move and would literally kill someone if you dropped it on them.
We replaced it with a snazzy little (relatively speaking … 32 inches) smart flat-screen TV with all the bells and whistles. (It weighs just eight pounds! Can you imagine!) We’d already been Amazon Prime members (which we signed up for years ago for shipping diapers when our kids were little), so it didn’t take much to activate the media portion of that service. And I subscribed to Netflix as well.
Those services, combined with our first DVR for our cable package, has transported our TV experience into the new millennium.
Now, I’d held out on all of that because, frankly, I didn’t want to live in an on-demand-all-the-time world. My kids didn’t know DVRs existed, so if we missed a program, we’d just have to hope it was on again later. We watched TV the old-fashioned way: when it was broadcast.
When my children found out that we can now record, fast-forward and time-shift their favorite programs, they looked at me with a mixture of wonder and accusation. “You mean we can just skip the commercials?” Yup. “You mean we could have had this all along?” Yup.
It’s been an interesting week. My children have found most of their favorite programs on either Amazon or Netflix, and they’ve watched almost zero traditional “TV.” Meanwhile, my wife and I are still on the learning curve in terms of figuring out how the new remote can toggle between cable, on-demand stuff, and our DVD player. (Yes, we do still have one of those.)
And there have been additional complications.
We knew how to set limits on TV watching before. But with the introduction of streaming services, we’re going through that learning curve all over again, both technically speaking (how do the parental controls work again?) and in terms of setting limits. It’s a lot easier to set limits on watching something when, if you miss a program, you can’t watch it. It’s a lot harder when you can watch whatever, whenever—a lesson I’m sure that most of you have already grappled with.
We’re admittedly—albeit intentionally—late to the streaming digital TV game. But this game of technological catch-up is one that all of us are likely to keep playing. That’s because the traditional understanding of “TV” is changing at warp velocity.
Apple, Google and Facebook have been known for cool gadgets, search and social media connectivity, respectively. But now all three of these gargantuan companies are plunging into the content creation business too—crafting their own original shows—a trail that Amazon and Netflix have already blazed.
What will that mean for us? Well, at the very least, it’s going to mean still more choices. And it might well mean having to grapple—again—with new modes of delivery that change our viewing habits every bit as much as Netflix and Amazon’s presences has. (Binge-watching, anyone?)
In his Wired article “Facebook, Apple and Google Will Hasten the Next Era of TV,” Steven Levy writes:
We will see the death of the kind of television programming that’s essentially been around since the 1950s: sitcoms, anthology dramas, general interest newsmagazines, and variety shows (whoops, already dead). Don’t be fooled that right now the numbers for broadcast television still top even the most popular offerings of HBO and Netflix. Their rigid formulas—with plotlines ebbing and flowing to accommodate infuriating commercial interruptions, adhering to standards based on minimizing offensiveness—have made them the walking dead. Already the idea of “watching television” seems like an antediluvian pursuit. The three companies entering the field will hasten the blow.
The accelerating trends that Levy predicts mean that we parents have our work cut out for us—even when we’re late to the game, as our family has been. Helping our kids learn discernment has never been easy or automatic. But with the pace of technological change accelerating each year, our intentionality and engagement is arguably more important than it’s ever been, especially if we hope to help our children become adults who know how to navigate this ever-increasing array of choices, content and worldviews.