Video Programming Wherever, Whenever Flat-screen televisions, iPods and the Internet are radically changing how viewers consume video programming. In the first of a three-part series of reports on the future of television, Rick Karr looks at the ways technology is changing how viewers watch TV.

Video Programming Wherever, Whenever

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Over the holiday, millions of Americans opened up packages and were delighted to find inside video gadgets, all kinds of them; from the pocket-sized video iPod from Apple to huge flat-screen, high-definition TVs. These technologies are part of a tumultuous change that's sweeping television and changing nearly 60 years of viewing habits. NPR's Rick Karr has been looking into the future of television and the rest of the week, we'll bring you his series of stories. We're going to begin today with Rick looking at ways in which technology is changing how we watch TV.

RICK KARR reporting:

If you want to know how we'll be watching TV in 10 years, don't ask a gadget-obsessed gen Xer or a baby boomer or one of their parents. Ask someone who's writing the new rules: a teen-ager.

BRIAN DANN(ph): My name is Brian Dann. I'm 16 years old. I go to Barnstable Academy in Oakland, New Jersey.

KARR: Brian's suburban home is typical of the vast majority of households in the US. The local cable provider delivers hundreds of TV channels, but Brian says he doesn't spend much time watching any of them.

DANN: Flip through all those channels, 500 channels, and get absolutely nothing on those channels, nothing that's worth watching. Also, you know, why should I watch TV if I can do other things with my time, you know?

KARR: People who study the future of TV say that that's an increasingly common sentiment. We only have so much leisure time and more and more ways of spending it. So television's losing its privileged place as a national pastime. The things that compete for Brian Dann's time are down in his lair...

DANN: There might be a little bit of a mess down here. I don't really...

KARR: ...the basement.

DANN: I spend most of my time down here pretty much. Also, I paint. I do (unintelligible) art and I paint models and stuff.

KARR: That hobby occupies one corner of the basement. The guitar that Brian's dad gave him for Christmas sits in another. There's a PC in the third corner. Brian says he spends more time surfing the Web than he does watching the tube. A 2004 study by the University of Southern California shows that people who spend the most time online watch less television. There is a TV in the fourth corner of the basement, and while Brian admits that he spends a lot of time in front of it, he doesn't really watch TV.

DANN: You know, this is my Xbox here. Right now I'm signing into Xbox Live, and I'm going to be going in to play Halo 2.

KARR: Brian says video games may give him some of the same pleasures as television; recurring characters, for example, and evolving plots. Regardless, he's an avid player. He reprogrammed a couple of games, he reads Web pages dedicated to them and he connects to the Net to play with his friends. Brian says a lot of those friends do watch TV. Several of them have iPods loaded with music videos and videos about video games, so they can watch whenever and wherever they want, even at school.

DANN: Not in class, but you know, on the buses, in between classes or break or whatever it may be.

KARR: People who are trying to predict the future of television say that's a perfect example of what Brian Dann's generation expects from TV.

Mr. JEFFREY COLE (Director, Center for the Digital Future, Annenberg School for Communications): Complete control and choice.

KARR: That's Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at USC's Annenberg School for Communications. He says teens believe that they have a right to do things with media that their parents could never have imagined.

Mr. COLE: The belief that music and now video can be moved freely from a main system in the home onto a portable cell phone, an iPod, into a car, onto a disk to take and play on other people's systems, the belief that they ought to be able to program it as they want on demand in almost everything in their life, that they're not operating on anyone else's schedule.

KARR: Cole says a lot of technologies that cater to those beliefs are already here. Millions of TVs are connected to TiVos or other digital video recorders or to on-demand cable systems that let people watch shows whenever they want. Meanwhile, broadcasters are starting to let people watch wherever they want. Some local TV stations transmit weather forecasts to cellular phones, for example, while NBC's doing the same with Jay Leno's monologue.

(Soundbite of "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno")

Mr. JAY LENO (Host): And according to the latest poll, President Bush's approval rating has risen to 47 percent. Forty-seven percent of the people now approve of the job he's doing. That's according to a phone poll--well, a wiretapped phone poll, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

KARR: NBC and ABC are also selling shows that viewers can download from Apple's iTunes Store. NBC Chief Executive Jeff Zucker says networks have a choice: Either face the frustration that the major record labels have, as people download shows from the Internet's peer-to-peer networks without paying for them, or sell the downloads that viewers demand.

Mr. JEFF ZUCKER (Chief Executive, NBC): The consumer wants to watch content when they want to watch it, where they want to watch it on whatever form they want to watch it, and we want to be able to provide that programming to all of those platforms.

KARR: Technology's also changing the way younger viewers behave when they do settle down to watch. NBC Universal's Alan Wurtzel studies how new technology affects TV. There's a Ouija board on the coffee table in his office. Wurtzel says that when he spoke recently to a group of college students, they told him that they loved to fast-forward; not just through commercials, through shows.

Mr. ALAN WURTZEL (NBC Universal): And they were saying, `Well, the reason is that I can sort of do, you know, an hour show in 15 minutes.' And I said, `Well, why is that?' And they said, `Well, because you know, you kind of get to zip through it very quickly, you get what you need and you move on.' And I said, `Well, what about the drama that's involved and, you know, the pauses?' And then they said, `Well, we don't really need that. We just need, you know, to know what happened, and then we go on to the next disk.'

KARR: Technology's also changing the screens we watch. The 19-inch picture tube is being driven to extinction by two trends; one towards tiny displays on cell phones and iPods and the other towards huge high-definition flat screens. Jeffrey Cole of USC's Center for the Digital Futures says we may end up watching different shows on different screens.

Mr. COLE: The clear big-screen experience is the movie the first time, your television shows, those handful of sitcoms and handful of dramas that you really want to pay attention to or watch with other people. But the marginal stuff, the stuff that you may download and may watch or may not watch, that stuff I think fits easily on a little screen. And I think a lot of sitcoms, a lot of news--I think teen-agers are getting used to watching all this stuff, irrespective of the screen.

KARR: The technology that'll prompt the biggest change in how we watch TV isn't quite ready for prime time, but it's close. TiVo, the iPod and video cell phones all rely on the fact that television is becoming digital, adopting the language of ones and zeroes spoken by computers. In fact, TiVos, iPods and cell phones essentially are computers. The dot-commers of the '90s called the idea `convergence.' It means that soon, there won't be any difference between surfing the Web on your TV and watching television on your computer, according to Jonathan Taplin of USC's Annenberg School for Communications

Mr. JONATHAN TAPLIN (Annenberg School for Communications): If I were subscribing to the 2012 version of "ESPN 360" and I had put in what teams I'm following and all of that, I might get a two-minute highlight piece on my cell phone, a 10-minute summary of all the action on my laptop Wi-Fi while I'm sitting in the airport or get the whole game on demand on my IPTV system.

KARR: That stands for Internet protocol television, or TV delivered over the Net. Taplin says convergence is risky. Until now government regulations have ensured that viewers have access to everything from local news to global blockbusters. But the Net's largely unregulated, and Taplin says some Internet service providers might want to limit or control what their customers can watch. But Taplin, who produced films for Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders, says convergence is exciting, too. It'll help independent producers compete with big networks, which could lead to more interesting TV.

Tomorrow, we'll look at how technology may change what we watch. For NPR News, I'm Rick Karr.

CHADWICK: Dear listeners, Rick had more information and interviews than he cold get into that report on DAY TO DAY. You can find that, more on the collision of technology and television, at the Web site

I'm Alex Chadwick. More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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