We’re still glued to TV screens

With more computers in our homes and more portable media players in our hands, you’d think Canadians would be spending less time in front of the television. We’re not. It seems that despite the convenience of being able to stream TV shows on a computer or watch movies anytime, anywhere on a portable device, we still like to park ourselves on the couch in front of the TV.

WINNIPEG — With more computers in our homes and more portable media players in our hands, you’d think Canadians would be spending less time in front of the television.

We’re not. It seems that despite the convenience of being able to stream TV shows on a computer or watch movies anytime, anywhere on a portable device, we still like to park ourselves on the couch in front of the TV.

Statistics from BBM Canada suggest the number of hours Canadians spend watching TV each week has remained unchanged. The top-rated show for the third week of September this year, an episode of reality show Survivor, drew 3.2 million viewers. It’s the same number drawn by a C.S.I. episode that topped the ratings during the same week in 2004.

Even members of the gadget-hungry 18-34 age group have remained loyal to the (not-so-small) small screen, spending an average of 21 hours a week watching TV in the last fall-to-spring season. That’s virtually unchanged from the 21.2 hours registered by BBM in the 04-05 season. One reason for the continued TV time is the fact that we are multi-tasking. Sure, we’re surfing the web, checking email and updating our Facebook page. But many of us are doing it on a laptop or smartphone while watching TV.

“If there’s something on TV I’m really interested in, I’ll be very attentive, like Mythbusters or House,” said Tyler Kehler, a 20-year-old engineering student at the University of Manitoba. “But if there’s something else on, or if I have an assignment due, then I’d be on the computer or cellphone as well.”

Statistics show Kehler is not alone. A Nielsen survey in the United States last June estimated 57 per cent of TV viewers go online simultaneously at least once a month. Another reason is the experience of watching TV has changed. Bigger screens and higher-definition images, which have become increasingly affordable, have turned more living rooms and basements into mini-theatres in the last decade.

“The better the viewing experience, the more you want to watch and the more you’re going to stay there,” said Theresa Treutler, president of the Television Bureau of Canada, the trade association that represents broadcasters and specialty channels. Of course, things are far from perfect for the television industry. The recession has prompted advertisers to cut back, and the ever-growing universe of channels means viewership is divided among a larger number of outlets. Broadcasters have cut jobs and closed stations as they face competition from specialty cable and satellite channels.

But television as a whole has managed to retain our eyeballs.

“Technologies and costs have converged at a good point in history where you can buy a TV today that is better than any TV you could have bought before and it’s quite inexpensive too,” said Brian Reimer, owner of an independent audio and video store in south Winnipeg, who says TV sales have increased in the last few years.

“For $1,000 or $2,000, you can get an amazing TV that would have been just a wealthy man’s dream before.”

Keeping our eyeballs glued to the set requires the industry to continue to try to offer viewers a bigger wow factor. Manufacturers work to develop better contrast, faster image-processing and other advances. The latest move, LED backlighting, has allowed the new generation of big screens to be the width of three credit cards.

But some feel TV is bound to lose out to the computer screen. Prasad Gowdar, a consumer electronics commentator in Winnipeg, says when an online store like iTunes develops to the point of being able to offer a vast array of searchable programming choices that can be downloaded instantly, consumers will walk away from their televisions and watch everything from classic movies to last night’s sports highlights on desktops or laptops.

“The Internet offers choice, it offers you entertainment when you want it, and it’s searchable,” Gowdar said.

“When the Internet can offer videos . . . driven by my interest and I can find it and download it in, say, five minutes or stream it instantly, then I think TV will feel a major impact. The idea of someone scheduling it for you and interrupting you with commercials? I think that’s going to be an outdated model.”

By the time that happens, however, the big-screen TV will likely have developed further in areas such as 3D. Several manufacturers are working on bringing three-dimensional images to home theatres and Panasonic has unveiled plans for a 50-inch plasma 3D TV that will boast full 1080p definition. If all goes as planned, viewers will see images jumping out of their home screens by the end of 2010, as long as they’re willing to wear somewhat-bulky glasses.

In the end, TV and the Internet might converge in a combined system involving both broadcasters and online stores. Programs produced by broadcasters that could be downloaded or streamed on demand and then played on a big-screen TV could work, Gowdar said, as long as consumers are offered a vast selection that can be accessed with the click of a button — something akin to a hi-res Youtube.

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