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Three Not-So-Obvious Reasons Why We're Watching More TV Than Ever

by Joel Keller, posted Jan 4th 2011 3:00PM
'Mad Men' is a big reason why we're watching more TV than ever.Just as the calendar turned from 2010 to 2011, the number-crunching folks at Nielsen released their year-end assessment of the television landscape. Their conclusion? We're watching more television than ever.

According to their numbers, Nielsen measured that television watching inched up by about one percent compared to 2009, with each American averaging 34 hours per week. Of course, the eyeballs are spread pretty far and wide, with people watching everything from hight quality shows like 'Mad Men' to entertaining reality like 'Pawn Stars' to zone-out TV like 'Bridalplasty.'

It's not hard to figure out why Americans are watching more TV than ever. There are the obvious ones: more people have big hi-def TVs, there are so many choices, people are staying home due to the economy, etc. But there are a number of not-so-obvious reasons why people are hunkering down in front of their flat screens more than ever:

There's more quality on TV than ever before. Sure, you can look at the TV landscape and bemoan the ratings that reality shows like 'Jersey Shore' and the various 'Real Housewives' series get. Oprah Winfrey herself cited that there's "nothing about it that makes me feel good," which is one of the big reasons why she created the just-launched OWN network.

But I and most of my TV-fan brethren have another take: Sure there's a ton of dreck on TV, but dreck sells, and has been there since the medium's early days. And even some of that supposed 'dreck' is pretty entertaining. 'Pawn Stars,' 'The Amazing Race,' and 'Top Chef' are entertaining and informative shows, even if they are swimming in the same reality pool as 'Sister Wives' and whatever is the latest production from the Kardsahians.

But, as far as scripted fare is concerned, the quality has never been higher. Even if you put aside the critical darlings on AMC, TNT, FX, and other cable networks, the writing and production values of even mainstream hit shows outstrip almost anything that people saw on their TV screens even as recently as 20 years ago.

Compare this year's most-watched new show, 'Hawaii Five-0,' for instance, to its classic predecessor. Even the most ardent fan of the Jack Lord original can tell you that the new version's characters are better-drawn and the plots are more complex than what they saw in the sixties and seventies. They may still prefer the original for any number of reasons, and it was a pretty good show for its time. But expectations are much higher now than they used to be, and most shows have risen to meet those expectations.

The quality on TV is more accessible. In a lot of the country, your movie choices may be between 'Little Fockers' and 'Yogi Bear.' Sure, there may be a 'True Grit' in the mix, but the movies that you always hear buzz about around this time of the year -- 'Black Swan,' '127 Hours,' 'The King's Speech,' 'Blue Valentine' -- tend not to go as wide as the more mainstream movies. You might be able to see them at your local multiplex, but the chances are unlikely, which is why titles like this do well on DVD and Blu-ray.

TV, on the other hand, is much more accessible. Want to see 'Mad Men?' AMC airs it every Sunday at 10PM ET and a number of times thereafter. It also appears On Demand the next day. It's much easier to find the good stuff on TV than it is in the cineplex.

TV isn't cheap, but it gives you more bang for the buck. While Nielsen was giving its numbers, Hollywood.com released a study that said that last year was one of the worst for the movie industry in quite some time, with the least number of tickets sold since 1996. The average ticket cost $7.85. That's a lot of money to spend for the experience of watching 'Little Fockers' while you're surrounded by people who are texting and talking to the screen.

TV, of course, isn't cheap either; according to CNNMoney.com, the average digital cable user pays $75 per month, and many pay over $100 per month for cable, FiOS, or satellite service. But, even at that higher figure, the amount per day comes out to $3.33, for the entire family. So, for the price of four movie tickets and some popcorn, you get at least half a month of your choice of hundreds of channels, and all the quality programming I mentioned above. Plus, you don't have to deal with lines, rude moviegoers, or sticky floors.

As TVs get bigger and more advanced, the reasons for going to the movies instead of staying home become more cultural than technological. You want to be the first to see '127 Hours,' for instance. Will that be enough to get people out to the theater? Only time will tell.

Why do you think people are watching more TV than ever?

(Follow @joelkeller on Twitter and at www.facebook.com/joelkeller.)

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Joel Keller, How old are you? Senior writer? Why your too young to know what good TV could be, used to be.
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January 05 2011 at 2:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Another reason not discussed in the article is the economy. Many out-of-work Americans have very little discretionary income. For many, staying at home and watching television is a most practical and economical form of entertainment. Even the "cord cutters", those who cancel their pay-tv subscriptions, are watching more tv instead of less because the internet offers a lot of high quality content that can be watched on demand. TV is an even more affordable option when you hook it up to your laptop or PC.

January 05 2011 at 12:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

TV today is such CRAP-O-LA. I watch sitcom and Law and Order reruns for goodness sakes. With the exception of the Monday night line-up on CBS I find very little worth tuning in to. All this reality TV make me want to retch!

January 05 2011 at 11:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dw. Dunphy

I agree that it is the economic factor that is driving this, to an extent. People need to save their money and one way of doing it is by not hitting the theaters so often.

While it is a good thing that quality-level is getting up there, one suspects that without those shows, the result would be the same, and this article would be about why "Americans love awful TV so much"...

January 05 2011 at 8:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
John F.C. Taylor

Sorry, but I disagree with this. Most of what you cite as the very reasons that viewing has gone up are the very reasons I am watching less and less. Maybe 4 shows, depending on what returns after a Winter hiatus. I don't count HBO, Starz or them because they simply are not worth paying extra for. I think the TV is best suited for viewing DVDs obtained from RedBox or from my small - 130 - movie collection.

January 04 2011 at 5:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Bill D

Wow. You missed what I would think is the most dramatic change in the industry, one that is driving more TV viewing than anything, the DVR.

With a DVR, you don't have to wait for a show to come on, the show is there waiting for you when you're ready for it. You can program your own schedule with just the stuff you like. And because you get to select only what interests you most, you watch more TV.

I would guess that the DVR also has something to do with the uptick in quality. Because it's easier for audiences to find good shows, and because broadcast times aren't an issue for those with DVR's, it's easier for shows with limited appeal to find their audiences.

January 04 2011 at 4:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Bill D's comment
Joel Keller

I put the DVR in the "obvious" category, and I should have listed that in the intro. This was a list of not-so-obvious reasons.

January 04 2011 at 4:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It is cheaper to wait for it on DVD. I pay $18 per month for 3 at a time dvd's from Netflix. I can see on average 36 movies a month for that price. For that money I would only see one movie a month in a theater! Besides my couch is more comfortable!!

January 04 2011 at 3:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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