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The End of Television as We Know It

On Emmy Sunday, former TV academy chairman Bryce Zabel peers into the future of his industry--and finds a technological blur Illustration by Marcos Chin for the Times

September 19, 2004|Bryce Zabel | Bryce Zabel served as chairman and CEO of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences from 2001 to 2003, the first writer in that post since Rod Serling. Zabel's current project, a miniseries adaptation of "The Poseidon Adventure," is now in production in South Africa, and he will write and produce "Fall from Grace" for USA Network.

Most nights in our house, i'd like to think that everyone in the family--two parents and three kids--is present and accounted for, but that would require a room-to-room search. It was so much easier keeping track of people in the nuclear family of my childhood. Eight o'clock meant prime time. Everyone huddled around our hot new color TV watching the same episode of "Mannix" or whatever was on. The last time that family group thing happened in my house was, well, I can't remember--not even on an Emmy Sunday like tonight.

It's not technically "television" we're watching these days, and we're not "watching" it so much as interacting with it. The prime-time "network" programs weren't scheduled in offices in Burbank or Los Angeles, but here at our house, by us.

On Bryce TV, I'm glued to my computer monitor, streaming evening news clips from six sources, simultaneously Googling how to turn a boat upside down and keep it floating, and writing this essay.

On Jackie TV, my wife, also a screenwriter, is in the bedroom, engrossed in a DVD that she had Netflix mail to our house.

On Jonathan TV, our just-graduated high school senior is playing the latest incarnation of "Final Fantasy" on the PlayStation 2 in between watching "The Daily Show" on a VHS copied from the TiVo, all while working out on the elliptical trainer.

On Lauren TV, our teenage daughter has a movie selected from the DirecTV home page, downloaded off the satellite, now screening with her posse on the big screen downstairs.

On Jared TV, our 12-year-old is finishing last week's episode of "Monk," then switching to "Smallville" 15 minutes late so that it's already recorded on the DVR hard drive and he can skip through the commercials.

My grandmother was born into a world without airplanes, but she lived to see man walk on the moon. By comparison, many of us today were born into a world of black-and-white, three-channel, no-remote, single-TV households. When my father chaired our TV universe from his Barcalounger, we had network loyalty because it was easier than getting up to change channels. We bought certain products because we saw their ads. If we missed a show, we had to hope it would re-air in the summer. If you missed a movie, forget it; you had to wait for college and hope to get it in a film class. Quaint, isn't it?

today my youngest child probably has as much control over his viewing options as CBS patriarch William Paley did. Everywhere Jared turns, he makes choices: what he wants to watch, when he wants to watch it, which set he wants it on and so forth. There's a lot more than good old-fashioned TV competing for his interest. In our technology-crazed house, his attention can get hijacked by an iPod (maxi and mini versions), cellphones that take photos or download music or send instant messages, GameCube, the CD stacker, Xbox, broadband network, wireless this and that, PlayStation 2, TiVo, DirecTV, Netflix, the big screen, TVs in five rooms, five desktop computers, one laptop, cable, satellite music and all the piled-up screening tapes sent out by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

There's so much stuff coming at us so fast, from so many angles, that it's shocking to see our oldest son, Jonathan, now exhausted from his time on the elliptical, curled up with a good book. He's our household anomaly. Did you know that the number of Americans who even cracked open a book of fiction in the last year was only 47%? That's down 10% in 22 years. Not all that surprising, though, as we see this avalanche of alternatives rolling toward us.

Broadcast pundits try to get us to call these new choices by the important-sounding term "convergence." Around our house, the only thing converging is kids with outstretched palms looking for cash to buy DVDs, CDs, PCs, music downloads, cellphones and every other new piece of hardware needed to play all of the software. For me, it's not a state of convergence that we are entering in this digital age but something a little more metaphysical. All of the information overload is ganging up on our senses and coming together into something else:

The Blur.

By that I mean the lines and boundaries that once kept things in their nice little compartments are washing away like a sand castle at the beach. Yes, we have phones that are cameras, computers that are TVs and televisions with satellite music, but it's really more than that. In the military, soldiers have a phrase to describe what is really happening versus what the generals and others are telling them is happening--they call it the "ground truth." When the press release says we're winning the hearts and minds, but the boots on the ground are taking incoming fire? That's ground truth.

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