The Coming Death Of The Television

I used to think it would take maybe 50 years until we reached the day people would laugh when reminded that human beings of the year 2013 had television sets. Lately, I’ve been expecting that laughter to come even sooner. Maybe in a decade. Maybe not even that long from now.

Do you see it too? The meteor is coming, and I think my TV is too much of a dinosaur to get out of the way.

I once would have considered the extinction of the television an absurdity. Now, I look at it as an inevitably. My TV sits on an entertainment centre in my living room, usually turned off. I glance at it with pity. It seems to me that the TV set is going to be outlived by the refrigerator, the microwave and the dishwasher.

I haven’t stopped watching television programming.

I haven’t stopped playing video games at home.

I haven’t stopped seeing what’s on HBO or CNN or the Daily Show.

I just don’t use my TV for much of that.

In my pocket, on my couch and in the bag I take with me on the subway to work, I have screens that I like more than the 42-inch one that sits on that entertainment centre in my living room. The other screens, the ones on my iPhone, iPad, PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS, are all smaller, but they’re also all better.

“Better” = more portable, more convenient, more capable of running what I want when I want to see it.

“Better” doesn’t = bigger, though that’s the only legit advantage my TV still has.

Oh, sure, my TV is also the only device that can display certain video games — and I do love playing lots and lots of video games. But the exclusivity that some content now has to my TV is becoming an aggravation. If I could choose where to play the next major game from any of my favourite game developers, I’d prefer to play it on something other than my TV. My laptop, perhaps. I prefer to watch most TV on things other than my TV too.

In my pocket, on my couch and in the bag I take with me on the subway to work, I have screens that I like more than the 42-inch one that sits on that entertainment centre in my living room.

My experiences are not the world’s. But I don’t imagine that my circumstances are unique. Nevertheless, here’s a short rundown of how I lost my own faith in the relevance of TV.

For most of my life, I watched TV shows on TV sets and played video games on them, too.

If I was worried I was going to miss a show, I would set my VCR. When DVRs came around, I used one of those instead. It was easier. No tapes. Convenient access to a batch of old shows.

In the last year, my DVR started breaking down. It would fail to record shows. Off to the Internet I went to find the shows I missed. I’m no pirate. I don’t torrent a thing. Never have. Didn’t have to. Most of what I want to watch winds up online.

I like watching pro wrestling. TV used to be a must for that. These days? WWE puts clips of their big, live Monday night shows on YouTube, for free, while the live show is in progress. They now stream their biggest pay-per-view shows to laptops and iPads.

I like watching episodes of the Daily Show. They’re online the next day.

When major news used to break, I would flip on the TV to keep an eye on things through CNN or ABC. I saw plenty of TV news coverage of the Boston bombing last week — and yet never turned on my TV once. I watched all of it online. I saw a bunch of clips from CBS and CNN just as they happened, all on my laptop. Boston was the first major news event for which I never turned on my TV. Didn’t need to.

I like HBO original series. I just discovered the HBO Go app for my iPad and have been flipping through shows on that. I already watched that now-cancelled Star Wars cartoon on my iPad and download classic WWE matches through iTunes. What do I need a TV for?

I saw plenty of TV news coverage of the Boston bombing last week — and yet never turned on my TV once.

I never watched all that much TV, because, over the last decade, I’ve mostly used the TV to play games. Not so anymore. I rediscovered PC gaming last year with the purchase of a powerful gaming laptop that I could take to any room of my house or even to work. I played Far Cry 3 on it and will be playing BioShock Infinite on it. In any other year, I’d have played those games on an Xbox 360 or a PS3, controller in my hand, eyes fixed on my TV set. I would have done the same for Dishonored but instead I played that partially in an airport during a long layover last December. I played the new Tomb Raider on my laptop, too, on a bus to and from Boston.

Some of this isn’t the TV’s fault. It’s just a stupid screen. It’s not designed to do anything other than play what’s plugged into it.

I wasn’t even planning to make my TV mostly obsolete. It just seems to be happening.

I had bought my newest iPad to read the thousand or so comics I’ve since downloaded to it, not to re-watch the last 10 minutes of the last episode of my favourite show, The Wire, as I did last week. I didn’t get my iPad to watch episodes of RealSports, the sports magazine show I used to have to hope my DVR would actually record. Now, I’ve learned, I can summon the show on my iPad with just a few taps. Sorry, TV, but that cable box I have is just too slow. It can’t keep up, so it’s dragging you down.

I had bought my gaming PC to broaden my horizons and play indie and PC-only games that I was missing, not to have it replace my ageing gaming consoles. Nowadays I wait and hope that games like Grand Theft Auto V, a game only announced for TV-connected consoles, will also come out on launch day for the PC. If it does, I’m there. And it’s not because of graphics cards and better performance. Look, I thought I was going to be plugging my laptop into my TV and still play high-end games off of it, even through the PC. I did that two or three times and forgot about it. I’m perfectly happy playing games right off of my laptop screen. I can do that in some nice comfy chairs that are nowhere near my TV.

What’s my TV got going for it? Size? That’s working out for it about as well was it did for Count Dooku in that bad Episode II Star Wars movie when he went up against Yoda. Sure, my TV is still the biggest screen in my house, but it doesn’t look all that bigger from 10 feet away than my iPad does when it’s in my hands while I’m lounging on my couch. Even my Nintendo 3DS XL nearly fills my range of vision when I play a game on it. Sucks me right in.

And — get this — if I’m playing a game on my 3DS at home, I can keep playing it when I leave the house. What kind of paleolithic entertainment can’t leave the house with you these days? Music? Books? I’d rather watch a show that I can take with me than one tied to a screen that’s fixed to one room of my house. That means that, if I am given a choice about how to access a given TV show or video game, I’ll do so on the machine(s) that let me take that content with me.

What kind of paleolithic entertainment can’t leave the house with you these days?

Nintendo was right about this stuff. I think they saw the demise of the TV coming.

I know it’s fashionable to knock the Wii U. It’s having a miserable first year, after all, and it may well be a half-step that needed to be a whole-step. I still think Nintendo had the correct fundamental idea, and that idea was that TV was a tyrant and that we all yearned to be free of its yoke. They put a screen in the controller of their latest TV-connected console, after all. And then they sent mixed messages. One was that TVs needed a second screen, one in your hands that could augment the one affixed to the living room entertainment centre. OK. Maybe.

Nintendo’s other Wii U message: the games that might sometimes be sent from a console to a TV might as well be played on a screen you can hold in your hands. Yes. Exactly! This is the realm of things-I-didn’t-know-I-needed-because-they-seemed-superfluous-but-turn-out-to-be-awesome. The same can be said for the faster-than-an-oven-or-stove microwave and the oh-yeah-not-needing-to-be-inside-to-make-a-phone-call cell phone. I was already watching episodes of TV shows in the palm of my hand when the Wii U came along as a technological proposal that I could perhaps play the next Call of Duty while lying in my bed. This is a winning idea.

I’ve played three Wii U games until the credits rolled. One of the three was playable on the screen of the controller. I played that one on that screen. Happily.

Some of this is about posture. Ergonomics. I’m not a lazy person, but I’ve discovered that I mind having to sit in a certain way in a certain room to watch or play something on a TV. If I have to submit to so many strictures to view something, I might as well go to the movie theatre.

But what about the sound? Why did I buy a 5.1 surround sound system for my living room a year ago? I bought it because I thought I wanted to be immersed in a soundscape as I am when I go to the movies. Turns out I’m ok with playing games on my laptop or watching shows on my iPad with headphones on. That’s immersion enough.

What about watching something with someone? Ah, there’s my TV’s last remaining perk.

But what about watching something with someone? Ah, there’s my TV’s last remaining perk. My wife and I like watching shows together. We ain’t doing that on some little iPad. And we sure won’t synchronise iPhones to watch the same show on separate screens. We watch House of Cards or Game of Thrones together, and when we want to watch something together, the TV is our only and best option. So that’s it. Yay for the TV. How soon until someone invents an iPad that can project an HD image onto a wall? Then what will keep my TV out of a dump?

As someone who loves playing games, I know how important my TV will soon be again. It’ll be connected to my PlayStation 4 and to whatever Microsoft will call the next Xbox. I’ll have those consoles, just as I’ll keep playing my Wii U. Yet I think I’ll look on their connection to my TV as an inconvenience. And I’ll look at plans for the PS4 to support remote play onto the portable PS Vita as a welcome boon, because I’m done with being chained to my TV. It feels archaic.

So when will it be? When will we be laughing together about these big screens we used to buy and lug into our homes? When will be marveling that people used to lay out entire rooms of their house around these obsolete appliances? Will we be wearing Google glasses, all watching the same broadcast, when we share a chuckle? Will we be gaming in Oculus Rift headsets? Will we be watching shows beamed onto our walls or encased in our tablets or scrunched into our phones as our rocket to the moon prepares to blast off?

When will we laugh about TVs? It’s got to be soon.

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