NEW YORK – When did "watching television" become an outdated term?
Well, it may not be completely obsolete yet. But increasingly it's imprecise, simplistic or just plain wrong. It's a relic of the analog age — like the way people still say "dialing" a phone number.
"Watching television" is a term full of assumptions that, after a half-century, are increasingly suspect.
For one thing, just what does "television" mean now? The "watching" part is also open to debate, as my 13-year-old son bears out.
It's no secret that TV is consumed differently today by a younger, more media-immersed, more antsy audience.
When my son turns on the TV, he adds another, primary media source, like surfing the Web, to the mix. For him and TV, "watching" isn't the right word. "Stealing glances" is a better description.
This makes me wonder: Are the TV shows we experience together insufficient to hold his attention (however adequately they hold mine), pushing him to supplement his TV intake with parallel content from his laptop?
Or does the sensory appeal of dual media streams represent its own uniquely satisfying mashup, elevating the experience to some higher dimension?
I don't know. Maybe I'm not supposed to.
Even so, I'm not stuck in the past. And my son has helped me get a clearer picture of what I used to carelessly characterize as TV-watching.
My path to enlightenment began as I observed him downloading stuff from iTunes. He spends a major portion of his allowance on movies and TV shows, and for a while I couldn't fathom why.
Among his acquisitions are TV programs commonly available somewhere in our cable-system universe. He buys programs he could capture on our DVR and play back for free.
Why would he consider paying $1.99 for a digital download straight to his computer, when he could watch the same thing on TV at no expense?
My son couldn't quite put into words why such a question made no sense in the digital age. But I got his drift: "The Simpsons" and "Robot Chicken" aren't TV shows. They're strings of 0s and 1s that amuse him. And a couple of bucks per episode buys him the right to enjoy them at any time, wherever he and his laptop might roam.
My eyes were opened. The new paradigm was coming into focus. Then I realized I was already participating.
When the mood struck, I had recently taken to watching DVD previews from the networks on my laptop, in my lap, cocooned in my easy chair. And I found this viewing mode as satisfactory as watching the same thing the old-fashioned way, on my HDTV from across the room.
Meanwhile, I was checking out episodes of "quarterlife" (a live-action series produced especially for the Web), and catching up on previously aired TV episodes available for streaming from Web sites like Hulu.
No longer was I drawing an increasingly shaky distinction between "watching TV" and these other on-screen spectator sports.
This was a big deal for a guy who, way back in the analog era, considered theatrical films a medium apart from television. I used to argue that to watch a movie on a television screen was not to have really "seen" that film, but, instead, to have settled for a barely suitable facsimile.
Now I had crossed a huge divide. I had moved beyond my long-standing status as a TV viewer.
For decades, TV was known as the One True Source of Video. Now, with PCs and laptops, cell phones, video iPods and other media alternatives, the truth is up for grabs. So why quibble about it? I had emerged as a video agnostic.
Sure, the various outlets for video content change the content somewhat, in screen size or resolution. But they don't make a fundamental difference.
Nor do those outlets automatically define (as a "movie," "film," "show") the images they dispense — any more than a paperback book is a different breed of literature from a leather-bound edition, or from a Kindle, Amazon's newfangled electronic reading device.
I concluded that the 0s-and-1s, not the screen they're translated onto, are what matters — whether "Larry King Live" or 'Grand Theft Auto IV.'
I felt transformed. And then, a few weeks ago, I bought an iPod Nano. For no real good reason. Just because it was so incredibly cool, such a wondrous novelty. And because I'd held off as long as I could. (I never said I'm an early adopter.)
Yet another lesson learned: I found to my amazement that video on an itty-bitty screen can be no less engaging than wall-size. What you give up in scope and detail, you gain in intimacy. (Just have your eyeglasses ready.)
An iPod or a cell phone screen also brings you a previously unmatched sense of mastery over video content. This is the closest you can get, so far, to swallowing a TV pill or applying TV lotion.
You hold the moving pictures in the palm of your hand. You take them with you anywhere you go (with a waterproof case, they even join you in the shower). You are guaranteed no waking moment without video that you control.
This is video-on-demand and then some. It's the first step toward everything you like waiting for you on all of your devices, anywhere you happen to look. Video-on-a-whim.