TV Tech Gadget

The things Gen-Xers remember as second nature to the TV industry — prime time, cliffhangers, hours wasted in front of “the idiot box” — Millennials may not remember at all. With new TV technology, prime time is gone. For the most part, so too are the agonizingly (or at least, annoyingly) long waits between seasons after a cliffhanger.

With today’s technology offering a dizzying array of programs across increasingly flexible platforms, the television experience can be ordered to fit into any schedule (say, the flight from Austin to New York) and any space (your tray table and coat pocket.)

Among all the new conveniences, though, the greatest advantage our tech gadgets have given audiences doesn’t have anything to do with technology at all. The quality of television has vastly improved, almost in step with technological progress in display definition.

Children of the ’80s and ’90s were warned the “idiot box” (or the “boob tube,” depending which coast was closer) was going to rot our brains. And really, it was fair warning. The TV industry was largely comprised of networks coasting along on one or two hit shows during prime time, otherwise banking on the competition having nothing better to offer.

Being the thing people did on the Thursday nights they when they didn’t have anything on the calendar was one thing. Getting the attention of an audience with almost limitless entertainment options (access to all the cat videos on YouTube?) requires something truly great. Enter The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad — in other words, the “Golden Era of Television” — and you have television arguably more cinematic than cinema itself.

Maybe the tech industry is driven to fill our need to consume all the truly great TV shows available these days. But it’s more likely TV got this enjoyable because with so many ways to enjoy it, networks now have to employ the type of talent formerly reserved for film. As is usually the case, the winner of that type of competition is the consumer.

Here are some top tech trends that are changing the TV industry — and how they’re doing it — along with a look at which gadgets are leading those trends.

Tablets and Smartphones: Our Second Screen Habit Heralds the Return of TV as a Social Experience

Social Television’s Current Leading Gadgets: the iPhone and iPad, the Samsung Galaxy, the Kindle Fire

Leading Social Television Apps: Zeebox, Get Glue

Because we’re watching TV whenever and wherever it’s most convenient for us, audiences control TV programming rather than network producers. So for a while, television as a shared social experience (generational touchstones like Charles and Diana’s royal wedding or the finale of M*A*S*H) was seemingly doomed.

And still, in many ways, the only “live” or “network” television market left is in sports, which The New York Times describes as “the television industry’s bulwark against rapid technological change,” explaining that, “while the companies fear cord-cutting by customers who can cobble together a diet of TV on the Internet, they rest a little easier knowing that former customers would be hard-pressed to find their favorite teams live online.”

Live television has been gone for a long time, but our new habit of watching two screens instead of just one is resurrecting TV as a social experience. Social television — the technology supporting social interaction in the context of watching TV — is one of the most important emerging tech industries in the world today. The ratings and recommendations generated via social television devices are, essentially, the new Nielsen ratings.

Home Theaters and Streaming Content: Stunning TV Resolution and Streaming Content Shift Our Attention from Big to Small(er) Screens

Current Leading Home Theater Gadgets: Redray, Plasma TV, 3D LED TV, home theater projectors

Leading Streaming Content/Digital Media Recievers: Apple TV, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Roku LT and XS

Three forces collide to create one of the most powerful viewing habits currently changing the TV industry: it’s known as “binge viewing.” Even if you don’t have a stash of unwatched episodes accumulated on DVR, streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu make it convenient to consume entire seasons of shows over the course of a weekend.

Why would anyone want to do this? Well, the second force weighs heavily even on the most physically restless viewers: the increasing complexity and nuance of television plots means that the viewing experience is enhanced when a lot of viewing hours are logged in one sitting.

We simply can’t retain all the details of past episodes for long — not now that a single episode of a show like Mad Men typically contains numerous references to subplots of episodes that may be seasons ago. Picking up on all the threads of a television drama every bit as complex as a novel often requires watching episodes within a few days — if not a few hours — of one another.

But what really makes “binge viewing” such a pleasure — and, given the artistic quality of today’s best shows, not even a very guilty pleasure — is the quality and comfort of the home theater experience. The stunningly crisp resolution of screens at home already rivals those at the movie theater. Add to that visual quality all the comforts of home and a veritable library of TV at your fingertips, and it’s a tribute to the film industry that we still leave home for the box office at all.