TV is dying? Long live TV!

Despite (or because of) the Web, we watch more television than ever.

By Geoff Colvin, Fortune senior editor at large

(Fortune Magazine) -- In the chaos of today's media and technology brawl - iPod-vs. Zune, Google vs. Yahoo, Windows vs. Linux, Intel vs. AMD - we can declare one unlikely winner.

Standing tall in a field of new tech wonders, it's a geezer technology that was invented in the 1920s and commercialized in the 1940s, and it's still more powerful than anything created since. As you try to figure out where consumer infotech is going, and what it means for society, remember this big, central reality: People just want more television.

If you doubt it, look at today's biggest news in tech. It continually centers on new ways to bring consumers the thing they crave above all else. Sony (Charts) flooded the recent Consumer Electronics Show with products that put Internet video on your TV set, as did almost every other consumer electronics company.

At the simultaneous Macworld Expo, Apple (Charts) chief Steve Jobs introduced Apple TV, which does the same thing. Such gadgets became imperative after the most significant tech phenomenon of 2006, the rocket-like rise of YouTube and its purchase by Google (Charts) - $1.6 billion for a site that brings you dog-on-a-skateboard videos and other mostly idiotic clips that people are watching many billions of times.

The Consumer Electronics Show featured another announcement of similar significance: Verizon (Charts) said it will soon offer live TV on cellphone screens. It will also sell full-length programs for viewing whenever you want.

Put it all together, and we have achieved a nirvana that didn't exist even a year ago: unlimited television available 24/7 on every screen you own.

It's no surprise, of course. Ever since the basic facts of steadily multiplying processor power and bandwidth became apparent, seers have confidently predicted this day. They just as confidently predicted what it would mean: traditional television's demise.

"Life After Television" was the title of George Gilder's 1992 book envisioning a not-distant future, and most people seemed to think he was right. Once the World Wide Web appeared in the mid-1990s, the future looked very clear. Boring old TV, the scheduled programs that come to you through a coaxial cable or satellite dish or antenna, would fade away.

Which is exactly the opposite of what has happened. Despite many Net Age alternatives, we Americans today watch more boring old TV than ever, which is saying something. The numbers are staggering: The average U.S. household watched eight hours and 14 minutes of television a day last season, says Nielsen Media Research. The average individual American watched four hours and 35 minutes a day. Both figures are the highest ever measured in Nielsen's 50-plus years of tracking viewership - and they don't include time spent watching TV on computers.

How can that be? My theory is the Two-Liter Coke Principle. The Coca-Cola (Charts) company discovered long ago that if it could get people to bring home bigger bottles of Coke, those people would drink more than they used to. Just getting more Coke in front of them increased their consumption. It seems to be the same with TV. Put more of it in front of people - over 100 channels in many homes - and people will watch more.

Seen from this perspective, the latest announcements of new TV-related technology look simply like additional ways to put more TV in front of American consumers. The evidence suggests that it will cause us to watch even more. The supposed threat from the Internet was that we'd cut back on TV as we spent more time on MySpace or in Second Life. We may well spend more time on such new Net attractions, but we're unlikely to take that time away from video viewing. We're more likely to cut back on things we consider less important, like sleep.

This triumph of television adds weight to the view, once expressed mainly on crackpot bumper stickers, that TV is a drug. Only an extremely powerful drug could affect people the way TV has done. Nothing invented in the past 75 years has managed to overwhelm it, and instead today's tech wonders are being used to extend its reach.

No one has evaluated TV better than the great New Yorker essayist E.B. White, who in 1938 wrote, "We shall stand or fall by television, of that I am sure." We still don't know which it will be, but his assessment looks truer than ever.


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