The television has always been more than just an appliance. For decades, going back to the days when a single family on a block might have a color TV that the neighbors were invited in to watch, it has been a portal to a dreamscape, a status symbol, a trusted late-night companion.
Back in the Norman Rockwell days of one-career households and family dinners, that trusted cathode box was not only the centerpiece of most living rooms, it also served as a form of emotional glue for the family. Through it, the shared experiences — the Beatles on “Ed Sullivan,” the Miracle on Ice — would define a generation.
But mention that experience to someone like Abigail McFee, a sophomore at Tufts University, and she may look at you with a gaze of penetrating puzzlement. She recently dropped by a friend’s room on campus and beheld the most incongruous sight: a small television perched on a dresser.
“It was little bit weird,” she said.
Ms. McFee, 19, has never owned a television set, nor do 90 percent of her friends at school, she estimates. In the era of laptops and Hulu, she is not quite sure why one would. “When I walk into a dorm room and see one, my first thought is, it’s unnecessary,” she said, “almost a waste of space.”
A decade ago, a home — even, in many cases, a dorm room — without a television would have seemed virtually unthinkable, like a house without a telephone.
And, that, in a sense, is the point.
Just as the landline went from household staple to quaint anachronism seemingly overnight during the last decade (acquiring a profoundly uncool air along the way), the television set has started to look at best like a luxury, if not an irrelevance, in the eyes of many members of the wired generation, who have moved past the “cord-cutter” stage, in which they get rid of cable, to getting rid of their TV sets entirely.
As flat-screen sales skid, programming migrates to the web (just last month, HBO and CBS made splashy announcements for new subscription streaming services), and customs like password-swapping and live-tweeting render viewing habits unrecognizable from even five years ago, the central role of the television set in American life is being shaken for the first time since the rabbit-ears era.
“Generation Y was really defined by networks, namely MTV and Nickelodeon,” said Leonora Epstein, 29, the co-author of “X vs. Y: A Culture War, a Love Story,” released this year. “I remember when ‘Dawson’s Creek’ was on, it was a standing weekly appointment not just with the WB, but with your friends,” she added. “You’d call them during the commercials to freak out about whatever just happened.”
Somewhere along the way, however, a bond was broken — at least for some.
“Growing up, TV ruled my life,” said Francine Lieberman, a 25-year-old landscape architect who lives in Chelsea. Even so, she has not owned a television since college, nor do at least half her female friends these days (her male friends, by contrast, all seem to require the splashiest 60-inch available to capture the cinematic glory of “SportsCenter”).
“I live in New York City, I find events to go to every night, and have seen my social and professional life flourish as a result,” Ms. Lieberman said. “While there are certainly the rare nights where I find myself curling up with an iPad to catch a show, the only time I watch a program from an actual set is during my daily morning run at the gym.”
To be sure, the notion that the television may go the way of the Sony Walkman may sound like hyperbole. Some 34.5 million flat-screen televisions were shipped in the United States last year alone, according to figures compiled by IHS Technology, a global market research company — a substantial number, even if sales are down 13.75 percent, from 40 million, since 2010.
Yet by another, more geek-futurist view, it seems easy to start their obituary, even as manufacturers race to keep up to speed by churning out web-enabled smart TVs. The smartphone age has been cruel to devices that perform only one function. Not only telephones, but egg timers, alarm clocks, desktop calendars, video cameras, even flashlights have all been rendered as inessential as pocket watches by the iPhone and its brethren.
Certainly, the problem is not TV programming. In an age of almost infinite variety, when no one thinks twice about checking to see what’s on Channel 762, TV is arguably more central to American culture than in the heyday of Uncle Miltie. Premium-cable dramas like “True Detective” generate as much critical buzz as Best Picture Oscar nominees. Network ratings powerhouses like “The Voice” dominate the water cooler.
And many millennials who have ditched their TVs still actually love television. They may, in fact, watch more of it than ever since unplugging, thanks to the relatively newfound ability to catch up on their latest shows on their phones or tablets anywhere, at any time. “I can sit on the couch and watch the new season of ‘Orange Is the New Black’ in a weekend,” said Andrew Wojtek, a 26-year-old museum event producer who lives in Harlem. “I can watch while I’m traveling on trains or planes, and staying in hotels. I can watch something on a break in the park or in a coffee shop while wasting time waiting to meet up with a friend.”
Others see television as an unneeded expense. They are part of a growing breed — screen agnostics — that tap the hacker instincts (and, perhaps, a generational distrust of institutions) to create a rich television viewing life without the need of an actual TV.
Unwilling — and as a recent college graduate, unable — to spring for, say, an $800 60-inch, web-enabled Sharp Aquos for his Atlanta living room, or even the $200 for a used 32-inch off Craigslist, Jonathan Ray relies on his MacBook Pro or iPhone to catch most comedies, like “Veep.” For high-production-value shows like “Game of Thrones” that cry out for a more cinematic experience, Mr. Ray cobbled together a Franken-TV out of a spare computer monitor, an old set of computer speakers and an Apple TV box. And no need for cable. To defray subscription costs, he shares Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime video and HBO Go passwords with friends. “To me, it’s a blender,” said Mr. Ray of the traditional television set. “I may need one one day; it might be nice to have one. But it’s by no means essential.”
And though this transforms viewing habits from a communal experience to a singular one, with people sitting alone in their room, watching the latest episode of “American Horror Story” on their iPad — this generation has found ways of reviving the time-honored viewing party into one more representative of 21st-century technology.
Live-tweeting, in fact, has become such a habit among fans that networks are relying on it to create hits, and even save shows.
NBC has used Twitter hashtags like #VoiceTailgate (essentially an online preshow bash) and #VoiceSave (in which viewers vote to keep contestants on the show) to market every episode of “The Voice” as a great excuse for a party, albeit a virtual one. The show has set records as the most-tweeted-about show on television, according to Twitter.
“Scandal,” meanwhile, struck some critics as a candidate for cancellation after a lukewarm reception in its first season, in 2012. An aggressive Twitter outreach campaign, including live-tweeting by actors during broadcasts, helped transform the ABC crisis-management drama into a ratings heavyweight. (The Los Angeles Times called it the “show that Twitter built.”)
Even so, other hardened TV apostates confessed that they are not immune to the charms of a 48-inch Sony when it comes to events like a “Mad Men” season finale or the Olympics opening ceremony.
Having grown addicted to the “Doctor Who” reboot online, Hannah Hamill — a 29-year-old stay-at-home mother in Philadelphia who never bothered to replace her cathode-tube television when broadcast networks moved to the digital standard in 2009 — found herself driving 20 miles to her sister’s house when BBC America broadcast a 50th anniversary “Doctor Who” special last November. “I thought…I’m going to really treat myself and watch something on a 50-inch screen.”
First appeared on http://www.nytimes.com/