As more tech titans provide TV, gadgets in home multiply

September 27, 2011

It’s movie night at the Spring family home, and everyone’s snuggled in front of separate flickering screens.

Paula, 11, has headphones connected to her laptop as she watches episodes of “Glee” via the Web site Hulu. In the same bedroom, Natalie, 16, is viewing “Walk to Remember” over YouTube on her smartphone.  On the living room television downstairs, their dad, Eduardo, is engrossed in an action flick, while their mom, Edith, scans Netflix on her smartphone for new releases.

This is the multi-device, multi-streaming home of today.

With so many gadgets offering television shows and movies, American families are watching more videos than ever — just not necessarily together.

The proliferation of Hollywood content in the home reflects the ferocious battle across disparate companies that are all trying to do the same thing: capture eyeballs by offering on-demand shows.

In this race for consumer attention, retailers such as Wal-Mart are suddenly competing against Netflix, Apple and Google. Last week, Facebook, the world’s most popular Web site, entered the fray. On Wednesday, Amazon is expected to jump in with a new tablet that will allow users to stream its vast catalog of videos.

All of these giants are trying to upend traditional cable companies that have long ruled living room entertainment.

“Traditional TV has long dominated this space, but now you are seeing remarkable levels of online consumption through so many Internet-connected devices in the living room,” said Greg Ireland, a research manager for IDC, a provider of market intelligence and advisory services. “Media and tech industries are clearly looking forward.”

The race has intensified partly because the appetite for new electronics, even in difficult economic times, has shown few signs of waning.

The typical home of 2.6 people has an average of 24 gadgets, including at least one smartphone — double the number 15 years ago, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group. Compared with flat- screen TVs, many of those devices are cheap and are getting cheaper. The average household will spend $1,179 on consumer electronics this year, compared with $1,500 in 2005.

With more laptops, video game consoles and tablets has come more viewing. Even as the typical household is watching 22 more minutes of television than it did a year ago, people are watching more online, too. The average Internet user soaked up 18 hours of videos last month, an all-time high, according to the survey firm ComScore.

“Television is now viewed over more devices than ever, and viewers are in control over what they watch more than ever,” said Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist at chipmaker Intel who explores how humans relate to technology. “What’s been remarkable is the extraordinary power of television, because at the heart of this is that people just want a good story.”

Members of the Spring family, who live in High Point, N.C., said the multitude of options for watching videos puts an end to fights over the remote control.

“It’s not like we’re separated. We’re still in the same house,” Natalie said.

But Caroline Knorr, an editor for Common Sense Media, a group that advocates for child safety in dealing with media, says what can get lost in the new media world is closer interaction within the family.

“You’ve got to choose some shows to watch together,” said Knorr. “Sometimes a show will spark discussions about feelings and issues that can be really important for the whole family.”

For the most part, Americans have been unwilling to cut their cable cords as they’ve embraced their new devices. But many experts say video streaming represents the future of home entertainment.

Cable providers such as Comcast and Time Warner are trying to keep up with the pace of innovation and persuade viewers to hold onto their cable accounts. They offer to stream movies and shows over devices, but only if families subscribe to their cable service. Dish Network, likewise, bought and reinvented Blockbuster to be a competitor to Net­flix’s streaming service, but the programming is available only to Dish’s satellite television customers.

“The cable and other paid TV guys have the first run of content, and programmers are making a lot of money off of ad revenue and content licensing fees,” Ireland said. “So it’s in the best interest of programmers to see the traditional paid television industry survive.”

For Todd Parker, 24, of Nashville, that means paying more than he’d like for cable and to watch on-demand shows over the Internet. If he cut out his cable bill, he wouldn’t get to watch pro football games without paid television, and his fiancee might miss out on network programs such as “Glee.”

“Between everything we can find online and on television, we have more than we need — and maybe more than we’d like to pay,” Parker said.

Cecilia Kang is a staff writer covering the business of media and entertainment.
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