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TV's Fuzzy Future: Left to Their Own Devices, Viewers Are Cutting the Cord

An expanding array of online video options is reshaping the habits of the TV audience.
An expanding array of online video options is reshaping the habits of the TV audience. (Youtube Via Associated Press)

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sit down, kids, and let Grandpa tell you about something we used to call "watching television."

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Why, back when, we had to tune to something called a "channel" to see our favorite programs. And we couldn't take the television set with us; we had to go see it!

Ah, those were simpler times.

Oh, sure, we had some technology we thought was pretty fancy then, too, like your TiVo and your cable and your satellite, which gave us a few hundred "channels" of TV at a time. Imagine that -- just a few hundred! And we had to pay for it every month! Isn't the past quaint, children?

Well, it all started to change around aught-eight, or maybe '09, for sure. That's when you no longer needed a television to watch all the television you could ever want.

Yes, I still remember it like it was yesterday . . .

* * *

Danny Ledonne rarely misses "The Daily Show." He's a frequent viewer of its cable TV cousin, "The Colbert Report," too. And for additional political satire and commentary, he often checks out HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher."

The thing is, Ledonne doesn't own a television. He hasn't had one since he was in college more than eight years ago. When he walks into a friend's house nowadays and the TV set is on, he says, "It's like a quaint visit to an alien world."

These days, Ledonne, 27, can watch all the TV he wants merely by opening his laptop, or going to his cellphone or iPod. With full-length TV programs available all over the Internet (in both legal and pirated form), he finds he does just fine without paying a monthly cable bill -- or even having a TV. In industry parlance, he's among those who have "cut the cord," no longer tethered to the sources that have delivered programming into the home since television's inception.

As alternative means of watching "television" rapidly mature, the Danny Ledonnes of the world are at the vanguard of a potentially potent economic and social force. People like him could be poised to do to the broadcasting, cable and satellite TV industries what free music downloads did to the recording industry and free online news has done to newspapers -- that is, alter everything about the creation, production and delivery of TV.

Ledonne, for example, can construct an entire TV schedule without ever flicking on a remote control. Thanks to dozens of videocasting Web sites, such as Hulu, TV.com, Joost and Fancast, full-length episodes of more than 90 percent of the shows carried by the major broadcast networks are legally accessible within a day of being broadcast, according to Forrester Research (only about 20 percent of what's on cable is similarly available). And because online TV programs are always "on," and cost little more than the price of an Internet connection, Ledonne has gotten used to watching on his own terms.


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