When we talk about “television,” we’re increasingly unlikely to mean the actual objects mounted to our walls or sitting on top of our consoles; instead, we mean the hour- or half-hour-long visual stories we watch on those devices, our computers, or our phones and tablets. But what we use to watch those stories matters, especially since new data suggests that even as television gets grander, some Americans are moving towards smaller screens.
According to new data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, between 2009 and 2015, the number of American households without a single television doubled, from 1.3 percent to 2.6 percent. And even houses that still have televisions appear to be paring down: In 2009, 44 percent of households had three or more televisions, falling to 39 percent in 2015. The number of homes with one or two television rose 4 points in the same period, from 54 percent to 58 percent.
Americans are still watching staggering amounts of television, though slightly less than they used to. And data from Nielsen, which tracks consumers’ media consumption, has captured a marked growth in the time Americans aged 18 and older are spending on the Internet on their personal computers and on apps and Web browsers on their smartphones and tablets. Smartphone and app use in particular grew dramatically between the first quarter of 2014 and the first quarter of 2016: tablet use rose from 12 minutes a day to 31 minutes per day during that time, while smartphone use rose from 47 minutes per day to an hour and 39 minutes per day in the same period.
All of these numbers have implications for everything from the future of the cable bundle to whether the spiking number of original scripted shows being produced by television networks and streaming services is sustainable or a bubble.
But I also can’t help but notice that Americans’ decisions to get rid of big screens and to spend more time on small ones has coincided with a creative moment that has brought new visual ambition to television.
Some series, like the first season of “True Detective,” or the HBO mini-series “Big Little Lies,” have broken with television tradition and had every single episode directed by the same person — Cary Joji Fukunaga for the former and Jean-Marc Vallée for the latter — lending them new visual coherence and unity of vision. Shows with escalating budgets, including “Game of Thrones,” which has risen to $100 million per season, and Netflix’s “The Crown,” which cost a reported $130 million for its first season, are staging action sequences to rival the most eye-catching blockbusters and capturing landscapes and interiors that are are clearly shot with the intention of being seen on screens that can adequately display their grandeur. Even smaller comedies with a rotating series of directors, including “Girls” and “You’re The Worst” have developed strong house styles.
Not everyone who watches these series is in it for a close read of the directorial choices, and that’s fine. You don’t necessarily need to parse the staging in the “Battle of the Bastards” episode of “Game of Thrones” to feel the claustrophobic fear Jon Snow (Kit Harington) experiences as he fights his way out of a mountain of bodies. The Monterey houses in “Big Little Lies” and their beachfront views would be stunning even with the most indifferent lighting and camera-work.
But even if cinematic initiative isn’t the reason viewers are turning in to these shows, they’re still an integral part of what makes these series work. However you process it, there is a difference between a set standing in for a chic apartment on an episode of “Columbo” and the vertiginously-shot murder maze on “True Detective.” And at a time when television is more audacious than ever, it’s a shame to think that the creative effort that’s going to making the medium high art and the technology that audiences are using to watch that art are moving in opposite directions.