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20 Years of TV: How the DVR Changed Our Relationship With Television

Indiewire By Danny Bowes | Indiewire April 16, 2013 at 11:59AM

In the pre-"television can be art" days, watching TV was often considered mental junk food that earned the label "the boob tube" -- not because of current nudity-happy cable programming, but in reference to the archaic definition meaning a dullard or lummox. Cultural condescension aside, until recently watching television was a passive act. That it is no longer may be the medium's most important innovation in the past two decades.
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Tanjila Ahmed/Flickr

Editor's Note: This is part two of a series of five articles exploring the past 20 years of television and its effect on the current "Golden Age." It's presented in partnership with Sundance Channel and their new original series "Rectify."

In the pre-"television can be art" days, watching TV was often considered mental junk food that earned the label "the boob tube" -- not because of current nudity-happy cable programming, but in reference to the archaic definition meaning a dullard or lummox. Cultural condescension aside, until recently watching television was a passive act. That it is no longer may be the medium's most important innovation in the past two decades.

VCRs afforded TV viewers the opportunity to record shows and watch them at their own convenience. However, the self-contained nature of most TV episodes, combined with the need to buy fresh video cassettes as the image and audio quality suffered with repeated re-tapings, meant that the impact on TV-watching culture was relatively low. It's the next major advance in recording technology, the DVR, that would have far greater influence.

In the five-year span between 2006 and 2011, the number of households with DVR rose from 1.2% to 42.2%, a period that saw a correspondingly enormous change in the way people watched TV. Because DVRs gave everyone the ability to watch a program whenever one liked, with no diminished image quality, the need to be in front of one's TV set at a particular time and to choose between the things that happened to be broadcast vanished. The choice became, rather than "Do I watch the baseball game, 'Mad Men,' or 'Game of Thrones' this Sunday?" "Which do I watch live and which two do I DVR for later?"

But there are drawbacks -- as anyone with even a passing familiarity with Twitter knows, people love tweeting about TV. And, if, per the above scenario, you watched the thrilling end of a ballgame and left "Mad Men" for Monday evening, and are checking Twitter on a break at the office, and see someone saying "OMG Pete Campbell got shot in the face last night! #RIP #LOL" (note: strictly hypothetical) you are thus deprived. In the age of the DVR, the spoiler-sensitive must be strategic about what they delay viewing.

Spoilers are a subject of debate and controversy; there are no objective standards other than one's own instinct to determine what constitutes one. 20 years ago, the idea of "LALALALALA don't tell me anything about what happened on 'NYPD Blue' last night!" would have been odd -- if one were such a fan, one would have watched it.

The change, as change does, happens at once gradually and suddenly. We do, though, certainly watch television in a way that would have seemed the stuff of sci-fi not very long ago; watching a show on one's phone while texting with a friend who's also watching the same episode on their phone is easily possible, which is, to anyone born before about 1990, insane. We're no longer beholden to the boob tube, physically or in terms of schedule, though we take TV more seriously than ever.

Indiewire has partnered with Sundance Channel and their new original series "Rectify" from the producers of "Breaking Bad" (series premiere Monday April 22nd at 9pm.) This startling drama follows Daniel Holden, who is released after 19 years of complete isolation on death row. As he adapts to life outside, anger is reignited in the small town to which he returns. Daniel Holden may be free, but the battle for his life is far from over.

Learn more about "Rectify" here. http://www.sundancechannel.com/series/rectify

This article is related to: Television, TV Features, 20 Years of TV