Sunday, July 31, 2011

The on-demand lifestyle

My children will likely never remember media being on a schedule. That's kind of a crazy thought, but it's true. The baby is still too little to understand watching TV or listening to music, but Amber definitely does and she has never had to be told no to a request. Of course, I have told her no, but only because of other circumstances, never because what she requested was unavailable.

All of our movies are in digital form on a hard drive in a Media Center PC; all of our CDs are ripped into the computer; whatever little videos she wants to watch are on YouTube; even the radio we listen to is choose-your-genre Internet radio. And once she's old enough to watch episodes of TV shows, they'll either be ready on the DVR, or streaming from the web.

Amber has never had to sit through commercials waiting for the show or music to come back on. She's never had to watch something just because it was on. She's never been told that what she wants isn't on. She's never had to put in a DVD. She's never had to sit through DVD previews or menus. Quite simply, she's never had to interact with media the way we did growing up. Everything she ever wants is available immediately.

I was joking recently that I don't know what parents did before YouTube. It's almost become a game for us. Amber will request a video of something completely random and I'll see if it exists on YouTube. So far, we have found every single thing she wants. Huge ball, lots of balloons, tiny Pooh, tiny bugs, trains, monorail, huge clocks, Mickey and Goofy, even Android dancing. Oh and cats. Of course cats. All of these are requests Amber has made and all of them were available.

When I took Amber to her first movie in the theater (Cars 2), you could see the confusion on her face as the commercials and previews played. She would look at me and ask, "Lightning?" genuinely not understanding why the movie she wanted was taking so long to begin. Even at home, she thinks nothing of watching 5 minutes of one movie, then switching gears and requesting another movie entirely because it's extremely easy for us to honor the request with just a few buttons.

Those of us who didn't grow up with on demand are still not used to it, no matter how much we like to think we are. I'm the one who set up the system for Amber, and yet I often find myself sitting through commercials even on a DVRed TV show just because the idea of commercials is so firmly ingrained in my mind.

Hollywood is fighting tooth and nail to keep commercials relevant, to keep current TV shows off the Internet (unless you pay monthly for it), and to keep us watching live TV instead of recording it to watch later. Things like the stars live-tweeting during a show, or by hyping up live content like award shows, they are desperately trying to force audiences back into the mindset of the time-slot.

It's working, too. The way Amber watches movies is still very much the minority. Most kids her age still swap DVDs and watch their favorite TV shows when they're on. They can't switch movies in the middle because that's likely a 5 minute task of ejecting, finding, inserting, waiting, menu-ing, waiting, FBI-warning etc. It will likely take an entire generation to grow up with media being on-demand before the industry and culture truly shift. But for those on the fringe like Amber, the thought of "such-and-such-show is on at 8 and if you miss it, too bad" is completely foreign.

Is there a downside to kids like Amber having whatever they want immediately available? There could be, if they are allowed to abuse it and do nothing but watch movies all day. But there was a time in history when books were scarce and only for the super rich. Now, however, the notion of a child browsing vast bookshelves and picking their favorite is completely natural.

I think that kids who grow up with media being entirely on-demand will naturally gravitate away from abusing it. When they know that what they want is always available without issue, there's no need to gorge. It's like the child who grows up in a house with a swimming pool and is used to being able to play in the water whenever he wants, vs the child at the neighborhood pool who refuses to get out because having a pool is a novelty.

There's obviously a call for parenting in all of this, as children need to be engaging in a wide range of activities, not just watching movies or listening to music. But watching TV has been a part of the American lifestyle since the 1950s and not since then have we seen such a vast change in the way media is consumed. Amber's generation is likely the first to truly grow up with on-demand being the norm, and it will become even more commonplace in the generations to follow.

It will certainly be interesting to watch how children like Amber think about and interact with media as they grow up. But it's clear that along with corded phones, pictures you have to wait for, paper maps, and screens that can't be touched, traditional time-slot media will not play a large part of her childhood. I think that's a good thing.

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