Active Versus Passive Viewing: When You Watch TV Are You Really Paying Attention?

Back when I was a kid, I took my TV watching very seriously. It was an active event that demanded laser-like, sugar-fueled focus. I mean, just one glance away from those glowing cathode rays could result in missing some crucial Scooby Doo or Brady Bunch plot twist, possibly resulting in years of wondering what exactly happened to Marsha’s nose.

Reaching back into the days before DVR, DVD-R, or even VCR, you basically got one shot at watching something. And that meant TV viewers had some serious skin in the game when watching a show that was important to them. There were no pausing, no on-demand, and no Web streaming alternatives. If you missed it the first time, then you just missed it. This meant running out to the bathroom during commercial breaks or mercilessly hollering, “Mom!” if you needed some snacks mid-program. And watching something meant really watching it.

Today, with so many other technologies competing for our entertainment time and focus—and with so many chances to time-shift and place-shift programming—TV viewing is often done in a passive, near-ADD manner. In fact, most of us do practically everything but watch TV when we are watching TV.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were on the couch watching the season finale of Master Chef (you got robbed, @MC4Jessie!) followed by FX’s dark, cross-border cop drama, The Bridge. These are two shows that we both enjoy and have followed through the entire season. But it suddenly hit me: We aren’t actually watchingthem. In fact, my wife spent the majority of both shows checking her e-mail, Pinterest boards, and extreme couponing sites on a laptop while I was playing Words With Friends, GolfStar, and checking e-mail and Twitter on the iPad.

And that’s really how most of our TV watching is done these days; the TV is there, on, but as more of a background companion to other events going on. And unless something is blowing up on screen or there’s an intense bout of dialogue, the TV is often ignored in favor of some other activity. (This is a huge reason why I feel 3D was destined to face such an uphill battle for mass adoption in the consumer world; besides the eye fatigue and limited content, the glasses required for the 3D experience put the kibosh on all the other activities we have a penchant for.)

But as distracted as our TV time is, our movie-watching time is the complete opposite. Because we have a video projector for movie viewing, we are 100 percent focused on the activity. And since watching the projector is a planned event, it is a lights-off, shades-down, phones- and pads-put-away affair. And with all distractions removed, we are forced to be far more engaged.

To me, this is one of the real advantages of a home theater system, especially if it is installed in a dedicated room. By forcing viewers to shut out all other distractions and really focus on the experience—the action on the screen and being immersed in the audio—it leads to a much more intense and ultimately more satisfying and memorable event. (Unless you’re watching Shark Night. Then it still pretty much sucks.)

Just like the ideal commercial cinema experience—but without those people who refuse to stop texting and with hopefully better snacks&mdashla properly designed and installed home theater creates an environment that is more conducive to the viewer being involved and drawn into the film. I feel this is one of the reasons why my wife and I will discuss movies we’ve watched days later, while we barely ever talk about—or in some cases even remember—TV shows.

Granted, a surround system can absolutely enhance your daily TV watching (and video gaming) as well, and the jungle noises in Survivor , ambient office noises in The Newsroom, and meth-lab mayhem of Breaking Bad will never sound better. And there is some absolutely terrific TV programming available today. And available to fit your schedule, thanks to technology. And if you can dim the lights, kill the other distractions, and get back to active TV viewing even for just a few shows, I bet you’ll find the experience far more enjoyable.

mvision7m1's picture

Nail on the head. I don’t watch much broadcast television except for sports but when I do I sometimes find myself fidgeting with my phone, iPad or laptop as things occur to me to look up, check on or read about. When I realize my inattention I try my damnedest to put the crap down and leave it down. For me it often works. My fiancé on the other hand is almost constantly on her iPad whether we’re watching a television show or a blu-ray but that could be because I usually “choose” what we’re watching. Anyway, to speak a cliche, we all really have to disconnect and remain so until we need to connect. Good article.

arnquist's picture

Theaters and home theaters create an atmosphere to make the presentation feel important, so they feel more important. TV's presentation makes things feel trivial and normal, a new show every half hour, interrupted by completely unrelated advertising. Like you said, being able to record or watch it on youtube later only makes TV feel even more trivial.

Another example, reading. I recently bought a kindle device. It's sole function is to allow me to read books comfortably on a portable screen, without eyestrain or worrying about battery life. Because it is specifically designed for enjoying reading books, I enjoy reading books on it more than trying to read them on my iPad with its additional distractions.

Try watching a well made TV in your home theater, you'll probably appreciate it as much as a good movie that way. It's all about the medium and your perception of it.

SamMorgan611's picture

I definitely agree that television is far more passive, simply because what's on is already decided for you, whereas you have to actively choose and put on a DVD or on-demand service.

However, I also think that this is ultimately an advantage for television and the reason why it will never be completely replaced by more active alternatives. Particularly in modern times when many people constantly feel like they should be working or doing something productive, I always feel a certain amount of guilt when watching a DVD or Netflix, because I could do it some other time. Television however is on at a set time, and you can tell yourself that at 9pm or 10pm etc work stops and it's time to relax. Even though this can be done with on-demand services it still places the choice to watch a show in your own hands, rather than the TV guide's.

I don't know about everyone else, but I always feel strangely content watching a film on television rather than DVD, despite ad breaks. I think this is because I can truly relax and enjoy the film when I know pausing or stopping to watch later is not an option.