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Whether it's an educational program with the family or a guilty pleasure on our own, Americans are watching more and more television.
By
TODAY contributor
updated 2/18/2011 8:31:02 PM ET 2011-02-19T01:31:02

It’s hardly surprising that Jonathan Murray, who helped shape modern reality television with such shows as MTV’s “The Real World,” has always been a TV fan.

“My local CBS station in upstate New York would pre-empt some of my shows for ‘The Billy Graham Hour’ when I was a kid. So I bought an antenna for the roof so I could watch ‘Gilligan’s Island’ on the Rochester station,” he said with a laugh.

Even if it’s a guilty secret, we all love television. And despite the dire predictions that TV audiences would flee in droves to the Internet, video games and 3-D films, Americans are still TV addicts, according to The Nielsen Co.

In 2010, Americans watched an average of 34 hours of TV per week, according to the information and measurement group. While there are fewer people watching broadcast TV, many are now caught in cable programming’s net — particularly niche programming.

Story: Are you watching more TV than ever?
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“TV now provides a channel devoted to whatever your secret passion is,” said Ron Simon, curator of TV and radio at New York’s Paley Center for Media. “Design, food, animation — you could watch 24 hours of that if you want. Some shows have a mass consensus — like ‘NCIS’ or ‘American Idol’ — but when you say 111 million people watched the Super Bowl over the weekend, what were the other two-thirds of Americans watching?”

Most likely something else that feeds those secret passions.

What you want, when you want it
Moreover, these days you can watch your favorite shows in different ways. A young Murray would never need an antenna now, not just because it’s obsolete, but because he could catch “Gilligan’s Island” on his DVR, on classic TV cable networks and on DVD, just for starters.

Americans are making “block viewings” of series an increasingly popular way to watch TV, said Michael Rourke, CEO of Hud:sun Media and producer of Bravo’s upcoming “Pregnant in Heels.”

“One of the reasons Netflix and Hulu are so popular is that you can get an entire season of ‘Nurse Jackie’ or ‘Entourage’ and watch it all at once. People are getting very used to that,” he said.

“I rarely watch anything live,” Lauren Mora, a TV fan from Van Nuys, Calif., said via e-mail. “My programs stack up on my TiVo, and I devote whole blocks of time to catching up when I can.”

“Access Hollywood” special correspondent Maria Menounos does the same thing.

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“There are intense story lines that just suck you in, and on a ‘school night’ I’ll stay up and watch six episodes in a row of shows like ‘Dexter’ or ‘Breaking Bad.’ And with DVD compilations, you can catch up on a series when you like and never feel left behind,” she said.

Personalized theater
The smorgasbord of choices out there is just one reason Americans are watching 34 hours a week. The economy — and severe weather both last summer and this winter — is enough to persuade most people to get their entertainment in the comfort of their own home, which is starting to look more and more like a personalized movie theater, according to Joe Brown, features editor at Gizmodo.com.

“When I was in college, people said I had a bachelor pad when I had a 20-inch TV. Now, 32 or 40 inches is the mainstream size of televisions — and that’s a giant screen,” he said. “You have a cinema in your home, and it’s amazing.”

With cinemas in the home, the big screens in theaters took a hit in 2010: Box office receipts nearly matched 2009’s, but actual film attendance was at its lowest since the 1990s. The number of filmgoers is likely to continue dipping as ticket prices rise and home cinemas offer an experience theaters can't match.

“At home, I see movies on a big screen, the ‘snack bar’ is just a few feet away and more reasonably priced, I don’t have to deal with rude patrons who talk during the movie or bring noisy kids,” Susan Hawkins of Atlanta said via e-mail. “I can see a movie on my schedule, pause to go to the restroom, rewind it if I miss something — and I can watch a movie nude if I want to!”

“I’m already paying $70 per month or whatever — and it’s so easy, I don’t have to get out of my couch,” said Tim Brooks, a former network and cable executive and co-author of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.”

“Never underestimate the desire of the American people for something that’s easy,” he said.

Too much good stuff
Of course, no one cares how easy it is to watch TV if what’s being shown isn’t any good. But critics and audiences agree that in large part, thanks to the risk-taking of cable networks and the migration of Hollywood actors to the small screen, there’s almost too much quality content on television these days to keep up with.

“I want to get out of the house every once in a while and see human beings,” said Jim Colucci, founder of Must Hear TV. “But what’s funny is that when a show gets canceled, sometimes there’s a small part of me that’s relieved: I’ve gotten an hour of my life back!”

TV also offers viewers a family experience few other forms of entertainment can match.

“Our 12-year-old son loves sitting between us watching ‘American Idol,’” said “Real World’s” Murray. “I love watching television with him because it brings up questions and things we can talk about — and they’re helpful to have discussions about as a family.”

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With all that TV has going for it, Americans are likely to stay hooked. And now, with many new televisions coming Internet-ready, get set for an increase in those hours spent in front of your comforting, enormous, entertainment delivery system.

“We’re addicted to information and the Internet and TV,” said Gizmodo's Brown. “The Sonys, the LGs, the Sharps of the world are smart pushers. They know how to give us what we want.”

Randee Dawn is a freelance writer based in New York, and was born with a remote control in her hand. She is the co-author of “The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion,” which was published in 2009.

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