Face it: On-demand is the future of TV. But is passive channel surfing and collective viewing something we won't know the value of until it's gone?

Touching Static Jason Rogers/Flickr

I tend to think of my cable bill kind of like my health insurance premium. Every month, I begrudgingly pony up the funds necessary to continue this so-called “service” wondering the what the heck it is I’m actually paying for--especially since most of what I regularly watch can be found online in some form--all the while deathly afraid of the consequences should I ever stop wiring in my money.

Every month, I consider amputating cable from my bottom line once and for all. But what’s holding me back is that I think I might actually miss it.

In general, I’ve had it with paying for 1,000 channels, only one-percent of which I ever bother with. I’m tired of having to pay $11 per month for my DVR. I’m fed up with having to periodically reboot my cable box to revive life back into the thing, and I’m certainly over the ridiculous nickel-and-diming on Franchise Fees, FCC Regulatory Fees, Federal Universal Service Funds and Public Access Fees. I’m also done with being charged monthly for my remote control, too.

And now, with Hulu, high-def streams from the networks and YouTube, the upcoming Boxee Box, plus delicious rumors of an all-you-can eat monthly TV subscription to iTunes, my dream of cutting the cord and paying only for an Internet connection has never been as close to within reach as it is now.

There’s no question that it’s possible for a TV hound like myself to live happily without cable. Nearly every program I consume is readily available online. And if I could find an antenna big enough to penetrate the canyons of New York City, I could even score free over-the-air HD for live sports and news. Yet, as the paint dries on the giant “Death to Cable!” banner I plan to unfurl out my window later this afternoon, I’m starting to have doubts.

For one, TV-on-demand flips the very nature of the television-viewing experience on its head. It goes from being a passive endeavor to an active one. Yes, I can probably find any show I’m looking for online and be streaming it within seconds. But, what if I’m not actually looking for anything in particular? As life-changing as Hulu is, it can’t be channel surfed. I can’t veg out on my couch and flip around on Hulu or iTunes just to catch whatever just happens to be on.

Surprisingly, this is how I consume a lot of my television. It turns out I’m a huge fan of what I’ll lovingly refer to as “crap.” I don’t know what it is about the Discovery ID channel, but I can sit for hours and hours watching reruns of those Dateline murder mysteries. Would I ever go online and actually seek this stuff out? Not a chance. Similarly, I recently flipped by the History Channel and caught a glimpse of an Apple Lisa. The show turned out to be something called Modern Marvels: ’80s Tech and was one of the most pleasurable viewing experiences I’ve had in ages. I’d always thought Modern Marvels was about gunpowder and hydroelectric dams—not about stuff like the Apple Lisa, Pac-Man or the DeLorean. Yet despite this rather thrilling discovery, I’d still never actively search for Modern Marvels on Hulu or iTunes.

The channel surfing conundrum aside, there’s something much bigger I’d be missing out on without traditional TV, and it’s something that inches closer to extinction every time one of us DVRs or downloads a show instead of watching it on first run. It’s the meta media experience. Think about how rare it is nowadays that you are watching a program at the exact same moment as the rest of the TV-watching population. I think giant live sporting events like the Super Bowl are the only ones left that still qualify. Pre-cable, there was about a one-in-four chance that you and the guy next to you watched the same TV show the night before. Cable certainly fragmented that, but even with more channels we were all still a part of a larger community that experienced things together. The Seinfeld finale, for example, was watched by an estimated 76 million people. Ten years later, an episodic television event of that magnitude is no longer possible. Call me old fashioned, but I think something strangely unifying is being left by the wayside as we increasingly consume television on our own schedules instead of the network schedules.

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