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Scott D. Pierce: Will TV die in the digital age?

Douglas Rushkoff and Rachel Dretzin work for "Frontline."
Douglas Rushkoff and Rachel Dretzin work for "Frontline."
Jake Landis, PBS

PASADENA, Calif. — One of the people behind the "Frontline" report "Digital Nation: Life On the Virtual Frontier" said he thinks the ongoing digital revolution is going to kill television.

"I believe it's almost over," said media theorist and "Frontline" correspondent Douglas Rushkoff. "I really do."


Especially for those of us who work in or write about television.

"Digital Nation," which airs on "Frontline" on Tuesday at 7 p.m. on Ch. 7, is a report from "the front lines of digital culture." It's a look at how everything from warfare to romance has been fundamentally changed by the technology in which we're becoming more and more immersed.

Some of it is downright scary, at least to parents. Seeing how immersed young adults, teens and even preteens are in the digital world — some of them seem to live online — can be a bit of a shock.

"Most teenagers overwhelmingly will tell you that they far prefer to text than to talk to each other," said producer Rachel Dretzin.

"For them to call each other is for us like when you break in on a phone call because grandma died or something," said Rushkoff, who collaborated with Dretzin on production of the report. "It's almost that big."

And all the texting and IM'ing and Facebooking and online chatting is fundamentally changing the way we relate to one another.

"I would say that's one of the most disturbing discoveries we made in this film," Dretzin said. "I think it's decimating our ability to focus. If you think about it, our attention to each other is one of the most precious commodities we have. And it's now OK to talk to somebody — be sitting across the table — and be looking at your cell phone and texting.

"We hung out with these kids at MIT while they went out and socialized, and it's completely OK for them to be doing five other things while they're actually out together on a date."

But it's not just the younger generations whose lives have been affected by all the technology we now take for granted.

"I think the other thing people aren't quite realizing is that the Internet really changed from this thing that you do to a way that you are," Rushkoff said. "In other words, we have gone from logging in to always on."

And with mobile devices, it's possible to be always connected.

"That's sort of where it gets strange and interesting," he said. "But how many people actually have the ability to unplug?"

They also discovered that because so many people are plugged in all the time, a huge number end up working more than ever. Even when they're supposed to be on vacation.

"You're not on vacation," Rushkoff said. "There's no such thing anymore."

Actually, Rushkoff backed off his diagnosis that television is about to be dead and buried. But only just a bit.

"I think the one thing that gives me some faith in the future of television as we knew it is the fact that all of the entities cannibalizing television are cannibalizing mainstream, highly produced programming," he said. "In other words, if you've got Hulu and this thing and that thing where everyone can watch 'Lost' for free, they're still watching 'Lost' on there. They're not watching the latest kid's YouTube video.

"So there's still a hunger for some of that programming. It's just so hard in a media space where people don't believe anything should be paid for and they should never have to watch an ad for anything. It's very hard to fund this stuff."

At worst, perhaps, there will be fewer TV shows and TV networks in the future.

"What I think we will see is a great, and perhaps needed, reduction in the amount of television being made," Rushkoff said. "We might not be a nation that can support 314, 24/7 channels.

"But people are willing to pay for their HBO. They're willing to pay for their Showtime. If there is some condensation of talent, rather than this dissipation of talent, there should be enough TV to go around. Just a whole lot less of it."

And he postulates that less time watching TV and more time online might be a good thing.

"For a nation of people who have been glued to the television for two or three generations, having a chat box on there is, in some sense, social remedial help for people that have already been isolated by media," Rushkoff said. "So maybe it becomes ... sort of the baby steps toward resocializing."

Dretzin, however, sees it differently.

"I never thought I would say this. I consider television to be a kind of wholesome, quaint experience for my family because we sit around together," she said. "It's a social experience. When (my children are) watching something online, I can't be part of it. When we watch TV together, it's an event, and it's something we can all laugh at and talk about.

"I think there actually is, and will continue to be, a space for that. I think we crave it as human beings."