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When We're Watching TV, Are We Really Watching TV?

By RD Heldenfels Published: August 22, 2005

My TV viewing over the weekend included sports -- golf, baseball, Browns -- and a couple of movies on DVD -- ''Coach Carter'' and ''Finding Neverland.''

I like watching movies since they're more or less a break from the viewing I do for a living, although you're never far away from a TV connection.

''Finding Neverland'' = Johnny Depp = ''21 Jump Street.''

''Coach Carter'' = director Thomas Carter = ''The White Shadow'' (as actor), ''Miami Vice'' and other shows as director and producer.

Still, is watching a movie on TV really the same as watching TV?  If you're relatively young, you probably make no distinction. Of course, if you're relatively young, you also think of TV as a really big computer monitor.

I discovered a lot of movies from TV, especially late-night TV. ''It's a Wonderful Life,'' for one. ''Touch of Evil.'' ''You're a Big Boy Now.'' But well into my adulthood, watching movies on TV was different from going to a theater (which I also did rather often). Movies on TV came with commercials, for starters. You'd be in the moment, then disengage while the ads ran, then try to get back into the movie. And you were best off watching old movies, because newer ones would have language and other content edited out. So there was still a good reason for going to a theater.

Then, with the twin advents of HBO and home VCRs, the way we had to watch movies changed. Suddenly, they were available commercial-free, as well as with all the original content. This made movies that had been edited for television seem unworthy of time.

And we hadn't even gotten to the age of widescreen yet.

Flip through the calendar pages. Now we watch movies in widescreen, on big home screens, with wonderful sound, ever closer to the theater experience. We're not quite there, at least not until we turn the lights off except for a red ''exit'' sign over the door. But we're not exactly watching television, either. We're just watching something on a television set.

A fine distinction, I know. But the idea of what constitutes watching television is in a state of constant change. Is it still television when we watch it on a monitor, the video streaming from the Internet? Is it still television when we freeze the picture with our DVR, take a phone call, come back, catch up a little on what we've missed, the flip back to the live presentation? If it is, then what was that medium we watched in the early 1950s?

Yes, a car is still a car, even though what we drive now is vastly more sophisticated than what someone drove in the early 1900s. But the experience of driving was still the same. I'm not convinced that what we do with a television is the same thing that the early viewers did; we don't even turn it on and off the same way.

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