Goodnight, Television?

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Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

We’re still some distance from a world where online streaming of content can truly challenge the dominance of television, but recent figures suggest that the number of households in the U.S. with at least one television actually fell in 2011. Are we finally seeing the long-awaited beginning of “cord-cutting”? And if so, what are people cutting their cords in favor of?

I have to admit that I’ve long felt that the myth of “cord-cutting” was just that: a myth, and nothing more. But looking at Neilsen’s 2011 State of the Media Consumer Usage Report, one figure jumps out as particularly interesting: 114.7 million homes in the U.S. have at least one television, down from the 115.9 million reported by the company last year. Ignoring the first question that comes to mind (what happened to all those televisions?), there’s an obvious follow-up: Why is that drop there in the first place? What are people doing instead of watching TV?

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For all of you who may have come up with suggestions like “Getting out of the house,” “Catching up on their reading” or “Talking to their friends, family or other loved ones,” I applaud your faith in human nature, but the figures suggest that the reality is somewhat less utopian.

After all, we already know that people watched two billion hours of Netflix streaming content in the last quarter of 2011 alone — a new record for the company. That was far from the only increase in television alternatives last year: according to recently-released figures, overall video-on-demand rentals rose 7% in 2011, and digital download sales also went up around 9%.

More impressively, perhaps, Hulu announced 60% growth in 2011, with Hulu Plus pushing past its target of 1.5 million paid subscribers and expected to account for more than half of the company’s business by the end of 2012.

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The competition for potential eyeballs extends beyond streaming content, of course; Blu-ray sales were up by 35% last year as well (although DVD sales dropped around 20% and home video spending as a whole dropped 2% last year). Mail-order rental spending rose 4% and kiosk rental spending rose 31%. With these kinds of figures, it seems like no surprise that people are getting rid of their televisions; why should they have one, when so much material is available on their laptops or portable Blu-ray players?

It’s also no surprise, when you consider the smorgasbord of other entertainment options available, that time-shifted TV viewing has risen in the last year. It’s up 11% according to Nielsen, to an average of 2 hours and 21 minutes a week. Oddly enough, when broken into age groups, the all-important 18-24 demographic is watching more television live than any other age group, with the exception of the 12-17 demo — and even then the difference is only one minute.

Television networks are beginning to expand their own part in the dismantling of television viewing as well. In addition to streaming episodes of shows online via their websites or Hulu, networks like ABC and NBC have launched their own mobile apps to ensure a decreased importance for television as an object or destination.

Of course, the end of television is still quite some distance away just yet. Nielsen estimates that television has somewhere in the region of 288 million viewers in the U.S. alone, compared with just less than half that number (143 million) on the internet. Time-shifted television, which includes online sources like Hulu and network sites as well as DVRs and the like, has somewhere around 111 million viewers. People may be getting rid of their television sets in favor of other ways of entertaining themselves, but it’s going to be some time before television really has to start worrying about its inevitable demise.

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Graeme McMillan is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Graemem or on Facebook at Facebook/Graeme.McMillan. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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