Sometimes I feel sorry for our lonely, little big-screen TVs.
Not long ago, jumbo flat-screens were our BFFs, remember? They were beloved for their acres of high-definition pixels, adored for their arrays of surround-sound speakers, and hung lovingly in a place of honor above the mantel.
But much as the silver screens of American cinema gave way to console TVs in the 1950s, our family-room big screens — which grew from 32- to 50-plus vertical inches in a decade — are no longer objects of wonderment. Instead, we are in the midst of a regression from these flat-panel giants — first to lap-top computers, then to tablet computers, and finally to smartphones.
Oh, manufacturers continue to hawk large-screen TVs — they are now trying to hook us on the newest generation of high-definition 4K clarity. But if our middle-class family room is any measure, the big screen is just an overgrown appliance that supplies background noise while we all diddle away on our iPhones and iPads.
What we've lost in the process is a sense of community, the shared experience of watching television together. It's the difference between gathering as a family in front of a roaring fireplace or retreating to our own little spaces with our own little space heaters.
There's one big exception to this small-screen trend: live, televised sports. And nothing is more "live" to America television audiences than summer Olympics games staged in the Western Hemisphere. This year the Olympics are in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which is just one hour ahead of Eastern Daylight Time in the United States. When it's noon in Chattanooga, for example, it's 1 p.m. in Rio.
The upshot of this Olympics fortnight is that much of America is tuning in to watch events unfold in real time, a sort of shared screen experience that used to be common in pre-cable-TV America but now only seems to happen during Super Bowls and presidential debates. Consequently, much of America last week was simultaneously watching gymnast Simone Biles flip and Michael Phelps swim.
In my family, it was not unusual to hear somebody call out: "Hey, everybody, Michael Phelps is about to swim, you might want to get in here."
Sometimes, we'd shout even when we were only three feet apart. I get hoarse trying to communicate with my kids through their Beats headphones. I'll be having a conversation with one of our sons, only to have him lift an ear flap and say, "What?"
"Hey look, the women just scored a goal in soccer," I'll shout.
"What?" my older son will say, adjusting his headphones.
"A goal. We just scored a goal," I'll repeat.
"What did you say, Daddy?" my younger son will inject as he wrestles off his headset several seconds behind his brother.
By this time, not only is the play over, but so is the replay.
"Never mind," I'll huff.
Even though we are gathered in the same room watching TV, everyone in my family has their favorite Olympics sports. My wife likes gymnastics; my younger son is a soccer fan; my older son likes track and field; and my favorite Olympic sport is basketball. Women's soccer is the one sport that is most likely to get us to put away our devices and watch TV together.
Some day, watching the Olympics on big-screen television might seem like a quaint throwback to the early 21st century.
If you don't think viewing preferences can change that dramatically in a generation, think about this: Women's soccer wasn't even an Olympic sport until 1996.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6645.