The experience of seeing movies is likely to conjure thoughts of going to a movie theater: the smell of popcorn at the concession stand, the friendly bustle of fellow moviegoers in the lobby, the collective anticipation as the auditorium lights dim, and the sensation of being enveloped by a world that exists, temporarily, in the theater's darkness. Anyone who enjoys movies has vivid memories of going out to see movies; the romance of the movie theater is crucial to the appeal of cinema. But what about all of the movies we experience by staying in? The truth is that most of us born since 1950 have watched many more movies at home, on the glowing cathode-ray tube of a television set, than on the silver screen of a movie theater.
It is not often recognized, but the family home has been the most common site of movie exhibition for more than half of the cinema's first century. In the United States this pattern began with the appearance of commercial broadcast television, starting with the debut of regular prime-time programming in 1948, and has grown with each new video technology capable of delivering entertainment to the home—cable, videocassette recorders (VCRs), direct broadcast satellites (DBS), DVD (digital video disc) players, and video-on-demand (VOD). Over much of this period, watching movies on TV represented a calculated tradeoff for consumers: television offered a cheap and convenient alternative to the movie theater at the cost of a diminished experience of the movie itself. With the introduction of high-definition (HDTV) television sets and high-fidelity audio in the 1990s, however, the humble TV set has grown to be the centerpiece of a new "home theater," which can offer a viewing experience superior in most ways to that of a typical suburban multiplex. In fact, with theaters desperate for additional income, going out to the movies now often involves sitting through a barrage of noisy, forgettable commercials for products aimed mostly at teenagers. In an odd twist, the only hope for avoiding commercials has become to stay in and watch movies on television.