So there's a reading gadget and a reading gadget with Angry Birds Star Wars. Which do you pick? Well, you, cultured person that you are, would select the dedicated e-reader, of course, just like you would rather watch Frontline instead of Honey Boo Boo, or pick up Vanity Fair instead of Us Weekly on the checkout line. Or at least that's what the ideal version of yourself would do. But as Amazon and Barnes & Noble are quickly discovering this year, the highbrow ideal all too often gives way to the mass-market realities. Sales of the Kindle and especially the Nook fell this holiday season, despite lower prices than more fully functioning tablets, which are distinctly on the rise. And market researchers estimate that these divergent paths will continue — The Wall Street Journal reports that e-readers sales will be cut in half, from 14.9 million per year to just 7.8 million, by 2015. But the death of the e-reader has less to do with the iPad than what's inside of it: from tablets to TV shows and everything in between, the most high-minded of ideas for cultural consumption always seem to devolve toward mindless entertainment.
Take Bravo, the once completely enlightened — and completely failing — network that, like Arts & Entertainment and The Learning Channel before they became A&E and TLC, once devoted itself to being a slightly less boring knockoff of PBS. In 1985, five years after its founding, The New York Times's Steve Schneider described Bravo's success, measured then by its 350,000 subscribers, as follows:
What has kept things afloat for the past five years has been an evolving mix of cultural programming. Nowadays, a spokesman said, approximately 70 percent of the premium service's schedule is devoted to films, nearly all of which are either from abroad, from the fringes of American production or from times past. The remainder of the schedule is given over to the performing arts -jazz concerts, ballet, opera, modern dance and the like. From Woody Allen films to documentaries about Latin America to performances by the Pina Bausch dance troupe, the offerings range from the challenging to the downright esoteric.
All that changed when NBC bought Bravo in 2002 and gave it a makeover almost completely motivated by ratings. It started with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which in its first year delivered 3.3 million viewers per episode. Then came the much acclaimed era of Top Chef and Project Runway, which are still considered highbrow in their own way, but only in the context of their fellow reality shows like The Real Housewives. And let's face it: Bravo is pretty much all Housewives all the time. Well, that and a show about Silicon Valley that features no computer programming at all.
And remember The Learning Channel? It was founded by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, along with NASA. Really! Then in came Discovery as the new boss, and with it American Chopper and, eventually, TLC's Toddlers & Tiaras, which birthed Honey Boo Boo — not to mention major ratings. Arts & Entertainment has long been a corporate entity, but it gave way from highbrow post-Nickelodeon fare and devolved into, you know, Dog the Bounty Hunter and whatever Gene Simmons is up to these days.
It's all a little reminiscent of the days when Us magazine was actually a glossy movie magazine that Hollywood stars loved to pose for. The New York Times started it! Then came a partnership with Disney, and J.Lo, and on and on to the supermarket tabloid you now know as Us Weekly, one of the most successful print publications on Earth.
So, in the slowly dwindling technological world of the e-reader and its advanced brethren, Amazon's Kindle is like old-school TLC and the B&N Nook is maybe a little younger and cooler, like Bravo, but still failing; the iPad, however, has Here Comes Honey Boo Boo written all over it. Not that there's anything wrong with what Amazon and Barnes & Noble were trying to do — a small audience might enjoy a device that has novels and long biographies and maybe some newspapers and little more. But the majority of people these days want to spend their downtime with HBO Go and Netflix apps, with games and email and other ways to relax their entire brains... not just the fancy parts of it. With tablet prices falling to more affordable levels — Amazon sells a Kindle Fire for $159 and a Kindle Paperwhite for $119 — of course today's readers are going to choose the thing that helps them go beyond boring old reading. It might not have that easy-on-the eyes screen, but the majority of time spent on tablets isn't spent reading books but answering emails, reading the news (a shorter reading experience than an entire book), and playing games, according to Pew. Plus, the iPad has its own Kindle app, for those times when you do, after all, feel like indulging in something a bit more highbrow. Because people do, still read a lot of books. They just like doing everything else a lot more. If the death of the e-reader is nigh, maybe the age of the straight-and-narrow, undistracted smartypants isn't far from ending, either.