TV On Our Own Terms
Once upon a time, in an age before TiVo and Netflix, colleagues would gather around the watercooler to chat about the previous night’s popular TV shows. The shared experience of critiquing the latest episodes was a social blessing–or for those unable to tune in, a recurring curse. Whether watched or discussed, TV shows were immoveable objects around which lives were expected to revolve. Over time, however, the opposite became true.
Today, the very questions we ask each other about televison have changed. As programs break free from their allotted timeslots and onto Hulu, iPhones and Xboxes, the question “did you watch _____?” has become “are you watching _____?” Fixed broadcast content is on its way out, with viewers instead watching shows whenever, wherever they want. Take AMC’s breakout hit Mad Men. Judging purely by its weekly viewership, one wouldn’t necessarily deem the show a tremendous success. And yet in the past six months it seems as if the Don Draper and his misogynist creatives are on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Did your friends watch last night’s episode of Mad Men? Not necessarily. But are they watching Mad Men? Damn right they are! Only now, it’s on their own terms, their own schedule, their own pace and their own devices.
As a result, weekly watercooler conversations have all but evaporated. Barring the Superbowl, the Oscars and certain major political events, today’s audience no longer experiences TV en masse. Unbound to a prescribed way of watching, viewers have turned online to discuss shows, where they can sort and sift through specifically what’s relevant to them. But god forbid they catch up to real-time! Fan websites, for instance, must now post “spoiler alerts” when discussing up-to-date episodes in order to prevent their readers from learning untimely plot points.
Our clever culture will no doubt adjust to these time-shifting technologies, but not without a heavy dose of nostalgic protest. “I remember when my friends used to watch the same shows, at the same time, and talk about them afterwards,” they’ll say. With any hope, the same technologies behind our liberation from broadcast TV will rekindle the faded joys of tuning in together.