How do you watch TV? Now, I don’t mean in the physical sense because for the vast majority of us the answer is still, thankfully, with our butts firmly planted on our living room sofas.
Perhaps the better question would be: How do you watch your favorite TV shows? I’m old enough to remember a time when there was only one answer to that question. You watched those shows at the precise scheduled time when your local television stations broadcast them over the air.
And if you missed an episode because the president had something important to say or if you went and did something crazy like go outside then your only hope was to pray for reruns or wait for syndication.
Things didn’t really change all that much until VCR’s with built-in timers came along and freed us from the constraints of network scheduling.
This was a boon for those of us who loved our TV shows but also wanted to have some semblance of a life. I guarantee somewhere in our house my wife and I have a box of old VHS tapes packed with episodes of “The X-Files” and “Dawson’s Creek.”
Now the possibilities seem endless. Sure you can still watch TV shows the old-fashioned way as they are broadcast live, but you can also record them on a DVR and watch them later, or download them from the Internet, or watch them on-demand over digital cable or satellite service.
Or if you are the patient type, you can just wait for the show to be released on DVD and binge-watch an entire season in one marathon setting. Warning: possible side effects from emersion-watching can be nausea (“Dexter”), paranoid delusions (“Lost”), and unwanted accents (Fuggedaboutit! I’ll watch as many episodes of “Da Sopranos” as I want! Capisce!)
But while the myriad of ways we are consuming television seems to be evolving daily with each new technological innovation, what may be even more interesting is the effect all of this is having on the content of what we watch.
TV shows used to not change very much. There were hardly ever any season-long story lines and any problems were resolved in the span of 30 minutes for comedy and an hour for drama, and by the end of each episode, everything was pretty much back to the way it was before it started. This way if a viewer ever missed a show they could pick right back up again without missing a beat.
But as technology changed any and all creative restraints were lifted from television. Shows on cable were no longer restrained by timeslots or the standards and practices of the FCC that governed content.
Network shows became bolder as well, practically demanding viewers to watch every episode. If you missed three episodes of “Charlie’s Angels” you probably wouldn’t even notice, but if you missed three episodes of “24” you would literally have no idea what was going on. “Why is Jack torturing the president?!?!”
Just this month the online movie service Netflix changed the game again by releasing all 13 episodes of the first season of its new political drama “House of Cards” on the same day. For the first time, the viewer is entirely in control of when, where and how they watch a new show.
It is hard to argue that all of these advances haven’t improved the quality of scripted television. The past 10 years have been dubbed television’s second golden age and with good reason.
The question then becomes what, if anything, have we lost? Long gone are the days of television being a national, communal event. Viewership is so fractured that we will never again see a staggering 125 million people tune in to a single episode of a show like they did with the final episode of “MAS*H.”
It’s also really hard to talk about a series with other people because even if they are watching it they may not be at the same place you are. Not peppering your conversations with the phrase “spoiler alert” has become a breach of etiquette on par with breaking wind in a crowded elevator.
In a lot of ways talking about television has become an awful lot like talking about movies; either you’ve seen it all or you haven’t and there’s no use bringing it up unless you are prepared to talk about the whole thing.
I suppose I could also use this space to lament how the shifting television landscape has killed off entire breeds of programming like variety shows and great anthology series like “The Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” But the truth is, they were dead long before the VCR was even invented.
If anything, television consumption has become more personal, sacrificing a community experience for greater freedom and higher quality.
If you are still unsure how to feel about all this just turn the channel to CBS, a risk-free zone where the laugh tracks and procedurals are plentiful enough to make you think the ’70s never ended. Then you can better decide if TV has changed for the better or the worse.