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television (no longer) set
how tv watching is more, and less, than it used to be
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)
9.4.09
television


Once upon a time, you either owned a television or you didn't.

If you owned a TV, you were a TV watcher. If you didn't, it was because you either couldn't afford it, or didn't care. There were people who were adamant, proud, deliberate objectors to TV, and those people, well, didn't own TVs. The rest of us had them, and used them to varying degrees. If we didn't have pay cable and we were desperate to see something, like "Sex and the City", we'd gather somehow, and make it happen. But whether the TV was ours or someone else's, the TV set itself was key. You wanted to watch TV, you figured out how to get yourself in front of a TV to do it.

And now you can watch just as much TV without a TV as you can with one. More, even.

Once upon a time you watched TV when it happened. Now, the idea of a specific episode of a specific show "happening" at a specific time is getting more and more obsolete. Do you know anyone who actually watched the first season of "Mad Men" as it aired on AMC? (More likely, your friends who watch "Mad Men" don't even know it's on AMC. And you've also got friends who've never seen the show at all, but are going to dress as Don and Betty Draper for Halloween.) I know more people who started watching Season One of "True Blood" last month than I did back when it originally aired. When a show happens, it's just a show. There are a lot of them. We can't watch them all. But later, the word spreads. The DVDs of a certain season hit Netflix, and suddenly everyone I know is watching. TV is a contagion. In a good way, of course.

Me? I don't have a TV right now. And that has less of an effect on my TV viewing than you might think.

Granted, yes, I feel a little left out. I absolutely adore "Top Chef", but since I can't watch it live, I'm not watching. Bravo will have approximately 83 marathons in the next month anyway, so whenever I decide to get back to it, I'll catch up. Does that diminish my experience in some way? Sure. Instead of the real office water cooler, we now have the 93,427 mini-coolers all over the internet, where people who watch the shows we watch get together and talk about said shows, expressing their pleasure, outrage, satisfaction, sadness, etc. (Much more outrage than anything else if it's a reality show, unless the show in question is "So You Think You Can Dance", in which case each week's discussion is equal parts outrage and BDLY SPLLED ALLCAPS SKREEMING about some dancer or another who is that viewer's FAVE 4EVA.) And I do miss that. I miss the sense of following along with something as it happens, letting the expectation build over the course of the week and sitting down to that much-anticipated show, whether it's an episode of "Project Runway" or "Friday Night Lights".

On the other hand, I don't have much to complain about, because there's So Much Television to choose from that doesn't require a television at all. On DVD, I'm watching Season One of "In Treatment". (Such a writer's show, this series of half-hour scenes that take place on a single set, seventy-five percent of which consist of absolutely nothing but two people talking. The other twenty-five percent? Three people.) On Hulu, I'm watching "Better Off Ted". I used YouTube to finish watching the highlights from the last few episodes of the summer season of "So You Think You Can Dance," and if I changed my mind about watching the most recent episode of "Top Chef", I could snag that at the Bravo site. And in addition to the discs from Netflix, they also offer a number of shows on Instant Viewing, so I just wrapped up Season Two of "Weeds", but Season Three is on disc only, so for the moment I've switched over to Season Five of "CSI: NY" which, sadly, is kind of weak so far. But I still appreciate the fact that it's there. And on the Netflix site alone I could watch that, or recent episodes of "No Reservations" or "Man Vs. Food", or entire seasons of "The L Word" or all those Britcoms they used to show on PBS, or a nearly endless parade of options. And I know a certain fan of "30 Rock" who, when the streaming episodes on Netflix and the shifting selection on Hulu ran out, was perfectly happy to pay $1.99 per episode from iTunes. It's out there if you want it, America.

And some shows are just better in rapid succession. Having watched the first couple seasons of "Battlestar Galactica" on DVD, I found I didn't enjoy the third season nearly as much when I had to wait a week between episodes. Part of the issue was that I had time to process and discuss and wonder what happened, and I'd usually come up with an idea for What Happens Next, and then I saw the actual episode, and I liked what I'd come up with better than what the show actually did. (Not because the writing was bad, which it wasn't, at least not that season, but because you know who does a great job of coming up with things I'm going to like? Me.) There's something about having Just One More Episode at your fingertips that draws you in, gets you hooked, keeps you watching.

Honestly, if it weren't for the new season of "The Amazing Race" coming up at the end of the month, I think I could get by without a television forever, which is quite a realization for someone who generally cannot go more than 48 hours without watching some kind of TV program, in whatever form.

But that social dimension, the water cooler effect I referenced earlier, isn't that easy to ignore. Watching a show in isolation, all you have is the show. Watching it with others? You have a lot more. You can talk about whether admen in the 1960s really behaved like that. You can hash out the finer points of English history with people who know what Anne Boleyn really wore, which seriously wasn't what you saw on "The Tudors". You can exchange clues and try to puzzle out what happened on "Lost" or "Heroes", if you still care about "Lost" or "Heroes", and you can breathe a sigh of relief along with someone else when talent wins out over "personality" in the final judgment at the end of a "Top Chef" ep.

Now if you'll excuse me, they're streaming Season Two episodes of "Leverage" on the Netflix site only a day after they appear on TNT, so I've got "The Iceman Job" to watch. So I can talk about it with my fellow "Leverage"-watching friends. Because Hardison and Parker are utterly hilarious, but if you can repeat their jokes to someone else who knows what the heck you're talking about, they're even funnier.

I saw a horse kill a clown once.

See?


ABOUT JAEL MCHENRY

Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry

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COMMENTS

katherine (aka clevertitania)
9.4.09 @ 9:33a

And to think you only discussed the 100% legal ways to watch TV online. :)

Also, I think my favorite quote this season is...

I'm not at liberty to discuss that with you Parker.

jael mchenry
9.4.09 @ 11:15a

Heh. The Tube is probably not 100% legal, but you're right, there's that whole other BitTorrent segment to consider.

Hardison: "I'd like to see you do an accent."
Elliot: "I'd like to see YOU do an accent!"

adam kraemer
9.4.09 @ 12:59p

I've found ever since getting my DVR that I have no idea what night shows actually air. Heck, I spent four years working at a job where we were paid nightly to watch television, and I still had no idea what night anything was on. Okay, I know when Monday Night Football is on.

My big issue is that I really don't feel like sitting at my computer for hours at a time. I'm sure that's not relevant if you own a laptop, but it's a dealbreaker for me.

jon rossum
9.4.09 @ 1:13p

Yes!!! Iowa! representing.

michelle von euw
9.5.09 @ 8:48a

It sounds like you've got your shows covered, but "Party Down" is on Instant Netflix, and it's fun to watch, even if just for all the Rob Thomas Players cameos.

And I'm with Adam -- I have no idea when TV shows are on, except when I'm setting new season passes, and there's a three-show conflict.

sandra thompson
9.6.09 @ 8:41a

I don't fancy any of the "reality" shows, including cooking, dancing, runway walking or big brothering. I will tell you this: I only watched an occasional episode of "The Wire," when it was actually being aired by HBO, but I spent my government stimulus money this year on the full set of DVDs of all of it, and sat and watched it from beginning to end, usually three episodes at a time. It was almost overwhelming. Now my grandson and I can discuss "the best TV show ever made anywhere in the galaxy."

I became so emotionally involved with those characters that I was actually aggrieved when Stringer bought the farm, and I was so proud of Bubbles! I did not want it to end. I still don't.

I watch most TV the "next day" on DVR because of my proclivity to fall asleep if there's something I really want to watch. With PBS, HBO and Comedy Central I can usually record everything I want at different times if there are three things on at the same time. Mostly it works out better for me to do it that way. I can fast forward through the commercials, for one thing.

maigen thomas
9.6.09 @ 10:35p

I do love the Netflix now. I'm hooked. I don't even receive the DVDs, since I don't have an address of my own - I just have them mailed to my parents and pick movies I think they'll enjoy. The rest of the time, I have wifi and can watch nearly anything I like.

I totally cheat, though, since I get to utilize the DVDs when the boyfriend gets them - so I request things I can't stream, like Weeds Season 4 and Mystery Science Theatre.

Technology rocks.

jael mchenry
9.8.09 @ 1:46p

Aw yeah. The rocking. 'chelle, thanks for the tip on Party Down... it really is a full complement of The Rob Thomas Players, isn't it? I'm only 2 eps in but it's been a VM reunion so far.

Sandra, one of these days I'll get around to watching The Wire from the beginning... I've seen a ep here and there but it's the kind of show that requires and rewards beginning-to-end focused viewing.

joe redden tigan
9.17.09 @ 3:41a

i have a friend that has tivo. which, it's perfect for a show called the big break on the golf channel. other than that, the best experience i ever had with alternative tv was when we got uhf and could see speed racer and ultra man. not that long ago, really, as i drink about it now.

robert enns
9.20.09 @ 11:43p

Robert A. Enns
I really didn't think I would but something has decided for me to put my two-bits in. T.V is all well and good and everything yet there is so much more as a people that we could divest in that just vegging out watching TV. Like I said its good in its place personally when I watch like watching movies those are my faves. Yet personally it means so much more to me and I have so much more fun doing it and that is doing anything that takes concentration I know what I like to do for that but there is a huge list of things to do better than watch TV, and sure if you have worked all day you feel like resting and just being entertained. Yet even when I was working and there were no comps I literally loved to read and thats what I did, I loved it. I was relaxing but my mind was so far away from the hear and now that I was in a dream world. Well I guess the same thing happens with TV but talking about reading it just took my intelligence and full imagination to really get into it so I was also was really learning. Not that I am against TV I have one I used to have two but I just never cared to watch much, but now and then I really like a good adventure or spine tingling movie there's nothing wrong with that just to many people vege out in front of it for hours on end and where does it take you - to the fridge lol.
Robert

jael mchenry
9.23.09 @ 11:52a

There's definitely good and bad TV, just like there are good and bad books, and either one can either give you mindless entertainment or food for thought. Fiction is what you make of it.

My new TV-not-on-TV addiction: Jericho. Amazing cast, great writing, I'm loving it. During the third episode I said to myself, "The only way I could love this show more is if Christopher Wiehl were on it," and then bang, next episode, Chris Wiehl shows up. w00t!

On Netflix instant viewing til October 23, DVD whenever. I had no interest in it when it was originally on in 2006, but now it reminds me of "Lost" before the island got overpopulated, and early-stage BSG.



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