How we view TV has changed

Is it better or worse?

When was the last time this happened in your house?

It all started with Friends. I only began watching it in Season 4. I used to watch it on Channel 4 on a Friday night. My folks weren’t interested in my sitcom tendencies so I’d take my takeaway and treats up to the TV in their room (I never had a TV in my room). Friends, Frasier, Spin City, Eurotrash. And for a time TV Offal. (Does anyone else remember TV Offal?) That was my Friday night.

But I wanted to go back to catch up on Friends. So I went to the library to rent the VHS copies.

I went to the library to rent the VHS copies.

There is nothing about that sentence that doesn’t age me horribly, is there?

Anyway. The Friends videos were notable in that, after the first episode of each tape, they cut the opening credits. Since the episodes continued over the end credits, it was essentially 88 minutes of non stop entertainment, with no fastforwarding required. It was the first step towards the locust-like way I consume TV now.

I have lost track of the number of TV shows that I lost touch with simply because of scheduling. The Sopranos. The X-Files. South Park. The list goes on. I stopped watching, not because I stopped enjoying, but because the scheduling was erratic and I missed key episodes. Without +1 channels, or iPlayer, or 4OD, or a comprehensive Internet, it was nigh on impossible to catch up.

We watched TV when we had to. We watched it together, and we watched it in greater numbers. Millions would watch the same programme because there were fewer channels available. I grew up with four channels and then, eventually, five. Though that fifth channel had terrible reception, and poor choices. (Though as a teenager I appreciated their late night selections…)

But gradually, we have changed how we watch TV. That first step, watching Friends on video, has blossomed into how we all watch TV. Programmes like The Sopranos (ironically, since I missed so many episodes) lent themselves to watching several together. Chainwatching, as I call it. +1 channels meant we could catch up more easily. iPlayer removed the need to watch it there and then. (Though of course VHS recorders did that long before, albeit in a more limited “record one, watch one” way.)

The DVD boxset meant that we could chainwatch to a more considerable degree. We are not limited to four episodes at a time, rented from the library week by week. Instead we can watch it all. With Freeview, the choice of channels grew massively. Suddenly fewer people were watching more programmes.

But it has never felt like that.

We always talk about programmes with people. People around us. We go to school, or uni, or work, and we talk about our shared TV viewing. That big surprise from last night’s episode. But the channels have increased, and the choice has increased, and fewer people watch each programme. But we still talk about these things, because the group of people we share them with has increased at the same time.

We don’t necessarily find people at school, or uni, or work, who watch exactly the same things as us. There are the big shows — Doctor Who, The X Factor — that seem to unite more. But it’s the Internet that has increased that pool of people.

I’m telling this story, not over a coffee at work, but to people I share my online life with on Twitter, or on Facebook, and others who unfortunately stumble upon this nascent blog.

We can watch more, we can watch what we want, and we can talk about it with thousands of others across the world. We’re not slave to geography or programming. Netflix is the last chapter in this tale so far. Not only do we get the DVD boxset of shows already aired. Now we get shows like Orange is the New Black or House of Cards delivered a season at a time, all at once. We no longer have to wait week by week. And that’s changing how TV is made.

In all this chaos, all this choice, it’s reassuring to know that we still share. It’s easy to imagine that we retreat into our own viewing habits, emerging only for air and sustenance. But we splurge, and we chainwatch, and we consume more often at our own pace, at our own convenience. We watch less together, but we still share, and we still connect.

I think that’s pretty great.

Is it another Golden Age? It’s hard to compare when the essence has changed so much. What do you think?

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