When I was in high school, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was my saving grace. My entire week revolved around it. Tuesday was the day new episodes aired, so of course that was my favorite day. But Wednesday was a great day too, spent pondering the twists and turns of the last night’s episode.
For many of us, high school is a rough time. Everything is changing and you feel awkward as hell, and despite feeling so adrift at that time, new episodes of Buffy every week often felt like a life raft in a sea of hormones and relentless acne outbreaks.
This kind of weekly dependence is pretty rare today – except for the endangered species of individuals who are hanging on to cable. If I had discovered Buffy today, I would have binged through the entire 7 seasons in a few months and never would have developed the same kind of relationship with the show that sustained me through those trying years.
We consume television with increasing abandon, barely taking a breather before we swallow down another season. This fast and frenzied media feasting leaves no time for discussion or dissection.
Surprisingly, the solution may be found in more screens – second screen apps specifically, which are beginning to breathe life back into the social aspect of television viewing.
The change in how we consume media can be witnessed simply in the advertisements of the era. In the 50s, magazine pages show entire families clustered around the television to partake in some family-friendly programming like I Love Lucy or Lassie.
Today’s cable and internet ads show families loitering around the house, each connected to their own screen and their own show – Mom’s watching This Is Us on the television, Dad’s watching Ice Road Truckers on the iPad, Katrina’s tuned in to Teen Wolf on her iPhone, and little Timmy’s watching The Walking Dead (which his parents certainly are not aware of yet) on the iPod touch since his parents refuse to buy him a smartphone.
Of course it doesn’t just end with devices – our viewing habits are disjointed by time as well. New seasons of shows “drop” on Netflix like records, leaving hungry viewers to binge their hearts out. One of the earliest examples of this phenomenon was in 2013 when Netflix released the long-awaited season 4 of Arrested Development, with 10% of viewers watching the entire season within the first 24 hours it was released (I talk more about this phenomenon here)!
This kind of behavior has become common now, and with good reason – nothing feels quite so deliciously indulgent as spending a rainy weekend in pajamas, watching a 6th episode of Breaking Bad while asking your roommate “so…just one more?” despite you both knowing that they’ll be at least 3 “just one more-s” and in another minute you’ll be ordering Thai from that restaurant down the street, paying an exorbitant delivery charge so that you won’t have to change into real clothes and walk 5 blocks.
So yes, there’s a lot of fun in consuming media this way. However, a lot is lost too.
Remember how earlier I said that in high school I spent every Wednesday thinking about the previous night’s episode of Buffy?
In replaying my favorite scenes and highlights in my head, I’d also ponder what might happen next week, imagining what fallout might take place as a result of the previous episode’s plot points. I’d create tons of different scenarios and play them out in my mind. Some of my ideas I’d love so much that I’d be disappointed when my theories didn’t pan out the following Tuesday.
Now more than ever, we are witnessing some pretty powerful television shows. Shows that really explore complex, sophisticated topics – whether its concerning how a good man becomes evil, the survival of the human spirit against all odds, or what love and romance looks like in the 21st century.
However, we aren’t able to give these shows and the high-level issues they tackle the respect and thought they deserve when we’re devouring them like Peeps found at the CVS clearance rack the day after Easter.
Giving episodes time to breathe allows the shows’ concepts – and their meanings – to roll around a bit more in our minds, like a good wine in our mouths.
That standard week-between-episodes format allowed time for us to really consider what a show’s episode was trying to say, and let us play the role of co-creators as we imagine what the next steps’ for our characters may be.
Many of us aren’t equipped with the imagination muscles needed to create an entire world on our own, but when show runners craft an interesting world for viewers, a lot of the heavy lifting is done for us. Allowing for a week between episodes let us fill in some lines and brush strokes here and there – a bit like imagination baby steps.
When each episode is spoon-fed one after the other, there’s little room for us to flesh out own storylines.
However, this role of playing a co-creator isn’t the only pleasure lost in a TV-binging society. We’ve sacrificed a considerable amount of social value as well.
To return again to my Buffy days, I wasn’t alone in my vampire-slaying daydreams. My friends loved the show too, and we’d spend many afternoons discussing character arcs and arguing who was a better boyfriend for Buffy – bad boy Spike or tortured, brooding Angel (everyone agreed Riley was the worst).
Shows continued to be a bonding tool – finding others in college who loved Nickelodeon’s Avatar The Last Airbender (which at the ripe age of 19 I was understandably self-conscious about enjoying) resulted in me inviting other students over to my dorm room to watch new episodes and foster new friendships.
Here’s the thing – these opportunities for bonding wouldn’t happen today, because, even as fans of the same show, I might be on season 2 while another individual is on season 5.
This has affected water cooler talk as well. Every now and then you may hear a coworker slyly ask, “so, did anyone see last night’s episode of The Walking Dead?” only to quickly hear that familiar response “Don’t say anything - I haven’t seen it yet!”
Sure, this kind of behavior isn’t new with the advent of stream-when-you-want services (oh VCR, have we forgotten you so soon?), but I’d argue it’s certainly more common now. No one rushes home early from drinks out to catch the latest episode of iZombie – you’ll just catch it a few days later on Hulu (and yes – it’s a great show and yes – you should check it out)!
It’s rare to catch someone on the same TV timeline as you, and one weekend of binging can quickly stagger your trajectory. There are a few shows that manage to overcome this – shows like Game of Thrones where spoilers are so prevalent that viewers will watch an episode as soon as possible to avoid having character kill-offs ruined for them by blurting friends, coworkers, or tweeters.
Despite the danger Twitter and other social media outlets pose to those desperate to avoid spoilers, it’s channels like these that offer some hope of regaining the social ties of television.
While it can be hard to catch real-life friends and individuals who are watching the same shows as us at the same time, online they are plentiful! Watching The Americans now, I’ll often finish up an episode by searching for The AV Club’s review and recap, followed by browsing the TV series discussion threads on sites like Reddit (sure, these discussion threads are a few years old, but they’re fresh and new to me and the episode I just watched).
The prevalence of 2nd screens and mobile apps has introduced an entirely new social aspect, with viewers live-tweeting during new episodes of their favorite shows.
Reality drama shows are especially ripe for this kind of behavior – watching episodes of The Bachelor becomes so much more fun when simultaneously browsing through hilariously biting tweets.
Many individuals treat their smartphones like an extra limb, so it’s no surprise that second screen commentary has become so common.
Some shows even encourage the dialogue, adding hashtags to the bottom of the screen and offering Facebook Live exclusive interviews, etc.
Facebook has rumors running around that they’ll soon be releasing their own Roku/Amazon Fire-styled set-top box, complete with a picture-and-picture feature that will allow viewers to scroll through their news feeds while watching shows.
TV-based social apps like Beamly allow fans of the same show to join chat rooms, engage in live votes, and discuss episodes as the unfold.
Smartphones and corresponding apps have proven themselves to be valuable in reclaiming television’s social capital.
As more media-based apps learn to take advantage of second screen viewing, I’m confident we’ll see even more new and creative ways to win back some of that water cooler talk!
How have your television viewing habits changed with the popularity of smartphones? Share your thoughts in the comments!
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