The End of Television as We Know It

Film theorists have often discussed the idea that cinema “as we know it” is dead, transformed completely by digital production and distribution. In fact, I’ve discussed this idea once or twice myself. But I’m now wondering how to interpret the ways in which digital technologies have changed our experience of television. In particular, Sam Anderson’s Slate article, discussing his preference for watching HBO programs on DVD has sparked my interest. I tend to share this preference, although in my specific case, I think it has as much to do with a kind of “repetition compulsion,” a desire to repeat pleasurable experiences as much as anything else.

Because I didn’t have television reception for something like five years during graduate school, the only times I watched live TV would be in friends’ apartments or public places (bars, airports, waiting rooms). But as I was finishing my dissertation, I discovered the joys of watching TV on DVD, first through Buffy and later through HBO programs such as The Sopranos and Curb Your Enthusiasm. When I was finishing my dissertation, I would often work until 1 AM or later and then watch two or three Buffy episodes before falling asleep. Part of the pleasure for me was watching multiple episodes in sequence, even to the point that I would play through the opening and closing credits sequences for every episode I watched. The only drawback to this approach was waiting for a new season to appear on DVD, what Anderson refers to as “living in the gap,” the interstice between an episode’s premiere and its appearance on DVD. In part, this drawback is connected to a loss of cultural capital, being “out of touch” with the latest TV buzz.

But as Anderson argues, audiences are encoutering the end of simultaneity (or what some TV critics have described as “liveness“). To some extent, I think that Anderson overstates the end of “liveness.” Reality TV, in particular, is predictaed on its status as live, both in terms of the pressure for competitors to perform and in terms of the audience’s ability to participate in voting for their favorite competitors. And while sports fans will TiVo sporting events, I’d imagine there is still a strong preference to watch those events live. Still, I think it’s probably fair to say that TV is less commonly experienced “simultaneously” now than in even the recent past, and audiences are far more likely to discover shows on DVD or get caught up on zeitgeist shows, such as Lost, between seasons. Certainly the VCR enabled this kind of time-shifting by the early 1980s (my parents bought our VCR in 1984-5, just in time to videotape The Karate Kid when it aired on network TV), but DVD represents a significant intensification of this process.

6 Comments »

  1. girish Said,

    April 9, 2006 @ 11:28 am

    You make thought-provoking points, Chuck.

    After OD-ing on TV in the 90’s (I watched a lot, partly because I was new to the US and wide-eyed), I pulled the plug on TV service about four years ago and watched none “live.” Since then, I’ve kept with up with just a handful of series on DVD, but I watched those multiple times and have even acquired them rather than just renting them (Sports Night, Arrested Development, Curb). I discovered a show I liked through DVD, Veronica Mars, and have now (impatiently) waited for months for the second season to appear on DVD.

    “In part, this drawback is connected to a loss of cultural capital, being “out of touch” with the latest TV buzz.”
    Though I’ve been blissfully free of “withdrawal,” I feel a bit ambivalent about being out of touch, but going back to getting TV service seems too large of a step now. So, I will visit sites like, for example, Rich Juzwiak‘s blog, which provide satirical “re-creations.” They give me both a taste of TV and a sort of commentary on it simultaneously.

  2. girish Said,

    April 9, 2006 @ 11:33 am

    Still waking up–sorry for the typos!

  3. Chuck Said,

    April 9, 2006 @ 11:51 am

    Yeah, I managed to keep connected, primarily through “old media” like newspapers. Back when I was not watching TV, I followed Survivor through weekly Chicago Tribune columns. You Tube and other file sharing programs add an additional wrinkle. It may be rare to watch entire shows online, but certainly viral videos like that SNL video allow people to keep in touch to some extent.

    I’ve been meaning to watch Veronica Mars. You’re not the first person to recommend it. Depending on where I end up living next year, I will likely get some version of cable TV.

  4. Jonathan Said,

    April 9, 2006 @ 2:26 pm

    I too was without television for a long time and then started watching Buffy on DVD. Then came The Sopranos, Angel, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Sealab 2021, Lost, and now Deadwood, the first season of which I’m finding just outstanding. I’ve never watched Six Feet Under or The Wire. All of the above is good stuff, however.

  5. Chuck Said,

    April 10, 2006 @ 4:20 pm

    I’ve been meaning to check out Lost and Deadwood. Maybe I’ll do that this summer. But given where I’ll be living next year (details forthcoming), I’m now certain that I’ll get cable TV.

  6. Jason Said,

    April 10, 2006 @ 5:13 pm

    We’re watching more and more on DVD rather than during the regular season. Like girish, L & I have been anticipating Veronica Mars Season 2 for a while now, even though it’s still playing through the regular season on tv. Having encountered Lost through DVD first, watching the second season on TV has been almost unbearable, with the endless commercial breaks that leave us with the impression that we’ve seen more commercials than show.

    Oddly, L and I first developed this habit of watching several shows in a row *not* through DVDs, but because F/X had Buffy episodes on 2 or 3 in a row while we were studying for our PhD orals. We would study for hours, then make (or more likely order) food and binge on Buffy before turning back to the books.

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