Lamenting the lonely modern TV-viewing experience

     (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

    (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

    On my very first night as a college instructor in 2010 — 20 years into a TV career that those who recruited me to the position said gave me, as a non-academic, something to teach — it took me all of one conversation with a student to realize I had much more to learn. At least about The Way Things Are Now.

    The student introduced himself and, given my background, asked my opinion of a then-brand-new TV show. I told him that I’d yet to see it but that it was on my list to watch.

    “Remind me when it’s on again?” I said, reflexively. The student cocked his head, a look of confusion on his face.

    “‘When’s it on’?” he repeated, with incredulity. “No offense, professor, but it’s on when I turn it on.”

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    Lesson #1: Times had changed.

    An industry tries to adjust

    This past summer at the Television Critics Association Press Tour, the twice-a-year gathering in Los Angeles of those who write about the business and those who run it, the zeitgeist-y headline was borne of that change: More and more viewers are watching TV on their own terms and in more and different ways — delayed, streamed, binged. All things video-on-demand. Shows are on when we turn them on. The result is that the once-reliable day-after-air ratings system, the basis for all that Madison Avenue advertising revenue that fuels the industry, isn’t so reliable anymore.

    It’s not exactly news: The industry has been watching the threat of time-shifted viewing circle for years. In 2006, one of the reasons I left my CBS job in what’s known as the scheduling department (charged with placing programming in the best and/or most appropriate time slots), was due to the diminishing relevance of the department itself. But the intensity of the chatter has increased in the past year as streaming options, and the content and environment they yield, have.

    There’s little doubt anymore: It’s a Netflix world.

    So, now, with a new TV season in high gear, viewer measurement is all the talk. The industry is hurriedly trying to recalibrate the way it translates people into dollars, mindful of those who choose to watch last Monday’s episode of 2 Broke Girls (and its commercials) next Thursday instead. The industry is acutely aware of the state of mind behind an exchange with another student just last week when I mentioned a newly announced TV project, and rather than ask “When does it start?” he asked “When does it come out?”

    “Come out,” as in released. Like a CD. (Remember those?) So that he can enjoy it when he buys it.

    Alone in a crowd

    What isn’t all the talk as the TV experience changes, however, is the TV experience itself.

    These days, certainly for an emerging generation and presumably for all future ones, it’s often alone. On laptops or smartphones or various other monitors that serve as de facto entertainment vending machines. Viewing options made to order. Take-out TV. For one.

    Which is too bad. Because when it comes to television, I miss the sitting down at the table together.

    No doubt such a confession courts a collective Millennial eye-roll, but I don’t mind saying that I feel a bit of sadness and loss over a mass-media business that seems to be moving on without the mass part. For as long as TV’s been around (75 years now, give or take), it’s pivoted on a viewing collective. A shared experience. Even the less-than-successful programming through the years spoke to millions of people simultaneously. Creating community. And the hits? From the I Love Lucys and All in the Familys to the Friends and ERs and even Survivors of a short 10 years ago? Well, they could bind and rivet an entire nation. Little Ricky’s birth, Dr. Mark Greene’s death, Sue Hawk’s tribal-council smackdown of winner Richard Hatch — we went through it together. We took in the same words and images and thoughts and feelings at the same time. And as a result we shared a few of our own when they were over. Ideas were exchanged. We connected.

    Is TV doing much of that anymore?

    Some would say that evolving past the point where the national consciousness hinges on discussing Fonzie’s library card or Ross and Rachel’s romance is hardly something to mourn. Do we really need to talk about TV?, they’d ask. But the need, for me anyway, is about the connection, not the content. The being in it and talking about it as it happens. The warming of collective hands around a national electronic campfire.

    Today that campfire for many is a hotspot for one.

    Sure: TV can still unite. A downed airliner or a deadly viral outbreak here, a Super Bowl or a Breaking Bad finale there. But these are fewer and farther between, aren’t they? Today we retreat and binge. We have private experiences. We withdraw. Electronically, socially, personally. Where does it end?

    This past summer, our Facebook pages were treated to scores of images that commemorated the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, from a day in July of 1969 when the world watched together as history was made. A day when, in living rooms and offices and at department-store windows and bars around the globe, we watched as a society advanced. We connected. We shared a moment and the feeling that came with it. Those still around last July could touch that memory of both.

    It’s not everyday that man sets foot on the moon. And were it to happen today perhaps another 600,000,000 people would gather to watch it together, just like then.

    Still, looking at the photos, I couldn’t help but think of the student I encountered on my first night of teaching, the then-20-year-old who seemed to represent both my first class and his entire generation.

    I wondered if the moon landing would only be on when he turned it on.

    Jim McKairnes is the Verizon Chair in Global Broadband and Telecommunications at Temple University’s School of Media and Communication. McKairnes, who graduated from Temple in 1982 with a journalism degree, is a 23-year veteran of the television industry, including 15 years at CBS.

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