The best television is the television you watch together. Growing up, I’d look forward to watching “The Wonder Years” and “The Cosby Show” not only because of the great characters and stories, but also because it was a family activity.
After college, I began to watch with roommates, and I discovered that the main pleasure of reality television has been the license to yell at the screen with other people. I’ve yelled at contestants on shows from “Survivor” to “American Idol” to more obscure fare, such as Spike TV’s underrated experiment “The Joe Schmo Show.” My roommates yell at me, I yell back at them, and we all yell at Richard Hatch or Paula Abdul or Gladys Knight on the fascinating, short-lived “American Idol” ripoff “American Juniors” (don’t ask). It’s fantastic. I recently moved in with my brother, and we’ve discovered a mutual love for shows such as “Kid Nation,” “Project Runway” and “Brothers & Sisters,” which is a scripted show, but I can’t stop yelling at Holly. I’m not sure brother appreciates it, but I appreciate that he’s listening to me.
But too much of the time I’ve found myself watching TV alone. I like shows that my roommates and my brother don’t, which is unavoidable.
This time of year is collective television viewing season. We have the Super Bowl, when collective television viewing becomes a national holiday. And we have the Oscars and Oscar parties. This year we have the election, and I’ve attended debate-watching parties and even a California primary results gathering. But other than that, aside from sporting events — and cases in which one friend has HBO and the other other doesn’t — there aren’t many other times when large numbers of people gather around a TV.
The problem goes beyond television. The act of watching a piece of entertainment with other people appears to be dying in various ways. Instead of going to the movies, people are watching DVDs and Internet downloads. Theater, classical music and dance are heavily subsidized and always fearful of dying out. Dane Cook aside, standup comedy has passed its heyday.
Individual acts such as reading blogs and listening to podcasts have filled the void. As we walk down Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, we try not to let the street performers distract us from our iPods or cell phone conversations.
Yes, sometimes we gather around a computer to watch a YouTube clip, but, more likely, a friend has sent it to us over email, and we save it to watch at a time when we hope our boss doesn’t walk by. It has come to this: we are actively aspiring to watch TV alone.
Television addicts suffer more than most. Music is now, more and more, experienced on the street, on the subway or at the gym, but there are still concerts. Theater geeks have live theater, however expensive it might be. And millions still go to the movies every week. But while television lovers can list their favorite shows in their Facebook profiles, that hardly substitutes for a conversation about an episode. Some have the water cooler, but that sure doesn’t help the growing number of telecommuters. Traditionally, even private viewing of television shows has seemed somewhat collective in that everyone across the country is watching it at the exact same time — an advantage that the television has over almost every other media. But even that aspect of its collectivity has been eroded by the DVR.
In my view, the television-watching experience suffers becase while the medim is undeniably private, since it’s built and priced to fit in your house, that does not mean that its content is most enjoyable when consumed privately. Why should droves of people gather to watch a mediocre action movie, while very few get together to watch “Lost”? This contradiction is especially true today, as many critics and writers have noted that we’re living in a golden age of television. Television critics have headaches trying to figure out what to leave off their year-end top ten lists, while usually the best that film critics can say is “well, this year wasn’t actually so bad.” Drama episodes cost more than most independent films.
A few months ago I went to a “Mad Men” event at the Paley Center for Media, where we watched the following week’s new episode before a panel discussion with the show’s creator and actors. The pleasure of the event came not only from seeing these actors in person and hearing about how the show was created, but also from watching a new episode with a large number of people, with all their audible laughs and gasps, and the general collective acknowledgement of the pleasure that the show brings to all of us.
One of the main reasons why “The Simpsons” movie was such a pleasure is that, for once, I was engaging with these characters with a large group of people. At certain times, I would start to laugh, hear nothing else, and think that I was laughing alone — only to realize that my brother, sitting two seats over, was the only other person laughing with me. I was brought back to the days when we used to watch “The Simpsons” during its early days in the 1980s. I remember finding out that it was going to be scheduled up against “The Cosby Show,” and we couldn’t figure out how to program our VCR to record one as we watched the other, if such a thing was even possible. While watching the “Simpsons” movie, those moments of laughter with my brother — and the lack of laugher from everyone else — created a completely unique bonding moment. Where else could you have that experience but in a theater filled with dozens of others? (My brother’s likely response to this little anecdote: “What are you talking about?”)
What if we took this concept to its next logical step, broadening our idea of what television viewing should be? How great would it be if I could walk to a bar on a Thursday night and gather with like-minded individuals to watch “The Office” and “30 Rock” back to back? Or if gathering at a friend’s house to watch “Friday Night Lights” was as accepted a pastime as going to a high school football game? Or if “Lost” had local movie theaters show the newest episode at midnight every Thursday? I’m sure there are millions of lonely “CSI” viewers who long to predict the outcomes of each episode aloud to their friends. Nielsen is continually criticized for ignoring viewers who watch shows on other people’s TV sets, so I doubt the networks are hankering for people to watch shows together. But the Super Bowl and the Oscars are among the top-rated shows of the year in part because they bring people together to watch them, not in spite of that fact.
Gathering for sports and awards shows is nice, but watching regular prime time entertainment with others is a slightly different experience. When watching a prime time show alone, it's a dual relationship between the show's creators and the viewer -- as a viewer, we'll have reactions like "that's so great how the creators of this episode are articulating exactly how I feel in that kind of situation." Like when reading a novel. But when others are watching with you, it's a more complex, multi-pronged relationship. Perhaps your friend talking about how he related to a character helps you realize why you related to an character. Perhaps it helps you realize why you relate so well to that friend. In this way, collective viewing helps elevate TV watching into a more fulfilling experience, bringing it further away from the lazy, hedonistic, couch potato activity it's made out to be.
This issue reminds me of a three-week politics workshop I took one summer, where the main text was Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone.” The book was about the decline in bowling leagues, rotary clubs, going out to dinner, and other collective activities that create “social capital,” which can help fuel other aspects of society, such as civic engagement. One of the main reasons suggested for this trend was the rise of the TV. But what if TV could be used for social capital after all?
I know I’m being optimistic. Sure, most people don’t want to drive 15 minutes each way to watch 30 minutes of a sitcom. But many people watch multiple shows a night — and with a DVR, you can save up the shows that Tom and Gina like and have Tom and Gina come over every Sunday to watch them all. Sure, most of the time, you’re not talking to your friends during the show. But you can talk more than you do in the dark at a movie. You can talk without people shushing you. And sure, you can talk with your friends about shows when you see them the next day. But what's even better is the immediacy of a reaction that occurs during or right after watching a show.
At the movies, I love the big screen, but I also love the intangible sense of occasion: walking through the entrance, meeting friends, buying tickets, purchasing candy, running to the bathroom, hearing others laugh and then talking about it afterwards. Pressing “play” on my DVR feels small and trivial by comparison. "Ok," I think, "I guess I'm watching 'Lost' now." Yes, I love the convenience, and yes, at times I enjoy watching alone. But many weeks, I’d gladly give it up for the company of others.