Pull up a seat, chid’rens, and let me tell you a little story that starts way back when. Way back when we said “way back when” instead of “back in the day.” Way back when we walked 5 miles to school, in the snow, uphill both ways. Way back when in order to watch your favorite show, you actually had to (i) know when it aired every week and (ii) park your ass in front of the TV at that time or (iii) wait for summer and try to catch the reruns.
Yes, Virginia, there was a time before DVRs and VCRs. What do you mean, you don’t know what a VCR is? It uses those things that look like big cassette tapes that… You don’t know what a cassette tape is either? Fine. I’ll just stick with the DVR.
You see, there was a time when we watched our favorite shows one episode at a time over a period of weeks and months, and if you were lucky and the show was really good, years. Homework and baseball practice and family dinner was scheduled around the hour that Happy Days or Charlie’s Angels or Mash came on TV. If you missed The Six Million Dollar Man or The Streets of San Francisco, you were left out of the conversation the next day.
And there was a lot of conversation the next day because we all watched the same thing. There were only three options, after all, unless you could pick up a couple more by turning the dial around the UHF channel slow enough to tune something in. Shows that became hits meant everyone watched the same thing at the same time and reacted to it as a group. TV series regularly ended for the summer with cliffhangers that made reruns must-see TV. You think show hiatuses are long now? We waited eight months – EIGHT MONTHS!! – to find out who shot J.R.
Viewing habits began to change in the mid-1970s with the arrival of cable TV and HBO, the first of the subscriber-funded movie channels. Until HBO, if you didn’t see a movie in the theater, you had to wait until the edited version made it to television. On the heels of HBO (and Cinemax, et al) came VCRs and VHS tapes (Beta lost the war, so we’ll just skip over it). If you could figure out how to get the clock on the VCR to stop blinking 12:00, you could record a show or a movie to watch at a more convenient time. There were still major disadvantages, however. VHS tapes stored an average of 6 hours worth of programming and there was no fast, easy way to forward or skip to exact points in the recording. VHS tapes were also relatively fragile; the ribbon broke or tangled in the VCR or the picture lost clarity after repeated viewing. And, let’s face it, we were still programmed to watch live TV.
DVRs and the Internet have de-programmed us. Raise your hand if you sometimes feel intimidated by the amount of unwatched programming stored on your DVR. I’m pretty sure mine is judging me every time I add something new – I don’t have time to watch what’s already there and yet I keep adding to the queue. I took 10 days off over the holiday season and the high point of my accomplishments for that period of time was getting my DVR down to 18%. Don’t look at me like that – I know I’m not the only person who takes a day off when her DVR gets full.
I also know I’m not alone in spending fewer and fewer of my television hours watching live TV in favor of what’s on my DVR. Other than sports, there are only four shows that I must see when they air: Justified, Bones, Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones. Everything else I watch has been recorded earlier.
When it comes to the television shows I record, my preferred method of watching them is in bulk, one episode after another – and I’m not alone in that, either. How many times have you spent a rainy Saturday or a chilly Sunday curled up in bed or on the sofa watching an entire season of Buffy or Entourage?
On one hand, having the freedom to skip the sometimes long breaks between one episode and the next by having the whole series at the end of my remote control is very satisfying. When an episode leaves me wanting more, I can immediately have more just by pushing a button. Cliffhangers and season-ending surprises leave me curious for minutes, not weeks or months.
On the other hand, I sometimes wonder what I might be losing by marathoning an entire season in the span of a couple of days. For instance, I know I lose the social element of watching a great show; by the time I get around to seeing it, the buzz is gone and everyone has moved on to the next hot drama. What about the writer’s vision of the show? Am I seeing the story the writers want to tell me if I binge-watch a whole season in one weekend instead of savoring it slowly? Those are questions I have.
I’m curious to know what you think are the pros and cons of marathon TV vs. slow TV. Do you think you’re missing anything by watching in bulk? Do you think writers take this type of viewing into consideration when penning episodic TV, and if so, do they write for it or in spite of it?