Pop Culture

Watching TV: Then and Now

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.

TV Guide cover showing Karl Malden and Michael Douglas
Oooh, 70s clothes. How retro.

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.

newspaper clipping from the 70s
Who Shot JR?

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.

a messy bookcase filled with VHS tapes
The porn tapes are hidden in the back

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.

a cat sitting in an armchair with a remote control, drink and bag of chips
This is what your cat really does all day.

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?


48/DWF. "I don't entirely approve of some of the things I have done or am or have been. But I'm me. God knows, I'm me." Elizabeth Taylor

21 replies on “Watching TV: Then and Now”

We really have and it’s difficult to decide if one is ‘better’ than any of the others.

I appreciate very much the flexibility I have now to watch what I want to watch when I want to watch it.  But I think that flexibility comes at a price, too.  Watching TV used to be a family or social event and now it’s more of a solitary form of entertainment.

This article is almost a history lesson on television for me. Being a teenager, I grew up in the instant gratification era. When I got into serious tv, it has always been being able to catch in online the next day or DVR. I CANNOT imagine waiting EIGHT MONTHS! for a show. I’d go mad. I sulk and pout when I have to wait from May till the new season in September

Imagine waiting 8 months without having the internet available to feed your hunger for news on a series.  No chat rooms so you can talk about what happened/might happen with other fans.  No bloggers posting spoilers.  Entertainment magazines (except for TV Guide) come out monthly so any news you do see is already a month old.

You kids today are spoiled!!  :-D


I think what I miss a bit is the social aspect of tv. You all sat around and waited for it. Then you watched it. Then you talked about it.

Mind you, I only vaguely remember that state…I had to get special dispensation to stay up to watch the Muppet Show, but it was still the coolest thing of the week. That and Wonder Woman. :-)

On the other hand, my husband and I can take an hour and a half to watch a 45 minute episode of Castle because we have to stop the dvr to argue about who did it and to look up actors and generally bicker about the episodes. That’s pretty fun too. :-)

I remember having to get permission to stay up to watch SNL (Belushi/Radnor/Chase days).   I practically had to beg to be able to watch it, not so much because it was on late but because my mom thought it was inappropriate.

I have to say that in the case of television, I far prefer the “modern” way to watch a show (marathoning) as opposed to the old-fashioned way (waiting a week, or sometimes a summer, in between new shows). I think this has more to do with my impatient nature than anything else, because I was certainly alive and cognizant in the years before DVDs, on-demand TV, Netflix, the internet, etc, and remember well having to wait for conclusions to cliffhangers (Who Shot Mr. Burns, anyone?).

The funny thing is that nowadays I am fascinated by VHS tapes that taped stuff off TV. I haven’t taped anything off the TV in probably fifteen years, so VHS tapes with hand-scrawled labels and scratchy Campbell’s Soup commercials from 1989 make me so happy.

I have patience for a lot of things in my life; wisdom, knowledge, strength. But TV is not one of the things I have patience in waiting for.

My DVD player is one of those combo things with a VCR on one side and the DVD player on the other.  I still buy old VCR tapes of Disney/kid movies for my grandson.  He doesn’t care, although he still doesn’t quite understand the ‘rewind’ aspect! *lol*

We buy a TV license (you have to to watch TV) but the only thing we watch on TV is University Challenge and other game show type things.

Everything else is don la laptop. To the BBC’s credit (and Channel 4’s) they put a *LOT* of their content online, though only for limited periods.

I tend to watch most shows when they air, or at least within a day or so. But I also love marathons to catch up on stuff I missed the first time around. My husband and I watched the first four seasons on Doctor Who over the summer, frequently doing 3-4 episodes in a day. Season 5 is taking us longer because all our regular shows are back on, though I certainly plan to be caught up by the time season 7 rolls around. It’s gonna suck to have to wait between episodes, but I’ve already been spoiled on all the big plot points so from that standpoint it’ll be nice to have the anticipation. We did the same with BSG; borrowed the first 2.5 seasons from a friend and tore through them in a month or so, then watched the rest live.

I think I had figured out how to program my VCR at around age six. So marathon watching has always been my style, but rather than watching marathons of one series, I typically watch a marathon of all the TV I missed over the week. I could in one glorious Saturday catch up with MacGyver, Highlander, Quantum Leap, and Star Trek TNG. Now my TV watching is a little more catch as catch can, just because I have so friggin little time to watch TV and a live in a house with only one TV (that doesn’t belong to me so remote control time is usually only when I am alone in the house).

I have never really given much thought to how this schedule affects my viewing experience though. I can tell you that erratic episode release dates drive me up a wall (I’m looking at you Fringe and Grimm).

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