On a recent trip I met up with an old friend and his wife for dinner. As conversation progressed, I mentioned my wife and I have been watching M*A*S*H on Netflix. Waxing nostalgic for a moment, he told me that his parents let him stay up to watch the series finale in 1983.
And then he said something that I found fascinating: “you know, there’s nothing like that today – there’s no shared social experience you can expect to talk about the next day with your coworkers, friends, etc.”
And it’s true – sure, there are local shared experiences (NCAA games, etc), but there is nothing in today’s society that brings us all to the same place (even separately) like TV did in the pre-streaming and -DVR era.
There used to be top-rated programs that you could reasonably expect that a high percentage of your coworkers watched (M*A*S*H, The Cosby Show, ER, Friends, Cheers, All in the Family, Family Matters, etc). There still are highly-rated programs – but they’re very very different from what they used to be. Some of this, of course, comes from the rise of cable networks’ programming efforts (The Sopranos, Mythbusters, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Stargate SG1, The Walking Dead, Switched at Birth, Secret Life of the American Teenager, Outlander, and more). Some of this comes from the efforts of streaming providers (House of Cards, Orange is the new Black, Farmed and Dangerous, etc). And there are still great shows on broadcast TV (Once Upon a time, CSI, Person of Interest, etc). But they’re different than what they used to be.
Not different merely because of better acting (sometimes it’s worse), better writing (same critique applies), better filming (Revolution – I’m looking at you as the antiexample of good filming, and why you got canceled after just two seasons), better marketing, or better special effects.
But mostly they’re different it’s because we, as a culture, have decided we do not want to be tied to an arbitrary time-table dictated to us by the Powers That Be™ at The Networks™. With the rise in un-tie-ability given to consumers, first with VCRs, then VCR+, then TiVo, and now DVRs and streaming options everywhere, even though we’ve been getting bilked on film time (an “hour long” program in the early 80s was 48-49 minutes of screen time, today it’s ~42 minutes – that’s a huge amount of added advertising time) from our programs, we have ways of compressing and massaging our watching to our personal schedules. Can’t be home in time to catch insert-name-of-series-here? No problem! It’ll be on Hulu or Amazon Prime tomorrow, or your DVR will catch it for you. Or it’ll be on Netflix in a few months.
And if you get it on Amazon Prime or Netflix, there’ll be no ads. Hulu may have a few, but they’re still shorter than what was shown on ABC the night before.
It used to be that the Superbowl was a major sporting event at the beginning of each year when the culmination of 17 weeks of regular season play, and a few playoff games, showed us just who was the best football team out there.
Now the Superbowl is a chance to see new commercials from scores of companies – each of whom has spent millions just to get the ad on TV, let alone film it – and maybe catch a little bit of a game on the side. (Unless you happen to care about the Seattle Seahawks – but I digress.)
Before widespread adoption of TV, the shared social experience would’ve had to have surrounded radio programs (perhaps The Lone Ranger, or Orson Welles’ production of The War of the Worlds).
And prior to widespread radio, what shared social experiences did society (not just little pockets) have? Gladiatorial combat in ancient Rome? The Olympic Games?
Which really means that shared social experiences a la the M*A*S*H finale are an historical aberration – something that came to be less than a century ago, and which lasted less than a century. Something as fleeting as the reign of clipper ships in transport, from a grand historical perspective.
And maybe that’s a Good Thing™ – society being drawn together over common experiences isn’t, necessarily, bad: but is it necessarily good? That’s the question that has been bugging me these last couple weeks – and which probably will for some time to come.
What say you – is it a loss, a gain, or just a fact that these shared social experiences are no more?