Back in April 2011, I met up with my brother and his friends at the home of one of the said friends to watch WWE’s WrestleMania XXVII. I was very much the outsider in the group – young, impressionable, beardless. Never before had I met the gents in question but, far from being bored, I was pleasantly surprised at how the morning/afternoon unfolded. That day remains in my mind as a perfect example of how television is not only a means of entertainment and information but also as the creator of a ‘viewing experience’. An exercise in male bonding.
Think about how ludicrous it sounds. Four young men (two of whom have since entered holy matrimony) and one relative infant yelling and screaming at a television. While watching grown men in colourful tights pretend to hurt each other for the enjoyment of 70,000 people in the audience. And the millions watching at home. And us.
It made me realise the importance of fraternity, brotherhood and shared emotions. It also made me appreciate television as a means to achieve that. But in the past fifteen-odd years, the TV has not remained the tool to achieve a joint viewing experience. It’s a more individual experience.
The dormant box
It may be anecdotal, but I’ve been amazed to see how steeply television viewership (yes, as in the actual watching of the thing) has dropped among the oft-prized 18-34 demographic. Much of the current generation’s lives are enacted and stored online, and much of what television used to provide is now available on the internet. There is a steadily decreasing incentive to park yourself on the couch in the living room.
Bit by bit, TV’s capture of the attention of large groups has been eroding. Television and television content has been refitted for individual convenience and individual schedules; it is now available for your viewing pleasure on your time. You don’t have to accommodate TV in your life anymore. It is now at your beck and call.
Of course, none of this is actually news. I realise I’m dancing around the elephant in the room, so I may as well name it: Netflix. It is the kind of agent (along with other various streaming services, some more familiar on these shores, such as Hotstar) that has shrunk the viewing experience drastically. From an eclectic cast of family members taking turns at planting their backsides in front of the TV, the 18-34 television enthusiasts with a taste for English entertainment now consume their drug of choice armed with a pair of earphones.
Netflix has made its way across the world (although a friend informs me their selection is unhelpfully limited) and whether or not it actually takes off here is somehow tellingly irrelevant. There is enough interest to suggest the perception of television has shifted. Markedly.
It’s now a deeply personal experience. And even more than that, an isolated one.
TV shows are now transmitted in bulk from one enthusiast to another via external hard disk drives. A typical college student’s hard disk will contain season upon season of popular shows, cartoons, anime and god knows what else.
There are reasons why watching ‘television’ nowadays often equates to actually watching your laptop offline – internet speeds, non-availability of some programming, censorship – and is actually preferable over watching an actual television. We get all our news online, so we don’t need a TV for that. We’ve outgrown cartoons. We want to watch old shows. We should get to decide our viewing patterns. The list goes on.
Blocks then, marathons now
We may have become a culture of maverick viewers, but has it come at a cost? Is the joint viewing experience an unfair victim of this culture? Personally, I barely watch television anymore (except for sport). But sometimes I feel group viewings died a completely senseless and unnecessary death.
Viewing used to happen in blocks of hours (usually one or two), but now those have given way to marathons on our laptops. People of a certain age will remember to 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. block as the time of their lives: Pokemon and Beyblade aired successively in this time. To take another example, the early 2000s saw the emergence of a night-time entertainment block, two hours in length.
Kaun Banega Crorepati (very much the ultimate joint family activity) began things at 9:00 p.m., followed by Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kay from 10:00 to 10:30 p.m. and then Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi from 10:30 to 11:00 p.m. Two hours, three shows, millions of viewers, a lifetime of memories. Members of the audience stayed for what they had an investment in; the television remained on for this duration, but the people came and went depending on the programme being shown at a particular time.
In a way, I miss that kind of ritual. It became such a regular fixture of life that it would be difficult to explain to my younger self the kind of ad-hocish, mostly television-less existence I lead now.
Sport remains unscathed
Sport is one thing, however, that has manfully resisted the advances of the ‘hard disk’ culture. Live streaming is there, sure, but football, cricket, WWE and UFC are still valid reasons to invite the boys over. The conditions are actually in favour of watching sport on television – HD channels, pizza, Coke, more people (sport is a community experience, not a conclusion to be reached on one’s own), no concept of pay-per-view (the WWE and UFC’s $60 pay-per-views air here, live, without extra payment, so even if you’re disappointed with the product, you didn’t lose $60), joy, heartbreak, exasperation, amazement.
The great loss
This model will continue for an indefinite period. And while it is of enormous significance that television programmes have been hugely optimised for individual comfort and convenience, it is also worth asking the question: did we lose something along the way?
Perhaps we did.
Contributed by: Sushain Ghosh