Watching Live TV Vexes the On-Demand Generation

TV Vexes Online Generation
Jacob Thomas

The urgency to watch ‘Breaking Bad’ and other shows when they initially air live feels strange to this beat reporter

For a TV beat reporter, I spend an alarming number of my evenings with my television off.

I chastise myself for this constantly: I should watch more live TV. I should have it on in the background.

Earlier this month, I was forced to.

“Million Second Quiz” bowed Sept. 9 on NBC, and I had to play along live with the “MSQ” app. I texted a friend: “Can we do dinner another night? I have to watch a show at 8 p.m.”

The irritation I felt at the inconvenience made me realize how heavily I rely on time-shifted viewing — not to mention that I wanted sushi that night.

No matter how many next-day ratings stories I write, I’m still the embodiment of the headache networks and advertisers suffer from these days. Nets struggle to measure how many people watch a TV program over three days or seven days, while Madison Avenue struggles to figure out how many are seeing their advertising messages.

I stream. I DVR. I read, I go to dinner, I run errands and see family, all during primetime hours. And with Netflix, HBOGo and Hulu passwords in my arsenal, I’m armed and ready to watch what I need to on my own timetable — unapologetically so.

Despite my habits today, the tube was always glowing when I was a kid: “Rugrats” and “Doug” were appointment shows for me and my younger brother; “Friends” and HBO for my parents. The sets ran in the background like comforting white noise.

But with access to high-speed Internet and a DVR, I ditched the remote as a teenager in favor of my laptop, fitting my favorite shows around my study schedule. I had a TV set in my college dorm and apartments, but the convenience of streaming was just too perfect: Slowly but surely, the TV set was off more than it was on.

More recently, however, I’ve been pulled back into the linear approach thanks to an acute case of FOMO (fear of missing out) brought on by “Breaking Bad.” You can’t work in this biz if you don’t watch that show, but Sundays are precious downtime days. On the night of the third-to-last “Breaking Bad” seg, I set my DVR and went to bed early with a memoir. When I awoke, I realized that the episode, “Ozymandias,” had pretty much shut the Internet down.

What the hell had I missed?

Oh, you know, (spoiler alert), everything: death, mayhem, more death, more mayhem, lots of tears, a kitchen knife and baby Holly’s critically acclaimed performance.

I had the freedom to watch “Breaking Bad” when I wanted, but as I learned the hard way, I wanted to be involved with the watercooler talk, and regretted not tuning in live along with 6.4 million of my fellow Americans. So, I put a Post-It note in my hippocampus: Gotta remember to watch “Breaking Bad” live next Sunday.

The days of “Must See TV” are giving way to the era of “Must Discuss TV.” That is the real incentive to watch live — to remain a part of conversation with friends, co-workers and the Internet. TV, especially for younger generations, occupies two extremes on the viewing spectrum: It is either incredibly personal, as you watch on your own sked, or incredibly social, with live tweets and texts fired off every few moments. The middle ground has all but crumbled.

When I finally grabbed that sushi dinner with my friend, I suggested she check out “Derek,” Netflix’s latest release. Less than a week later, she’d completed the first season.

Then, as if on cue, she texted, “Did you catch Sunday’s ‘Breaking Bad’? So crazy, right?”

I typed back a response. My TV set was off, but my iPhone was glowing.

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  1. Dominique M. says:

    I don’t watch TV at all anymore. I was creeped out by the intensity with which they pushed digital– so I never got a new TV. It’s faster to read the news- and more in-depth. It feels strange to see how co-workers are more into their shows than interested in what’s happening in the world—politics, economics,science. I have time to read several books a week,write letters,volunteer,visit friends. I enjoy reading about TV and movies but few things look tempting enough to watch. I have no FOMO.
    I love your phrase- “time-shifted viewing”. Mine is shifted by years. I just watched a VHS of Moulin Rouge I bought for 10 cents. Maybe I’ll get around to Titanic next.

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