Watching On-Demand TV

Occasionally my ten-year-old son and I will watch an episode of Murder, She Wrote together. I received the DVD complete box set for Christmas last year, which means that we can watch an episode whenever we want. Curiously, the result has been that we don’t watch all that often.

When I was a kid my parents and I would watch Murder, She Wrote with absolute regularity. We never missed an episode. So I got to thinking about why it is that my Son and I watch it so irregularly.

Part of it, of course, is that he likes it, but doesn’t love it as much as I do. There are a myriad of reasons for this, but it’s natural enough, since I love it quite a lot—most people will tend to be less extreme than that. But there is another reason.

When I was a kid, you had to watch the episode when it came on or you missed it. It would eventually be available as a re-run, but that would be in months, and without great predictability, as the TV stations didn’t do something simple (so far as I can recall, anyway) like air re-runs in the same order they ran in. Plus, you could never be certain you would catch the episode when it re-ran, which meant a longer and still less predictable time till you could watch it.

All of this produced an urgency to watching the episode when it aired that was both a good excuse for making it happen but also helped to make it happen. When one can watch an episode whenever one wants, one needs a good reason to watch now, as opposed to tomorrow. And tomorrow can easily turn into the day after. And the day after can easily turn into next week. And next week can easily turn into next month.

In some sense, this is just removing an artificial limitation which made the episodes seem more important than they were. It is, in a real sense, regarding TV episodes with their actual value. Because, truth be told, TV episodes just aren’t that great. They were made in a hurry. Regularity was more important than quality. Getting people to sit through commercials and come back was more important than quality, too.

In spite of that some TV shows really were special; there were TV shows with genuinely good episodes. Murder, She Wrote did have some well constructed mysteries. They couldn’t really compare to a good mystery novel, though, and when one can watch the episode any time, it quite frequently seems like a better use of time to read the novel. The episode will always be there tomorrow, if one really wants to watch it.

There is something lost in all this, which I think is no small part of the fondness which people like me who grew up with broadcast television feel the loss of. Broadcast television gave a rhythm to life. When favorite shows were on Monday at 6:00, Tuesday at 6:30, and Thursday at 7:00, these made Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays feel like Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. Even if one went into another room and read a book because one didn’t like a show, one went into that other room and read a book every Monday. There was not only a rhythm, but a shared rhythm.

There are much better places to get shared rhythms for life than from entertainment paid for by copious commercials. I am not here saying that the death of broadcast television is not for the best. It is. I’m only saying why it doesn’t entirely feel like it.

(And yes, this phenomenon still applies in its entirety to the practice of watching live sports, and may explain a portion of that activity’s ongoing popularity.)

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