Monday, June 6, 2011

Watching TV (on DVD)

Recently I’ve undertaken a rather intensive rewatch of the insanely wonderful Australian science fiction series Farscape on DVD. This comes on top of – and for the moment is supplanting – my ongoing rewatch of Angel, and comes only a few months after viewing the first five seasons of Supernatural on DVD in a four month period. I’ve been watching a lot of TV on DVD lately, in other words, and it’s got me thinking.

As someone who has begun to look at TV as something worth studying critically, and who remembers the days before even VCRs were generally affordable, I’m struck by the way technology has changed not only how we access various TV shows, but the individual and cultural experience of TV as well. Over the past four years I’ve done a lot of catching up on TV shows through a variety of media. I watched the last 2 seasons of Battlestar Galactica via my DVR (and deleted every episode in a fit of pique after the atrocious series finale was phoned-in from the SF Plot Convenience Warehouse, completing the last season and a half’s utter betrayal of the show’s brilliant promise) since my work had me getting home halfway through the original air-time, and often beat to boot. I used the DVR again during the mercifully brief run of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, so that Mock and I could watch them together, and we watched the series finale “Epitaph 2” streaming from Hulu when Fox changed the air-time and the DVR missed it. I caught up on the dark, brilliant, and beautiful genius that is Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad (back on July 17th, BITCH!) by means of DVD sets for seasons 1 and 2, and, with the kind permission of a friend, iTunes for season 3, which I watched on my larger screen TV via a HDMI cable. Recently, I’ve been advised to watch Showtime’s Spartacus via streaming media from Netflix.

So, DVR, DVD, free streaming through Hulu, paid downloads from iTunes, and subscription streaming through Netflix. That’s how I watch my TV today. Seriously, Readers Mine, these days the only time I watch a TV show on its original air date and time is when I’m in a hotel, or idly flipping through channels on the couch with Mock’ and she finds something she’s willing to light on for longer than 1.8 seconds (or decides to torture me by stopping on the “History” Channel, which will be showing something about Ice Road Truckers, or How to Make a Snickers Bar, which, while it may be interesting, ISN’T FRELLING HISTORY!!!!). This is wildly different from the TV habits of my youth, when if you missed the original airing, you had to wait for the rerun, and in the era before cable began its habit of the 1 hour later, then every hour on the hour for three days reruns of shows they thought were popular the wait could be a long one. This change in the means of viewer access has led, in turn, to a change in viewer culture, and the rise of an interesting type of nostalgia-viewing, typified by the rewatches of Lost and Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Nik at Nite, the blog of Nikki Stafford, who literally wrote the books on both shows.

As TV became common throughout the United States, viewer culture grew up around the imposed schedules of the Big Three (later Four, then Four and A Half) networks. Viewers became used to a schedule of programming where a show aired at a certain time on a certain night, weekly, with terrible doldrums in the summer months perhaps enlivened by reruns or old favorites now in syndication. In any event, sometimes millions of people would all gather around their TV sets at the same time, on the same day, watching the same channel to follow the ongoing adventures of Marshal Dillon, or Hawkeye Pierce, Archie and Edith, Andy Sipowicz, or Buffy. That episode was followed by a week of waiting, often discussing the show with fellow viewers in “water-cooler talk,” and anticipating the following week’s installment of the story. This anticipatory period was heightened between seasons, when one had to wait several months for new episodes, often after the previous season had wound up with a cliff-hangery finale (to borrow a term from David Lavery’s Buffy Lexicon). TV was a strange sort of shared experience, even if the people you were sharing it with lived a thousand miles away. A fairly big chunk of America was howling right along with you as Jerry dealt with a woman with “man hands,” or the reanimated corpse of Lenin awoke and began a zombie-like quest to destroy capitalism because Homer Simpson was in command of a US ballistic nuclear submarine (deep cuts folks, deep cuts), or were waiting just as anxiously as you were for November to roll around to see if Chris Carter had really killed off Mulder and/or Scully.

With the evolution of fast and reliable mobile broadband, and growing ownership of smart-phones, TV is becoming as ubiquitous as music and with just as much potential variation in content being viewed at any one time. TV is now available on the viewer’s schedule rather than the networks, and content providers are struggling to keep up. Note the rise in “on demand” and “start over” programming. And we’re already way beyond DVDs. DVR/TiVo devices, streaming media from an ever-growing number of sources, a multitude of ways to have access to an enormous amount of material without it ever taking up space on your shelves or the storage space on your hard-drive (if the device you’re watching it on even needs a hard drive). The collective aspect of TV is disappearing. People no longer necessarily even try to watch shows when they air, preferring to wait for the inevitable DVD release after the current season. And there’s no longer any need for that deliciously annoying anticipatory period between episodes or seasons, you can watch Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes back to back until “Zinda – his face black, his eyes red” if you want. Cliff-hanger finale? No sweat, pop in the first disc/start streaming the first ep. of the next season, no muss, no fuss, no commercials, no waiting – ain’t America great?

And it is! It is great. I love it, love being able to forgo commercials and watch two years worth of TV in two months or less. Love being able to return to Babylon 5 again and again and revel in the stories, love having the ability to watch what I want, when I want, how I want, where I want – mostly. And yet… The thing about the art form of television that has set it apart from film, theater, and novels is that all of the former are brief experiences, whereas M*A*S*H premiered the year I was born, and aired it’s last episode when I was 11. ST: TNG began its run on my 15th birthday and when it ended I had already been a college drop-out for 4 years. You can have a frakking relationship with a TV show. You can grow up with a TV show. A film is over in two hours or less, generally. Hell, it wouldn’t even take more than a couple of years – max – to read Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth/Mission Earth series if you wanted to (but you really don’t), but man, I lived with some TV shows for years! Now what used to be a committed relationship boils down to an affair of a few months. I suppose it’s the difference in hearing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 on your handy-dandy iPod and going to see it performed by a professional orchestra. Live. In 1826. When music wasn’t available at the touch of a button, or at all beyond your and your friends’ own abilities to remember and carry a tune. Can you even imagine what it must have been like to assemble in a hall full of people, in that day and age, and hear such music? What the experience must have been like? How much power the music would have held? I think it must have been something like catching a glimpse of God.

Now you can just pause playback if something comes up, or just have it on for background noise, you know, without really listing to it. Don’t get me wrong, I love music on command, but sometimes I think I might trade it for music with the power to stop the world and make it listen. I wouldn’t trade my DVDs and streaming capabilities, but sometimes I kind of miss staying up until 2 am on a Saturday night because I didn’t have cable and that was the only time I could catch Babylon 5 when it originally aired. I was there, every week. I gritted my way through the season breaks and every continuing story arc. It was a part of my life for five years. Babylon 5 was also the first TV series I ever owned on DVD, and revisiting it at my leisure is one of the pleasures of my life. While it’s lovely to be able to pick and choose my episodes these days, I can’t escape the sense that I’m not seeing the work as J. Michael Straczynski composed it, as if I was reading War and Peace by dipping in at chapter 30, then chapter 3, etc. The experience is fundamentally changed, and the tension between acts is oddly diluted without the commercials to build-in anticipation.

I think this kind of nostalgia is what drives the rewatches over at Nik At Nite, where a limited number of episodes are viewed each week, and in the interim, participants engage in an ongoing conversation via comments on Nikki’s blogs, discussing the episodes they’ve just seen, sharing their personal experiences with watching the shows either currently or previously, and speculating on where things are going and why, and where things have been, and why. It’s a throwback to the old TV culture, ironically made possible by the same technologies that have fundamentally changed that culture, and people love it. So, maybe we can get the best of both worlds as fan-culture continues its long-time mass infiltration of the interwebs, so that no matter what show you’re into, you can find your people, be they ever so rare or, you know, Dutch. It also appears that the new media are at least partly responsible for the Golden Age of Television we’re currently living in. Neilson and his families no longer have control, or at least have less of it.

So is this actually a win-win situation for the viewer? You know, I think it may be. For the moment anyway. If anyone’s got any thoughts about this, I’d love to hear them. Comment away, Reader’s Mine – I’m off to watch some TV.

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