We Watch TV Differently Than We Used To, And It Ain’t All Good


I’m old enough to remember “appointment television,” but that memory is fading fast. If you didn’t catch Seinfeld or the first season of Survivor when it aired, co-workers would just sit and stare blankly at you the next day with no clue what to talk to you about. Mostly they’d spit in your coffee when you weren’t looking and in your face when you were. And when I grew up in the 80s, state governments were legally entitled to remove children from homes that failed to watch the Cosby Show/Family Ties/Cheers block on NBC every Thursday night.


Yet, today is called the Golden Age of Television. And it is! The quality of today’s shows–the dramas, especially–is staggering. We’ve never had so many groundbreaking, mind-blowingly awesome series on at one time before, not by a long shot.

But the experience of watching TV ain’t what it used to be. As we watch more and more video on demand and on what I’ll call non-television devices, here are a few beautiful experiences that have gone by the wayside:

Saturday morning cartoons.

Before there was the Cartoon Network (and Nickelodeon and Nick Jr. and The Disney Channel and The Hub), there was a time when animated entertainment was scarce. It was a dark time when cartoons were rationed out in small, after-school slivers, and we huddled in front of a 150 lb. monolith TV in the living room with our Capri Suns and Little Debbies to savor every precious morsel of He-Man and Jem.

As a kid, I would watch literally any animated anything over any live action anything, every single time. It was like candy versus vegetables. My sweet tooth was only truly satisfied on Saturday mornings when I could watch Bugs Bunny, followed by The Smurfs, followed by Scooby Doo, followed Alvin and the Chipmunks, followed by Dungeons and Dragons, followed by pretending to like Land of the Lost (live-action, therefore sucky) to drag things out because if my parents regained control of the television, it was news and cooking shows in perpetuity.

Television as a social event.

Since TV shows used to start at a time and end at a time, they were a way of bringing people together for a time. Back in college, some friends and I started getting together to watch Thursday night “Must-See TV” (this was the heyday of shows like Friends and ER). This went on for years, and then we started getting entire runs of shows we like on DVD and watching those whenever we could find the time to get together. But now, this is the era of watching shows separately and then blogging about them, and then posting links to our articles on Facebook, and then liking each other’s links.

Television as an antisocial event.

Since TV shows used to start at a time and end at a time, they were a way of getting people off your back for a time. Everyone knew better than to call you during your favorite show. It just wasn’t done.

The serendipity of “just flipping through the channels.” 

Nowadays, I watch most of my television on Hulu, which is a maddeningly intentional medium. You pick out a show, any show that they have, but you must pick, and you will get exactly that show and only that show, which you will binge watch until it ends. And then you will pick out another show. With flipping through television channels, on the other hand, anything can happen. I would never pick Storage Wars, for instance, from the near-infinite smorgasbord of Hulu, but if I were flipping channels and it was on, I might watch an episode or seven. The two best things I have ever seen on television, which were an interview with the prom date of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and a diorama of Barbie dolls taking over a man’s entire apartment respectively, were not things I could ever have set out to watch on purpose.


Someday a person of the future will swipe his or her card or scan his or her retina to pay credits and be admitted to a small room. This room will contain one couch, one coffee table, some end tables, some lamps. Others who come will act as family slash friends. There will be dim lighting. There will be the magic box, with its few, glittering options. Tension over which. Snow. Jiggling of antennae, curse words. In this room, you may see something incredible, something you never planned. It will be retro-fabulous.

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