Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Thinking inside the box

Meg over at meish dot org (she mapped the best seats on the London Underground, if you recall) has been applying her analytical skills to the consumption of media, in particular TV series.

She decribes my experience exactly. Whereas the experience of viewing movies at home has all but destroyed the cinema experience (too many people think they can behave in public as they do in their own living room, chomping non-stop, talking, making and taking phone calls etc) the availability of boxed sets of DVDs containing an entire series of TV shows has, for me, highlighted the disadvantages of watching a series when it's broadcast.

Watching TV as it happens has two main plus-points:

  • the excitement of spending a whole week on tenterhooks waiting to find out what happened next. This is a powerful motivator, as people knew who followed the serials in the old silent movies, and before them the subscribers to Victorian magazines who often had to wait a month to get the next instalment of their current novel by the likes of Trollope, Dickens or Thackeray;
  • the shared experience, or what's sometimes called "watercooler TV". People watch their favourite show, and the next morning they talk about it in the office, at school or, increasingly, on the discussion forum set up for the purpose.
The second of those is not of much importance when you live in Belgium. It's of less importance still when you work from home, because they people I could chat with are either Americans (who saw the show a year ago) or Brits (who saw it six months ago). While Flemish and Dutch TV (which is carried on our cable together with the BBC) are keen on all things US (and in particular HBO) the chances of an acquaintance having seen the same show as you are slim.

The excitement of suspense cannot be replaced, but it's sublimated by something that's in many ways the opposite. Where the real-time viewer is limited to a minimal weekly dose, we of the asynchronous community are allowed to binge to our hearts' content. You don't have to, of course, but the opportunity is there. I've done it with series like The Wire (3 seasons), The Sopranos (6), Deadwood (2), Boston Legal (1) and Six Feet Under (2 and counting). Two eps back to back is nothing whatever unusual. Three in a day and you start to feel a little overstuffed. The most I managed was five in one day, and that was The Wire, and by that time you're completely zonked out.

What it means, and this comes back to where Meg started, is that I don't have any great wish to watch real-time TV any more. Usually programmes are on at a time when I'm busy with other stuff, but the VCR is fine for time-shifting. What I really want, though, is to get those great big handfuls of my stuff. All for me, and nobody else.

So I've had trouble with the BBC's broadcast of Heroes, the latest part of which is due to start in 10 minutes. You see, you have to watch the clock. You have to remember to set the timer. You can't be busy doing anything else. And even if you get that all right, your reward is a paltry 45 minutes of drama, which means it's all over just as you're getting warmed up. The worst kind of tease.

It won't do any longer. Technology in this as in so many things has freed us to do as we please, and that's the way it's going to go. I'm on board the train to NoLimits. Give me liberty or give me death. The words "TV licence" have taken on a whole new meaning.