Since its inception in 1925, the television has been a big part of our lives. It’s safe to say it’s come a long way since a tiny black and white screen, reaching the point where everyone and their grandma had a TV in their house as the source of an evening’s entertainment for all the family. That was until the next step in television evolution: streaming services. Now, TVs seem to be on the way out. The way we consume media has changed a lot, but is it all necessarily for the better?
Since the introduction of streaming services, it’s no secret that broadcast television is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Rather than sitting in the living room with the family, we now all try to watch all the latest shows on anything but an actual TV. Be it your phone, tablet, laptop, or even Tesla, we really are doing anything and everything to avoid watching in (what was) the normal way, the main reason being convenience. If you wake up feeling sick or with a hangover, chances are that rather than dragging yourself out of bed to the living room to watch TV, you’ll get comfy under the nice warm covers and just stream Netflix from your laptop. Maybe you’re on a train journey where carrying around a 40-inch plasma screen TV is a little tricky, so streaming a show from your phone is a much more practical choice.
But it isn’t just the convenience of where and when you get to watch that’s improved, but what you get to watch, too. Previously, you would have to wait for your favourite show to air each week or try to record it (something we all forgot to do), but now, we can choose exactly what we want to watch at any time of day. This in turn has its issues, like having to scroll through endless content to find just one thing to watch, but in a wider context, it’s better to have too much than too little at our disposal. Keeping up with all the shows you want has never been easier as you don’t have to wait anymore.
But just because it is easier, it doesn’t always make it better. With the ever-growing popularity of streaming services and the gradual decline of the physical television, you start to realise what made that time so special. With everyone watching series in their rooms now, the nuances of normal television and the sense of community it provides has all sadly been lost. Gone are family nights in front of the TV. Gone is the mad dash back to the living room when the adverts have just finished. Gone is the tug of war over the remote and subsequent argument over what is watched. Gone is the frustration of a sibling recording over the show you have been dying to watch. While some of these things disappearing isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it has certainly taken something away from the experience. While television as a medium has certainly improved, with more high-quality content than ever, I can’t help but feel that without these tried and tested traditions, the actual experience of watching TV has lost some of its charm.
“Sure, it’s great not having to wait an entire week to find an answer to the cliffhanger ending of the previous episode, but, at the same time, isn’t that one of the great parts of watching a show?”
And it’s not just the way we watch television that has changed – the shows we watch are changing as well. With the rising popularity of binge-watching, shows have been adapting to meet the consumer’s new needs. Rather than being episodic, where you could watch from any episode and understand what’s happening (The Simpsons, Doctor Who), shows are gradually becoming more serial in nature, meaning if we want to have any idea what’s happening, we have to be up to date with hours of content.
Shows like The Umbrella Academy or Stranger Things are purpose-built for you to watch in a sitting (don’t lie, we’ve all done it at least once) which may be effective for the story being told, but it doesn’t always feel like television anymore, just one super-long movie. Before, you would be considering watching a show and only have to commit an hour a week to do it, but now, the hours of content to work through can be daunting. And with so much content dropping all the time in entire seasons rather than episodes, trying to work through something new can quickly become a chore.
Sure, it’s great not having to wait an entire week to find an answer to the cliffhanger ending of the previous episode, but, at the same time, isn’t that one of the great parts of watching a show? The endless back and forth between friends about what was the episode’s best bits and trying to figure out what will happen next helps you savour the show more, something binging really doesn’t let you do. Just look at Game of Thrones – yes, it crashed and burned rather spectacularly during its later seasons, but when it was at its peak, nothing could stop it. After each episode, discussions would explode in person or on social media, furthering the hype and excitement of the show. And as the series was shown over ten weeks a year, a fair amount of time was spent on Game of Thrones, so it’s no wonder it became as popular as it did.
Meanwhile, a Netflix show won’t get anywhere near the same level of fan engagement, with most people racing to the end of the latest season before moving onto the next show, their most recent watch a distant memory. They might have opinions and theories about what’ll happen next, but it’ll never be on the same scale as weekly shows, especially as interest in a series aired all at once will likely wain within the first two weeks of it dropping.
As streaming services and subscriptions continue to get more and more popular, with every big company seemingly having one now, I can’t help but feel a bit melancholy for what was. So next time you’re struggling to find something to watch on Netflix, maybe turn the TV on instead, if only to experience a little blast from the past.
Words by George Bell