I was out with a friend last week when I realized that I was missing the latest episode of “Bates Motel.”
“Oh well,” I shrugged. “I’ll just stream it later.” My friend considered this before noting that we are the last generation to have grown up with “real TV”–TV that you couldn’t pause, rewind or restart, free from the hands of individual control. Indeed, TV has come a long and winding way from its strange and jerky roots to the point where people have become their own programmers: choosing their own buffet of TV shows and movies from streaming services rather than allowing a traditional programmer to offer them a static lineup.
The question is just how to get the programs. Apple TV and HBO were a headline mainstay the other week thanks to their newly announced alliance. Some people were touting it as the latest viable threat to the empire of traditional TV and a possible, albeit expensive, ally to cord cutters as people move away from traditional sources of programming, usually for monetary reasons. It’s far from a new topic, but it has allowed for renewed speculation about both where the medium is going and the move away from traditional programming toward the individualization of entertainment.
Watching TV has also become more individual in physical, as well as psychological, practice. Case in point: In order to make a profit, big screen TVs have to get bigger and drop their prices in order to increase sales, all while smartphone and tablet use continues to grow. Combined with the continued critical attention paid to streaming shows, it hardly needs restating that content consumption has moved from the big screen to the small screen to the smaller screen.
It’s a fascinating shift because it seems to be that, between personalized programming and content platforms, TV is moving from a family affair to an individual one. In the 1950s, the TV was replacing the fireplace as the family gathering site. Call me unimaginative, but I don’t see a crackling smartphone screen or the warm glow of an iPad replacing that. Not that those forms of content delivery are bad. Just that they don’t lend themselves to the average lifestyle of someone in the Western world–someone who prefers mobility from their technology, their information and themselves. The mentality of “I’ll watch what I want to watch went I want it” goes hand in hand with “I can carry the wealth of the world’s knowledge in my hip pocket, or at least a bunch of cat videos.” But pockets don’t lend themselves easily to sharing.
Although much of our language is about community and inclusivity, TV programming seems to be moving away from all that. When we talk about TV or culture at large, we’re part of a “dialogue” or a “conversation.” And more than that, when we plan a new creative project, we’ve moved beyond mere committees to crowdsourcing. But we’ll be damned if someone’s going to program our TV lineup for us. And have you tried cramming five people in front of a tablet? And two of them haven’t even binge watched their way to the latest episode? It’s enough to make you just stream the damn show by yourself tomorrow afternoon.
By the way, I did manage to watch “Bates Motel,” and I’m happy to say that Vera Farmiga’s Norma is just as crazy as ever. But don’t tell me how the latest episode went. I think I missed it.