Why TV no longer serves up watercooler moments
As 'Downton' returns, Ed Power looks at how we consume our favourite TV shows
Over the next few weeks, television audiences will receive a bittersweet reminder of the way things used to be. With Downton Abbey and Love/Hate returning to our screens, it is going to be briefly possible to pretend we still live in the era of watercooler TV, in which our shared consumption of popular culture fosters a sense of connection and, at the risk of melodrama, togetherness.
Let there be no doubt, it is a time that is drawing to an end and, the odd Love/Hate 'moment', may already be over. As recently as 2007, the finale of The Sopranos represented a major cultural happening. We discussed the final episode at work; newspaper editorials held forth on What It Really Meant. Even if you didn't own a television, you felt part of the conversation. You were almost obliged to have an opinion on sensitive mobster Tony Soprano's exit stage left. Ditto the end of Glenroe, the last curtain-falls of Cheers and Friends, the 'Who Shot JR' reveal in Dallas.
Today, all is changed utterly. Yes, the surprise deaths at the conclusion of last season's Love/Hate and Downtown Abbey had people talking while Cillian Murphy's tour de force performance in the new BBC World War I drama Peaky Blinders has attracted wide comment.
These, it can be argued, were mere blips. Thanks to technological advancements television is nowadays something we increasingly consume in spiritual, if not always physical, solitude – we have 'our' show, whether it be a pirated Breaking Bad box set or Orange Is the New Black binge-watched on Netflix (the streaming service with an estimated 150,000 subscribers in Ireland).
This has thrown up some strange anomalies. Writing in The New York Times recently, essayist Adam Sternbergh noted that the most popular TV property in America today is NCIS, a solid if somewhat dreary crime procedural. But you can be an avid consumer of televised drama and be scarcely aware of its existence.
Indeed, if you fall outside NCIS's target demographic of older people who don't like to be unduly surprised by their TV, it is unlikely you would ever even randomly stumble across it as you flicked channels – largely because in our age of downloads and on-demand television, who even flicks channels?
The irony is so vast you have to take a step back to appreciate it.
Courtesy of the internet, we are plugged into the world around us to a degree previously unimaginable. And yet, the very technology that has brought us together has made watching television an increasingly isolated undertaking.
The idea of viewing what you want when you want to would have seemed miraculous just half a decade ago. Thanks to Netflix and others (rival services such as Hulu can be accessed in Ireland, albeit illicitly, if you know just a little about tweaking your web settings), there is really no such thing as appointment television any more. As already mentioned, the new buzz phrase is 'binge-watch', meaning you consume an entire season in one or two sittings.
"Clearly the success of the Netflix model – releasing the entire season of House of Cards at once – has proved one thing: the audience wants control," said actor Kevin Spacey, star of the company's remake of the old British political drama. "They want freedom. If they want to binge – as they've been doing on House of Cards – then we should let them binge."
Speaking to this journalist last year, Netflix founder Reed Hastings didn't seem especially triumphant as he predicted the death of traditional TV, water-cooler moments and all. In an 'always on' world, such a transition was inevitable. Why mourn something that had outlived its relevance?
"Internet television is going to be very transformative," he said.
"Over the next 20 years everything is going to become click and watch and on demand – sports, news, TV shows. We'll still have broadcast – after all we still have land-lines. It just won't get used very much."
Television has become intensely private, to be consumed much as you would a cherished novel – ie, on your own.
"People tend to watch [TV] in these big spurts," actor Michael Cera told the Irish Independent in July, in an interview to promote the Netflix reboot of the early 2000s cult comedy Arrested Development.
"I have watched a lot of shows where you burn through them. You know, you can sit in amidst the filth of your own house and vegetate and watch TV for five hours."
Shows with relatively meagre ratings such as Mad Men and Girls nowadays commandeer the zeitgeist even as far more popular franchises such as The Walking Dead seem to inhabit some parallel universe of which many of us are at best dimly aware.
The shift in viewing habits is already bringing about profound changes.
Scripted dramas have become the new growth industry in television, as producers rush to satisfy the appetite for long-form immersive series such as Breaking Bad, arguably the first show to thrive due to the drift towards streaming and downloading.
Meanwhile, some forms of reality TV are in decline, with established brands such as Big Brother and The X Factor suffering plunging ratings.
"A competitive reality series like MasterChef or America's Next Top Model is not going to [do well] on a service such as Netflix," says Stephen McCormack of Straywave Media, the Irish producer behind reality show Fade Street.
"However, the character-driven stuff does do well – Real Housewives of Atlanta can be watched as a full season.
"It tells a story and that is what people want from television."
He offers Fade Street as an example of entertainment that can triumph in the world of television 2.0. Chronicling the social escapades of a bunch of glamorous middle-class Dubliners, Straywave has signed contracts for it to air next year in America on the Hulu platform.
"Breaking Bad is the current watercooler TV show – the difference is that people don't watch it on television," adds McCormack.
"We may not all sit down in front of it at nine o'clock. We can still talk about it in the pub. Watercooler content is just that – a function of the content. It is not about how you watch it. If something is meaningful, audiences will talk about it.
"Our definition of watercooler probably needs to change."