a mash-up of television & strength
I recall a conversation I had with a friend in high school.
This was a time of VHS tapes that stored, at best, eight or ten hours of subpar-quality, standard definition video on a cassette roughly the size of six iPhones stacked together. An entire season of our favourite show at the time and the subject of the aforementioned conversation —Star Trek: The Next Generation— dutifully recorded from broadcast television (in real time no less) would require (to be safe) five tapes, and all seven seasons would have required in the neighborhood of thirty to thirty-five tapes… and, of course, a small shelf on which to store them.
The gist of my high school conversation was a kid-type debate on the merits of going to the effort (which one of our mutual acquaintances actually had done) to record every episode of the show. Or, to just resign ourselves to the hope that — and I quote — “when we’re adults we’ll just buy them all at once on a drive that will fit in our pockets.”
While I’ve never bothered buying that particular television show in any format, I just checked and yes, they are available on a relatively small DVD collection, and yes, they are available as a download which would presumably fit the whole thing on a thumb drive, and yes, I could watch the whole thing streaming from Netflix on one epic multi-week-long binge viewing and have that effort take up no space whatsoever in my home at the end of it.
Binge watching is a thing because my generation grew up long for (and apparently predicting a future when) we as consumers would have the ultimate control over what we watch, when we watch it, and how long we watch it for. Few are the entertainment options that require patient waiting, week-by-week for the next episode. Sure, broadcast television still operates that way –it almost needs to physically and financially– but then that’s what digital recording cable boxes are for.
But has this on demand, when-we-want-it type of culture made us weak as consumers of entertainment? After all, as the old adage says “patience is a virtue” but when we think of television how many of us still think of it as a toy that must be measured out in precise time-slots, caught at the exacting moment that its signal flares down our cable wires or across our airwaves, or meticulously planned via a paper schedule (that also used to be one of the primary reasons our house subscribed to a newspaper) the television guide.
Perhaps its a good thing that we are no longer tethered to those devices that demand we plan our lives around a centralized schedule, but are we really more free? Can any of us really say we’re better able to dollop our time into more acutely reasonable packets. Or are each of us sucumbing to the urge to watch “just-one-more” before bed, because cliffhangers, the kind that built your resolve to continue watching when the next season started in September at the end of the summer, are now just annoying plots that didn’t wrap up neatly before the credits rolled.
I suppose if we consider patience and planning strengths… if we consider virtuous an old-fashioned narrative that could spread itself across weeks and weeks and hold our attentions without the ability to pause, rewind, rewatch, or immediately follow to the next episode… if we consider weakness a kind of servitude-to-the-plot in our freedom-to-watch-our-way that defines the inner nature of binge watching culture… then yes. We are weaker for it.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, another season of House of Cards is out in about a month and I want to rewatch it all again before that happens.