I recently heard someone say that it used to be that at 6pm, everyone would sit down to watch The Cosby Show. It seemed at once a quaint and almost sci-fi notion – millions of people watching the same show at the same time. How things have changed.
The likelihood of an entire community simultaneously watching one television program decreased markedly with the advent of cable TV. Suddenly, instead of the handful of channels available on network television, there were hundreds to choose from. In my childhood home, we frequently switched between Optus and Foxtel. At one brief and luxurious point, we had both. I remember my amazement that there was a whole channel dedicated to kids, a whole channel that played music videos, and a whole channel for cartoons (which my parents ended up blocking due to my little brother becoming addicted).
It didn’t stop there. Soon, we were able to use cable to record programs to watch later, which hadn’t really been possible since the phasing out of the VCR at the end of the 1990s. Television networks got in on the act, giving us the opportunity to ‘catch up’ on shows via their websites. We all went nuts for online streaming; there was Apple TV, and then, more recently, providers like Netflix and Stan landed in Australia. These days, not only is there an insane amount of variety in our TV watching, but also greater flexibility in our viewing schedule. We can watch what we want, when we want.
It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly, but among all of these technological advances, people started making really, really good TV. The premiere of The Sopranos in 1999 may have heralded the new phase of quality TV, but it was relatively unrivalled until shows like Mad Men and True Blood hit our screens in 2007 and 2008 respectively. The present era has frequently been described as ‘the golden age of television’, and Dustin Hoffman recently told The Independent, ‘I think right now television is the best that it’s ever been.’
It’s all at our fingertips, and everybody is hooked. Last week, I spent an hour discussing Game of Thrones with a friend on a pier, and later, at dinner, had an in-depth chat about Orange is the New Black with someone else. Most of us have a mental catalogue of the series we’ve watched, and anytime we’re asked, ‘What have you been watching?’, we flick to that page in our catalogue. Shared television viewing has become a touchstone for communal memories.
If we connect in real life, person-to-person, over our shared love for a given series, we’re also increasingly taking to the internet to enrich our television experience. What would watching Q&A be like, for example, without the accompaniment of constant Twitter commentary? What about all those times you jumped online straight after finishing the latest episode of something, because you just had to see what other people were saying about it, share your own theories, or revel in the comic pleasure of a recap?
We may not be sitting down to The Cosby Show at the same time each night, but in many ways we are still enjoying a shared viewing experience. The incredible TV writers and producers of the golden age are bringing us back together again. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to binge-watch Girls.
At this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival, you can explore the best of television now through the Small Screen series and events on Veronica Mars and Homeland. Or find out how television has evolved at How We Watch.