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Dipping into the stream of media

From The Daily Star:

After writing last week about my secret longing to stumble upon the occasional Christmas program, I started thinking about intentional versus unintentional consumption.

I don't mean "unintentional consumption" like realizing you've eaten an entire box of Girl Scout cookies in one sitting. I mean leaving the TV on after your favorite program is over and watching whatever comes next, or putting the radio on just to have a little background noise. This is the cultural experience I still associate with TV and radio: an ongoing stream of content I can dip into at will.

My current experiment with on-demand viewing has made me realize, however, that this is an increasingly archaic idea. Thanks to the Internet and devices such as digital video recorders, fewer people are dipping into this ongoing stream of content. Instead, like myself, they are siphoning off their own selective streams that contain only the content that interests them.

I can't deny that the ability to self- select media has distinct advantages. I love being able to watch episodes of "Perry Mason" or the original "Star Trek" (thanks, CBS Classics) whenever I want. But I sincerely miss the thrill of accidental discovery. I miss flipping channels and finding PBS' "American Experience" documentaries on the lives of the presidents, or watching MTV and hearing a new song that knocks my socks off.

In some ways, I feel like these happy accidents give broadcast media its reason for existing. As a teenager, I drove around town with friends, trying to catch the shaky AM signal of a nearby alternative-music radio station. If I managed to stumble upon a re-run of the Canadian sketch comedy TV show "Kids in the Hall," I would call my friends at once to let them know.

These cultural offerings were not at my fingertips: they flitted in and out of my life unpredictably. As such, they were a highly prized quarry. Not to sound too much like an old curmudgeon, but "kids these days," I suspect, don't drive around trying to tune in obscure radio stations, or scour the TV dial in search of a program that may or may not be on. I know I don't. I can seek out what I want effortlessly, with certainty of finding what I seek in the vast landscape of the Internet.

Google searches return results too quickly to invoke the thrill of the chase. There is a certain loneliness in my solitary viewing of "Perry Mason and the Case of the Rolling Bones." Can I re-hash the episode with my mother, my husband, my friends? Not likely. Pundits and scholars have bemoaned the loss of shared cultural experiences inherent to this type of personalized, rather than shared, consumption.

Writing about the BBC program "Doctor Who" in April for The Guardian, Mark Lawson wrote that "the biggest defining feature that TV has had, in comparison with other art forms such as theatre, film and literature, is that millions of people watched the programmes at precisely the same moment _ in the way they still do for a football match or news of a terrorist attack."

In the 2006 debut issue of "Critical Studies in Television," a biannual journal of critical studies in television, Deborah Jermyn and Su Holmes wrote about how the field of television studies has had to adapt to the changing existence of the theoretical "TV audience."

"As we settle into the twenty-first century," Jermyn and Holmes wrote, "this perception, and the concomitant notion of a �mass' audience, has become increasingly fragile and problematic."

Yet we do experience the communality of television and other media, even if there are gaps in the time line. I can still discuss episodes of "Project Runway" with my sister and my friend, despite the fact that one of us watched the show live, another through Netflix and a third via the Internet. Jermyn and Holmes speak of a "fragile" mass audience that is "splintered across the Internet." Just as this splintering may alienate us from our next-door neighbors, it also connects us to a vast and virtual online universe of fans, critics and commentators who flock around any program, no matter how esoteric.

We still don't know where this new frontier of TV viewing will take us, but I remain hopeful that, as long as there are compelling programs, people will continue coming together over these shared experiences, both virtually and face-to-face. As for me, I'm relying on family and friends to steer me toward new and exciting TV shows, movies and music, and accepting the fact that the chase I once found so thrilling is, at least for now, called off.


filbert said…
Another way to look at this is to say that simultaneity of experience, while certainly unifying as you describe it, was a transitory cultural phenomenon (I want to say, "from which we've recovered"). In the sweep of human existence, the period of broadcast radio and television, taken together, recede to pinpoint scale, don't they?

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