December 4, 2012

Television As A Shared Cultural Experience

I've written on a number of occasions so far that with the advent of digital television, DVRs and television on-demand, streaming video and a choice of hundreds of cable channels in an average household (for example, see my posts HERE and HERE and HERE for a few examples) that something is kind of lost with the lack of a shared TV experience.

It was much easier in the past when everyone got the same 3 or 4 television networks, so we weren't overwhelmed with choices.  If you didn't like what was on one of those stations, the alternative was to do something else (like listen to the radio, or read a book or magazine, of course printed books and magazines may someday be on the endangered species list, as Newsweek announced it is converting to an all-digital format starting next year, see

In Time magazine (see, Steve Gillon, author of "Boomer Nation: The Largest and Richest Generation Ever, and How It Changed America," argued [I would add rather unconvincingly] that Baby Boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) were the last [emphasis mine] generation to really experience national culture in such a unified way.  He told Time "If you grew up in the '50s and '60s, you came of age at the same time that national culture first developed.  There were three major TV networks. Everyone was watching the same thing. The assassination of J.F.K., for instance, was the first event the nation experienced in real time at the same time."

Maybe, but Boomers weren't the first (or last) ones to experience that at the same time.  Gen X even has historical events to prove it.

For example, on January 28, 1986, when Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff, it was primarily Gen Xers who were tuned in at school, not Baby Boomers.  Less anyone forget,  New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe was on board, so many schools were showing the takeoff on televisions in classrooms across the country.

Cable as we know it today didn't become widespread until the 1980s.  Many small towns in America weren't even wired for cable until the 1980s. (I provided some stats that cable subscriptions more than tripled from 15 million in 1980 to 47 million in 1989 in my post on "Family Ties", see for that), so Gen Xers weren't "wired at birth" as Mr. Gillon seems to be suggesting.  In fact, by then, Gen X was already graduating from high school.

And, that "national culture" was not a product of the Baby Boom, but of the so-called Silent Generation (born 1925-1945, recognized as the children of the Great Depression who arguably created network TV as we knew it).  A "national culture" already existed by the time Baby Boomers (and Gen X) came along.  I kind of presumed that Gen X might be the last generation to experience that.

Social Media Helps Save A Shared TV Experience

It turns out I was wrong.  Watching TV together isn't dead after all, it's merely changed form.

True, entire households may not necessarily watch a TV show together, but thanks to social media like Facebook and Twitter, a new era of shared pop culture moments via television are still alive and kicking!

NPR News Morning Edition today had a really interesting story entitled "Nielsen Study Notices Growth In Social TV" in which NPR reporter Renee Montagne talked to Dierdre Bannon of Nielsen about its new report on social media use (see that report at, and one of its key findings: explosive growth in "Social TV", which is people watching television while connected to social media.  Have a listen to that below, or by visiting

I can say that I've watched television while Tweeting, and it does make the experience more fun than watching something by yourself.  As the report shows, Twitter rules in that space, not Facebook. The report shows that during June 2012, a third of active Twitter users tweeted about TV-related content, an increase of 27% from the beginning of the year.  Dierdre Bannon of Nielsen noted that Twitter is particularly well suited for that type of social interaction.  And although I've read some bloggers who obsess that it's youth who are glued to social media, as it turns out, adults aged 35-44 are the most likely to discuss TV programming with their social connections, not younger folks.  Too bad, they don't know what they're missing, but I guess if I was still in my 20s, I'd probably find going to bars more fun, too!  Maybe they'll figure it out ... someday.

Social media does have advantages over the traditional "shared" TV watching experience.  For example, you can share the experience with a much larger group of people, and they need not be in the same room or, theoretically, even the same country!  On the downside, there is something to be said about laughing at something together with people in the same room and being able to see the expressions on their faces.  But, compared to the alternative scenario of everyone watching their own show on their own tablets or phone, the shared enjoyment factor suggest that communal television rightfully deserves to continue.

The television networks are keenly aware that people are Tweeting about a show as it airs live.  These days, we see hashtags being promoted in program intros and during commercials.  Contest-oriented shows like American Idol and The Voice use them all the time to gather votes for contestants.

In the NPR interview, Ms. Brannon says:

"And you see that television networks are responding and recognizing to this as well. And people are really gaining a voice in how they feel about the programming content that they're seeing and having an influence on what they're seeing on the screen."

Having said that, the networks aren't exactly using this social feedback to alter storylines.  That, at least presently, is still controlled by the networks' anointed gatekeepers.  In fact, Fast Company wrote back in October (see for the article):

"The X Factor realized that its highly enthusiastic following on Twitter had strong opinions about the show’s contestants. The show’s executives got in touch with Digital Royalty, and we helped them see that their viewers didn’t necessarily care if the TV show itself was listening to their opinion; they were naturally sharing their thoughts, feelings, likes, and dislikes with their peers in the interest of a more personal viewing experience."

My local NPR station, WNYC, has a program called "On The Media" and in a show that ran on May 25, 2012 which they named "Television's Trying Times", a segment of that program called "Will We Ever Watch TV Together Again?" aired.  In that segment, guests David Carr (media critic at the New York Times) and Matt Zoller Seitz, (New York magazine's TV critic) discussed "social viewing" of TV.  Mr. Zoller Seitz suggested social viewing doesn't change the long-term trends.  You may listen to that segment below, or by visiting

Perhaps expecting the social television experience to enable viewers to somehow be involved in key decisions is too much to expect.  But I'm psyched that shared, live TV viewing has found a new way to survive in the new Millennium!

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