While preparing to teach my introduction to television class this weekend, I kept thinking about this great comment one of my students made last week about how television was a community event in its early days. Today we rarely think of it as such, despite the fact that I am quite convinced that television is very much still a community event, and dare I say perhaps more than ever.
Television became a mass medium in the mid-1950s, and its early years were defined by group gatherings around the TV set, groups gathered in bars to watch sports, and appointments with favorite shows. With televisions still on the more expensive end of the spectrum (perhaps like iPads now), families who could afford a set might invite friends and neighbors into their living rooms, thereby creating the first mini home theaters. As such, television was at its very outset a community event. But also importantly a family event, as it was marketed and geared towards gathering the family together around the actual set itself. Sometimes, I like to think about how the introduction of television into the domestic space had, what I imagine to be, a pretty big impact on how the living room was put together; things like TV tables had to be invented, as did TV dinners. But moving on … television and community.
Despite television’s early community orientation, what we often hear today is the refrain of television as something we do alone, and as something that prohibits and precludes us from having conversations (mind you these discourses existed early on too alongside others which proclaimed television as a vast wasteland). However, what I have found, in my television watching experience, is mostly the opposite: television remains, quite often, a community event. While I do indulge and often rejoice in watching television all by myself, for example, I watch The Sing Off alone, as despite how awesome I think it is, many of my friends seemingly disagree. But, I love watching in groups and almost only watch comedy with other people.
Not only do I adore this brand of watching, but I have weekly dates with my girlfriends to watch specific shows. For example, Monday night is saved for Gossip Girl, usually replete with wine and some healthy gossip and some ogling at Chuck Bass (oh he is so dark and swarthy and hot, is a little how it goes). And when GG is not on, we gather to watch Pretty Little Liars on Tuesdays. Safe to say I am not the only one who watches this way; I have friends that gather to watch Top Model on Wednesdays, and I have another friend who powered through The Wire (on DVD) with a group of friends who met weekly to watch together until they finished the show.
I think there is something really interesting about this phenomenon, one enabled at once by DVD and DVRs, but also that at times still sticks to the appointment television format, wherein we base our schedules around the TV schedule. In part, I can say that we watch on primetime’s schedule to avoid spoilers, but also as a means to participate in the online television community: read recaps, write recaps or blog posts, read reviews, etc. It is the online water-cooler, something I am certainly not the first to note. But we also watch together because we do not all own TVs, much less have cable subscriptions. Thus, like earlier generations of TV watchers, our need to come together stems from the economics of television, and cable specifically.
This is all to say, that I firmly believe in television as community and as many critics before me, such as Stuart Hall and Lynn Spigel, note a site or location of cultural struggle. So not only, do our ritual meetings around Gossip Girl bring us together in front of the television to chat, think, gossip, and watch, but they also connect us with other communities online. In this way too, texts like Gossip Girl are those very sites of cultural struggle in which virtual and real life communities work out questions of race, class, gender, among many other things. Thus, television is, more I think than ever, still very much a community event despite the increasing privatization of watching content on smaller and smaller screens.