Television in the age of Twitter

After some sketchy initial dates between the internet and television a functional romance has now formed. Sure mistress Pirate Bay still gets a good seeing to behind closed doors, but VOD services, offering infuriating unskippable adverts on free services, or high-definition, annoyance-free versions of shows for those willing to pay, have facilitated a legitimate and profitable marriage. What with the increasing functionality and convenience of these services, it seemed like nobody would have to submit themselves to broadcast television and its unparalleled barrage of adverts ever again. Yet once the world started tweeting it became evident that VOD users were missing the action on Twitter, where live discussion of broadcast television frequently ‘trends’. Many programs now provide a hashtag to use in discussion of the show, promoting this active engagement with a virtual community. But if everybody’s tweeting about a show, is anybody properly watching it?

Back then chairs were yet to be invented

Televisions used to be hulking cubes with fuzzy, fishbowl screens on one of the sides. Due to this, and despite such sets generally shit speakers, television became known as a medium where audio was the dominant factor. As long as you had an instantly recognisable theme tune, characters spouting catchphrases and stories told predominantly through dialogue, people could ‘watch’ while ironing, reading the paper, answering nature’s call, etc. (feel free to add your own comedic examples, it’s probably what the comments section’s for.) But even before televisions became sleek, widescreen objects that could be hung on your wall, leaving that space previously occupied by your unsightly cube to pile up Xboxes, amplifiers and PVRs, shows were becoming more visual. Anybody cooking dinner while Twin Peaks (1990-1991) unfolds in the lounge would be even more confused than David Lynch intended, while he who attempts to watch ‘Hush’, the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) where the characters have their voices stolen, though a toilet door should either install a television or a glass door in their bathroom (please note that neither of these is socially acceptable). As televisions became fetishised, and high-definition channels emerged, such aesthetically innovative shows were increasingly encouraged and demanded. And people began to watch television properly and everybody lived happily ever after until Twitter came along.

Essentially all that’s changed is the activities we partake in while watching television, which now shares our attention with laptops, iPads and smartphones instead of ironing boards, newspapers and toilets. In fact, increasingly fewer tasks are now undertaken without encountering multiple screens, despite how little anybody wants to watch news broadcasts while queuing in Tesco. We’ve all adapted to this, automatically screening out the bullshit and assimilating ourselves into different media when suited. If we do choose to devote ourselves to the news in Tesco it’s not as simple as just focusing on one image though – numerous streams and banners run across the screen, allowing us to actively select our focal point or just absorb the whole thing, subconsciously navigating between points of interest. We even engage in this when watching fiction, aesthetic innovation in television spawning shows like 24 (2001-2010) where we happily watch multiple frames within the frame, or Sherlock (2010–) where emails, texts and Sherlock Holmes’ thought patterns persistently scroll across the screen. But as technology leaps and bounds forwards, it risks overtaking our ability to integrate it into our lifestyle. So while watching the news and buying milk, or tweeting about Jack Bauer kicking some ass while one of his friends is kidnapped, may be second nature, once the whole of the internet is chucked into the mix it can all get a bit overwhelming, as demonstrated here by Brian Limond:

Despite the fact that many people may only watch ten minutes of a show between tweets and web distractions (or just give up on the show altogether in favour of YouTube), broadcasters actively promote hashtags. It’s clearly beneficial in that it provides instant feedback, and spreads word of mouth. Whereas traditional water cooler discussions meant that opinions could only be shared amongst the amount of people that can physically fit around a water cooler, a simple tweet can instantly communicate with a broad international audience. I remember logging in to Twitter after This is England ’88 (2011) screened to see the surge of praise from British fans, sparking interest in American tweeters who only knew of the original film, This is England (2006). But Twitter can just as easily destroy a show, as the creators of the BBC’s short-lived Outcasts (2010) found. The initial outpouring of cyber-hate for the show was undoubtedly a key factor in its plummeting viewership, relegation from prime time to graveyard slot and eventual cancellation announced, rather fittingly, on Twitter. Admittedly a deeply flawed show, it showed potential in an exciting finale but by then the damage was done. Whether or not Outcasts could have maintained its belated momentum through a second series we’ll never know, but it does show how in our digital age television’s cut-throat nature has accelerated, and shows that don’t immediately dazzle are prone to public execution before a swift burial.

Or maybe it was the silly orange guns that got Outcasts cancelled

Whether you view this as an efficient culling of uninspired drivel, or a suffocation of possible greatness before it can properly develop, Twitter’s potential influence on scheduling and production means it impacts the viewing of even those audiences who choose to simply watch shows without tweeting along. One popular alternative is to dedicate your undivided attention to a show and then log in to Twitter after the credits roll, gauge the reception and chip in if desired (my preferred approach). Or use the advertisement breaks as tweeting time, resolving two issues at once – just don’t get too carried away or adopt other’s opinions before you’ve properly formed your own. Your thoughts or criticisms may even be read by the show’s creators and haunt them for years, massage their ego or be scoffed at and cast off. More likely they’ll get lost in the incessant flow of tweets but who knows, as long as you can express your views in 140 witty/perceptive characters, you could start a new trend.

By James Taylor


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