Web TV services, DVRs, and on-demand TV encourage us to ignore the broadcast schedule and watch at our convenience. So what will become of the experience of watching the same show at the same time as your friends? Bob sits down with David Carr, media critic at the New York Times and Matt Zoller Seitz, New York magazine's TV critic, to see if the water cooler will evolve or perish.
BOB GARFIELD: So, with the exception of sports, some breaking news and the odd awards show or reality TV finale, it seems we no longer watch TV as a community. David Carr, New York Times media reporter says that doesn’t much matter. But Matt Zoller Seitz, TV critic at New York Magazine, says community matters a lot. Gentlemen, welcome to the show.
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: Thanks for having us.
DAVID CARR: Nice to be with you.
BOB GARFIELD: David, how much live TV did you watch in the month of May, so far?
DAVID CARR: I watched two minutes and one second of –
DAVID CARR: - the Kentucky Derby, and give or take, the - the jockey who was weeping inconsolably, I guess, I hung around for a minute or two. That was fairly riveting live television. But generally, um, I’m sort of a goose egg when it comes to the, the live demo, as they say.
BOB GARFIELD: But you're a TV watcher. You pointedly said in a recent New York Times column that you're not one of those who sniffs and says, “Well, one simply doesn’t watch television.” You watch it, but not in real time.
DAVID CARR: If I, if I was missing out on television I would be missing out on sort of the juiciest part of the culture right now. All the big ideas seem to be on the small screen. I just want to be able to program them and watch them on a platform of my choosing. Is that too much for a boy to ask?
BOB GARFIELD: Matt, what David’s just described are the patterns of a TV viewer but someone who’s not doing it at the same time as everyone else, the way all this stuff used to be done.
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: We started to see that happen in the nineties when the networks began repeating certain shows on the weekends and in different time slots and, of course, cable doing repeat views of shows all throughout the week. The cumulative audience became more important than the audience that saw it the first time. But there really just is no substitute to watching a show live, as I have discovered, once I got on Twitter. And you can see it. It’s like a ticker tape or an EKG reading.
BOB GARFIELD: Describe for me the experience you're talking about here. You're watching TV live and you’ve got your tablet or your laptop…
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: It depends on the show. Like a “Mad Men” or something where there’s a lot of plot, a lot of thematic action happening, I’ll usually concentrate on the show and do my note-taking during the commercial breaks. But other shows, I will be kind of live tweeting, which it’s part of the enjoyment for me, and apparently for a lot of other people, as well. And, and it does turn it into the virtual equivalent of watching a show in your living room with a bunch of friends.
BOB GARFIELD: Presumably, this can only be done in real time because otherwise how do you form a crowd?
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: Right. You know, I would say that even time shifting a little bit takes you out of that loop, and I would watch shows about, you know, 10 to 15 minutes after their actual start time because I wanted to be able to fast forward through the commercials. But that kind of takes part of the fun out of it, and it also opens you up to the possibility of spoilers.
And I made the decision during the season finale of Season 4 of “Breaking Bad” to stop doing that, because I left the room to take a bathroom break and returned and something really big had happened, and I s – I found out about it on Twitter [LAUGHS] before I actually saw it.
BOB GARFIELD: There’s two trends here that seem to be moving in opposite directions. Matt, there’s the real time social viewing that you’ve described, which is on the rise, but the megatrend that’s working in the other direction is the exodus to the DVR, that live viewing itself is diminishing. Is that not an unstoppable trend?
DAVID CARR: You cannot stop what’s coming. DVR viewing is the second-highest rated program on network every single night.
BOB GARFIELD: Viewing without commercials as a practical matter.
DAVID CARR: Yes. Dish Network announced a technology right before the Upfronts, “Hey, we can give you a product that’s gonna vaporize all the commercials.” My concern as a consumer is that when the business model goes away, all this yummy programming that Matt and I really enjoy might go away.
We’ve all been, you know, writing about and talking about network numbers. There is a steady trend line down, and social viewing in real time might be a ledge, but I think, as you say Bob, you can’t really stop what’s coming.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there even any data that suggests a relationship between the amount of social viewing that goes on and the overall popularity of a program?
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: No, but there is a definite relationship between the intensity - the level of detailed, enthusiastic scrutiny - and the enthusiasm of the viewership for that show. And that’s arguably the thing that saved “Community.”
DAVID CARR: It has pulled shows back from the brink. These are days when hits are grown. They don’t explode.
BOB GARFIELD: You have observed, David, that the very tools that Matt relies on for social viewing actually conspire against networks and cable in other ways. Can you tell me what you're talking about?
DAVID CARR: Well, I’m not the one who blew a whistle and said, “Hey, let’s put all the great shows on Sunday night.” The live experience is great, Matt, but a person only has so much time. Some stuff, big events, I’m happy to be there. The rest of the time, I’m gonna store up what I want to and play it out at a time of my choosing. And let’s say something, like I’m hooked on “Archer,” does it really matter when I – watch “Archer?” If I put a hashtag on Twitter, people will gather. And the water cooler happens whenever you light a match on Twitter. It isn’t necessarily right when the show is on.
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: That’s true, but you do get a bigger bonfire when the show first airs.
BOB GARFIELD: Are we gonna continue with this metaphor? [LAUGHS]
DAVID CARR: Right until it, it self-immolates, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Matt, David, thank you very much.
DAVID CARR: Nice to be with you, Bob.
MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: David Carr writes about media for The New York Times and Matt Zoller Seitz is TV critic at New York Magazine.