What is Television?

If you haven’t been following along, NPR’s Linda Holmes has been writing a wonderful series about the current state of television today. As is typical for me, it’s inspired a lot of my own thoughts about the state of television today and how it’s evolving as a medium. I’ll be exploring some of those thoughts over the next month before we are all deluged with more TV than is easily kept up with.

As I’ve been reading the comments on her posts, I’ve been struck by a question that hadn’t occurred to me before. What do people associate with the term “television”? Is is the physical machine that sits in a living room or bedroom that one watches various programs on? Is it the programs themselves, but only during their first run when they could be conceivably watched via the aforementioned machine? Is it any series that started its life through that machine but has now found a second chance to be seen via streaming services like Netflix? Do Netflix (or Amazon/Hulu/Yahoo) shows also count as television, despite only living online?

In my opinion, it is all of the above. The machine with which we often watch shows is referred to as a television so the answer to that question is technically yes, but when someone says that they are a television fan, they aren’t here to argue about the relative benefits of a Samsung vs. a Vizio branded machine. They are here to talk about the relative merits of a style of audio visual storytelling in which content is broken down into smaller segments that historically have come out on a weekly basis over some segment of a year. Sounds exciting when you put it that way, doesn’t it?

Regardless of whether you are watching a show live on the piece of electronic equipment known as a television, the next day on your computer through a service like Hulu or your cable/satellite providers On Demand service, or years later on a service like Netflix, or if you combine the two methods and watch something on your television after it airs live through something like a Roku, you’re watching television. It doesn’t matter if the show originated on NBC, HBO, or Netflix, it’s all television.

So why is this even a question? Why are we confusing the concept of television as a medium and distribution methods? Why is the statement “I don’t watch television, I watch Netflix” meaningful to some people, as ridiculous as it sounds to me?

My best answer for this comes from the history of television and its interaction with American society.

While such views are becoming less common, there is still a knee-jerk reaction to television as a whole. I understand that in the past, it has been a signifier of class and intelligence to distance oneself from television. We’ve all heard the arguments. It is mass marketing and caters to the lowest common denominator. It rots our brains. It’s a passive media used by people who are too lazy to pick up a book. It’s all a ploy to get us to buy products and feed into our consumerist mentality. Some of these complaints may be legitimate, if not a little overblown. But largely, these concerns were a way of signifying your social distance from the people who enjoy it.

That mentality is slowly disappearance with the rise of (this iteration) of the Golden Age of TV and shows such as The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and season one of True Detective. Television has become cool to watch and its artistic merit is becoming more recognized. There is no longer a need to look down your nose and dismiss an entire method of storytelling as garbage because you heard about a show that didn’t suit your preferences because there is an abundance of options that cater to all tastes. It’s time to admit and embrace your love of television, no matter how you choose to watch.


3 thoughts on “What is Television?

  1. Nice post Heather. I was struck by a sentence in the last paragraph:

    Television has become cool to watch…

    I think that truth or validity of the phrase is dependent on factors completely separate from either the physical television or the programming content. Younger people may work in corporations or offices, or in retail, or in service industries. They may have less time to watch tv programming because of their employment and/or family situations.

    Then there are older folks who no longer are in the work force, or may be elderly and away from a family set up.. These people may have more time to watch television, but it is likely that they have far less opportunity to share the experience.

    So I’m wondering why I watch television and write about television that I’ve watched. Would you say that blogging is the water cooler experience (hey – what did you think of The Sopranos last night?- only without the water cooler. And if I or others do not have the same opportunity to discuss and share tv experiences face to face how do we measure the cool factor.

    Just my idle thoughts.

    1. Thanks Mike!

      I love the idea that blogging provides us with the water cooler experience we may no longer be getting elsewhere. Even if people are in work environments that allow for that sort of discussion, the fracturing of the audience means that it’s not always easy to find a show to talk about.

      In my experience, there are only a few shows that I am able to talk about with my co-workers. For the rest, despite the amount of television I watch, we don’t share shows in common. And I’m in an office with a fairly diverse range of ages,mix of those with families and without, and preferred methods of watching.

      1. Yes – I completely overlooked the multiple and varied delivery systems. TV, Computer, DVD, video-on-demand, and streaming. Thinking further I guess that is why I chose to not write about House of Cards Season 3 – because the viewership was no longer tied to the once-a-week method of the old broadcast TV.

        It seemed that at the same time that I had watch 2 or 3 episodes, some one else may have seen them all.

        Or if I binged watched, some of my readers were spacing out their viewing plans or schedules.And I was well ahead of them.

        So the reality is that the cool factor remains the same – but what has changed is the where, when, and how of the feedback.

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