Time Travel

Cartoony drawing of a TV with an antenna and a clicker. So old skool.

Time has shifted. Literally.

The idea of a “prime time,” when families sat around a TV to watch the news on one of the three broadcast channels at 6:00 pm, is long gone. Those kinder, gentler Sunday nights when The Wonderful World of Disney came on–and especially that one time they showed Mary Poppins. Mom made jiffy-pop. On the stove. It always got burned. We ate it anyway. I didn’t say she burned it.

Times when the Olympics were broadcast live, and nobody knew the results of the race until we all did. Or we read it in the papers the next morning. We couldn’t endlessly loop an especially spectacular event. It was live that night, maybe an instant replay or two, and maybe on the TV news on one of the three broadcast channels the next night at 6:00 pm. If there was a finals in gymnastics or skating, mom might let us stay up past our bedtime to watch.  If the games were in China, we could only see them during the day.


This changed with advance of VHS and the proliferation of cable channels. You could program your recorder–well some people could–and go to the gym and still catch this week’s episode of  Buffy or X-files.  There was some ear covering at the coffee machines and admonishments to hurry up and get caught up. And there were the cries of misery that echoed in a neighborhood when someone realized they taped over the recording of their nuptials. No one would ever see her say, “I do,” again. And nobody would ever again see Uncle Bobby doing his breakdance version of the electric slide. The 57 channels, then 157 channels meant that there were many options for news and entertainment.

DVRs took away the messiness of tapes, and their rewinding and their clumsiness. People could store many episodes, concurrent shows, and never watch them. There was a study that said that two of five recorded hours were never watched. I bet that it was more like four of five hours recorded were ever watched.

Netflix started making TV seasons available. Admittedly this was external to Netflix, but most of us got the seasons that way. Not too many of us bought the boxed set of Friends. I hope. Netflix’s automatic shipments of discs brought on the binge watch–hungover after a night of Charmed, a lost weekend to the bloody mess of Dexter, whipping through the entire two terms of President Bartlett on West Wing.  Netflix on demand sped up the cycle because you didn’t have to wait for a disc in the mail.

Of course, today, almost all TV is on demand. You can watch last night’s, late night comedy bits as they trend on Twitter in the morning. You don’t have to stay up late. You can watch funny people eviscerate pols on your phone as you brush your teeth before work. You don’t even have to watch the entire program, or skip ahead. The sketches are conveniently broken down. Hell, there are gifs with the best mugging. You share your favorite parts of a scene on social media. If you didn’t see it, your buddy sends you a link right now so you can watch it and laugh together.

So when you think about prime time, that time of cohesion from an ancient past when you have to contemporaneously participate in a broadcast viewing experience, there are very few modern occurrences. There’s the MTV awards, if you think Kanye is going to go off or if Beyoncé is going to do anything. The Super Bowl and World Cup. The final ball drop on Dancing With The Stars. That live production of Peter Pan or whatever ABC Family productions did that I didn’t watch.

That’s it, too. These time-bound events aren’t universal. You might not be a BET fan. You might be all hockey and no NBA. You might just set your phone to ring in the New Year rather than stop a party to all huddle around a TV.

There was a time, I’m told, when families listened to the President peddling patriotic bravery on the radio, “nothing to fear but fear itself.” There was a time when everyone tuned in to see the President take his leave, ” I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow.” There was palpable shared fear when another President addressed a mourning nation on 9/11.

Today there are fewer common addresses, fewer addressed directly to the people. We simply pick and choose what we want as we graze our way, on our own schedules, through the buffet of media.

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