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.

Inconceivable! [or not]

One of the famous and favorite moments in The Princess Bride is when Inigo Montoya tells Vizzini:

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Watching the Yelling Shows this morning, I kept replaying Inigo’s line in my head.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I guess Inigo was wondering: Is it a misuse of language? A misunderstanding of what’s actually happening? Or, simply, wishful thinking? But ultimately the why doesn’t matter. If you don’t recognize the reality, you’re in trouble.

I was thinking about this as the guest on the show, in an ominously warning voice, said that people need to understand that Donald Trump is not a Republican, and he does not represent what the Party stands for (he said lots of other stuff, too, but that’s not germane here).

I think that this is the wrong argument.

What if people don’t care that he’s not a Republican? What if THEY are not Republicans, too? [There is a parallel argument on the Democratic side that Senator Sanders is NOT a Democrat, and my thinkings here apply to both parties.]

Earlier this week, Clay Shirky who, by the way, is a much better thinker than DocThink, wrote a tweetstorm outlining a theory of the redundancy of political parties in a networked world. He offers that parties used to be required to access media, to access donors and to access voters through organizing. He traces the arc of a scythe cutting down this syndicate starting with Ross Perot through Howard Dean and Obama for America. He posits that both parties are seeing an internal insurgency where “the people,” or at least a passionate sector of “the people,” are hijacking the party regulars.

I’m not sure that’s exactly right.* I think that we are seeing the hijacking of the parties’ infrastructure for people who may or may not be party members. It could be that the outsiders are not growing the party as much as using the party. They are disruptors.

Conventional wisdom sided against any 3rd or 4th party in the U.S. because of the infrastructure requirements to gain public office. It’s the party apparatus in each state that organizes and hosts primaries. The parties own the statewide infrastructure, the hosting of caucuses and elections, the rules, the timelines and the costs. They own donor lists and vendors who do polling and pipe and drape.

Smart outsider candidates are able to use this structure to launch their own campaigns with enough hat-tipping to the “party,” as long as they have followers. They can build their own followers

  • by addressing them DIRECTLY on social media and use this to pressure and gain earned media,
  • by raising money from them DIRECTLY online, and
  • by getting their names and emails and Facebook likes and Twitter follows to call on them DIRECTLY as well as ask them to call on each other when it’s time to GOTV.

We might be seeing a disruption on the scale of Amazon for commerce, Uber for transportation, Airbnb for lodging or Facebook for communications.

It makes me think, too, about another Clay. Clay Christensen wrote the Innovator’s Dilemma. I’m still working my brain through this but I think I’ll throw it out to see if it’s a useful model to apply. Christensen says*

  • Companies innovate faster than their customers’ needs evolve and eventually produce products that are actually too sophisticated, too expensive, and too complicated for many customers.
  • Companies pursue these “sustaining innovations” at the higher tiers of their markets because that’s what made them successful– charging the highest prices to their most demanding and sophisticated customers at the top of the market.
  • This leaves a gap at the bottom of the market for competitors to emerge and go after smaller markets with simpler products that might not be attractive to the “establishment” organization.
  • See a full and smarter version here.

So the people who were in the market, but couldn’t afford the goods are happy with a cheaper, less feature-rich version that they can have. Or maybe they don’t see themselves as customers of the Party as it is, and are open to an offering that better meets their beliefs.

But what about the Brand value of the Parties. Parties still offer a shorthand to understand where a candidate stands. I did voter studies in the 80’s. I know about party affiliation. But I also know about brands. So I’ll offer one thought. How does that brand–of establishment political parties–make people who are angry and left out feel?

The first Clay put out a stat that floored me. There are 150 million registered voters in the U.S. That would be considered a MEDIUM-sized group on Facebook. Shirky said, “All voters’ used to be a big number. Now it’s less than 10 percent of Facebook’s audience.”


in·con·ceiv·a·bleˌ inkənˈsēvəb(ə)l/adjective
     1. not capable of being imagined or grasped mentally; unbelievable.

* Apologies for my reductionist parsing of both Clays’ arguments. I’m just trying this out, Loyal Reader. I suggest you read them both and help me hone my Thinkings.