TV and Instant Gratification

Kathryn Williams ’16 is completing a bachelor’s in political science and a master’s of public service and administration from the Bush School. This guest post is a reflection from Kathryn on her participation in an exploration group on the subject of television and culture as part of the University Scholars program this past fall.

– by Kathryn Williams

University Scholar Kathryn Williams '16
University Scholar Kathryn Williams ’16

I’m currently sitting at my desk, tears rolling down my cheeks as I stare off into the distance with a look of both sadness and satisfaction on my face. Has the stress of finals weeks gotten to me? Am I conflicted over current world affairs? No, I have just finished watching the series Gossip Girl on Netflix. It only took a month to consume six seasons, but what a month it was. Herein lies the power of television; it can make us care more about whether Chuck and Blair finally tie the knot than whether or not we make it through our first semester of grad school with our GPA intact.

For over 50 years, television has been a major cultural force in American society. From lighthearted (and heavily censored) comedies in the fifties to darker crime dramas in the eighties, nineties, and beyond, TV shows accumulated fans that would wait for a new installment of “their show” each week. In recent years, however, that sort of dedication has become antiquated. With the advent of Hulu, Amazon Prime, and the Holy Grail of instant TV, Netflix, television has never been more accessible. Can you even imagine having to choose one (or if your life isn’t particularly stressful, two) TV show to commit to for months on end, only knowing what would happen next after a painstaking SEVEN days? My instant-gratification-generation mind recoils at the thought.

Online TV not only changes the way we consume TV shows, it influences how we experience television as well. If you watch one episode of your favorite show on a Tuesday, and then must wait until the next Tuesday to resume the series, there is plenty of time in between episodes for your life to go on normally. But if you log on to Netflix and hit play on that first pilot episode, there is nothing stopping you from passively allowing the next episode to automatically play until you’re unsure what day it is. Being able to watch an entire show, or several seasons of it consecutively, allows us to unwittingly become more immersed in the plotline. The characters become important to us because we spend a lot of compressed time with them, and as one of my classmates put it, “They basically become your friends”. But in the same way that you start to notice annoying habits about your friends if you spend too much time with them, it becomes easier to identify poorly written dialogue or characterizations if you watch multiple episodes continuously. There were many moments during my Gossip Girl binge that I found myself arguing out loud with the spoiled Upper East Siders, frustrated that they made the same mistakes repeatedly and overlooked obvious details.

In addition to allowing us to become unhealthily invested in the happenings of fictional characters, online TV has also streamlined our television watching in a way that has made cable nearly obsolete for some. Long gone are the days where I would causally flip through the channels and half-watch a show here and there before returning to being a productive member of society. Now I can pick what I want to watch and become absorbed in it, with no commercials to jolt me back to reality or obligations. It is both convenient to know that I can watch TV when it suits me and tempting to waste inordinate amounts of time that should be spent on papers or class reading. I’ve coped with that by simply becoming an astute multitasker. Who cares about Chuck and Blair anymore? In the time it’s taken me to write this blog, I’ve already dived into several episodes of American Horror Story, and my new concern is whether or not there are ghosts in my apartment.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this semester’s seminar over television. TV has always been an influential factor on American culture, and is arguably becoming more so through instant streaming. Everyone has lots of opinions over TV shows, and now that we have the ability to watch five or so of them altogether, there are even more discussions to be had. I’ve appreciated having a forum for these discussions with fellow UScholars students and look forward to more in the future.

Enriching programs like University Scholars would not be possible without the guidance of Program Coordinator Jamaica Pouncy, the tireless support of our faculty, and the generous contributions the Association of Former Students.

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