March 11, 2012 in Features

Watching what we say: TV gets bad rap for being inert activity

Besides, what else would we talk about without the benefit of the tube?
By The Spokesman-Review
 

One classic criticism of TV watching is that it’s a passive activity.

And sure, there might be times when we appear to be slack-jawed lumps of recliner ballast while viewing. But then, at least once in a while, something happens.

We talk about what we watched.

Sometimes these discussions are with family members. Sometimes they’re with friends. And often we analyze favorite TV shows with co-workers.

These exchanges can be intensely interactive, the opposite of couch potatoing. Moreover, they suggest that our relationship with television can involve something more than being inert sponges.

Unless you lead a hermetic existence, you’ve heard it.

“Not buying the new love interest.”

“I was so wishing that one guy would get killed.”

“What you’re missing is that he is basically insecure.”

“My parents’ kitchen looked exactly like that back in the ’60s.”

“The philandering, I could excuse. But since his bullying in the meeting, that character is dead to me.”

Sandpoint dentist Marc Natoni enjoys hearing others’ perspectives on something he watched the night before, whether it was “60 Minutes” or “American Idol.” It helps him frame his own reaction.

He is not alone.

In fact, some TV watchers don’t really consider their viewing experience complete until they have critiqued and rehashed “Mad Men,” “30 Rock” or “Game of Thrones” with certain officemates or distant relatives.

And this being 2012, many viewers are no longer content to simply offer a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. The phrase “everybody’s a critic” has been with us for a long time. But nowadays, seemingly everyone owns the vocabulary.

Today’s TV audience members come to the break room ready to address subtext, foreshadowing and narrative arcs.

That is, considering the myriad recording/anytime access options, if they can first establish that everyone within earshot has gone ahead and checked out the show in question.

Recently, Moses Lake’s Carol Bending found herself exchanging extended emails with her sister in Arizona about the PBS series “Downton Abbey” — sometimes prefacing notes with “Don’t read if you haven’t watched yet!”

We live in an age of the perpetual spoiler alert.

But wasn’t the Internet going to erase TV, make it go bye-bye? Instead, it has provided multiple new ways for people to discuss online how many times “House” has jumped the shark or to chat about “The Walking Dead.”

Speaking of AMC’s hit show about life in a time of zombies, the network acknowledged fans’ appetite for discussion of the series by scheduling a weekly half-hour gabfest called “Talking Dead.”

One Spokane woman writing on Twitter as “the Zombie,” routinely sends out brief undead messages to an eager audience that responds to her from South America, Great Britain and countless points in between.

Of course, with remote-wielders having dozens of channels to choose from, not every program on TV is going to enjoy anything approaching universal recognition.

Or be considered an intriguing offering even by people in the same household.

“All my husband watches is something getting killed, as in the hunting programs on the Outdoor channel,” said Debbie Cross of Hayden Lake.

Still, you never know when you are unexpectedly going to bump into a kindred video spirit, said Dennis Magner, a Spokane advertising/media executive.

“I’m always blown away when this happens,” he said. “I mention something about some obscure show that I happened to catch deep down the channel lineup and…”

… It turns out the other person just finished a multi-episodes marathon of that very same program.

So certainly you would expect that to create a satisfying connection between the two individuals.

But what about the scenario where a few people in a workplace loudly obsess about a show that most present do not watch? Is that apt to create bonding, act as a divider or both? Could it fuel an US and THEM vibe?

You’re welcome to judge for yourself. But Edward Vacha, professor of sociology at Gonzaga University, cautioned that group dynamics can be complex.

And, he said, the nature of the specific program and the existing relationships are apt to play roles.

There is little question, though, that a shared interest in a show can provide at least a superficial basis for being on the same wavelength.

Pullman-based archaeologist Matthew Root remembers when a collective fondness for talking about “Seinfeld” helped lubricate the working atmosphere for strangers tackling a long, often tedious project in North Dakota. “Those conversations did allow the crew to engage in light, humorous banter to help pass the day and become friends over a three-month field project.”

But is talking about TV shows any different than yakking about sports or the weather?

Michael Ingram would suggest that it is.

“Discussing characters in a show or current plot-lines allows people to engage in complex reasoning about their appreciation for the program,” said Ingram, professor of communication studies at Whitworth University. “They can also explore deeper emotions and explain their attachments to characters. This can help strengthen affinity between people.”

First, though, you have to get people to admit that they watch television.

Spokane nurse Karen Buck said she has encountered more than a few locals who express disdain for popular broadcast fare but somehow seem to know a lot about what’s happening on certain highly rated shows.

“Interesting,” she said.

Maybe the urge to talk about TV trumps the desire to be seen as above it all.


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