Back in 1955, when television was just hitting its straps, Science Fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote a short story called “Dreaming is a private thing.”
The essence of the story was that people didn’t want a shared entertainment experience.
He argued that people don’t want to have to get their entertainment according to someone else’s schedule – and that they don’t want to share that experience.
Well, he was wrong of course – but in some ways, he was also right.
Through the 60s, 70s and 80s, broadcast media brought all of us a shared media experience.
We all listened to the same radio shows which were broadcast live and we all watched the same TV shows each night – to discuss them the next day in a shared conversation.
‘Event TV” like the Roots mini-series, and the “Who shot JR” episode of Dallas, were nearly compulsory viewing – and the programming strategy seemed unbreakable.
Then, in the 80s and 90s, that monolithic media began to fragment – partly because of the rise of Cable TV (which aired shows at different times in different markets, over and over in syndication).
But a bigger influence was the video cassette recorder – which allowed us to time-shift our viewing, and watch TV when WE wanted, not when the broadcasters wanted us to.
Still, most people still watched TV at roughly the same time – delayed by days, perhaps, but still within the same week in most cases. Still close enough for us to share our media experience.
But then came the Internet – when fans could (and did) seek out media as soon as it was released in its home market. I can remember, for example, getting VCR copies of TV shows like Babylon 5 months or even years ahead of their Australian broadcast.
Of course, that was (strictly speaking) illegal – and required either a certain amount of tech-savvy to download pirated TV episodes, or a friend in the originating market to send them.
And then came streaming.
It is now possible to (legally) binge-watch entire series of programs both new and classic – entirely divorced from my fellow fans.
Which means that shared experience is simply not there.
Oh, some shows are still shared-viewing – Doctor Who for example, or Game of Thrones, are watched by millions of viewers around the world within hours of their release.
On the other hand consider streaming services like TEN’s new offering. On it, you could watch the entire series of Supernatural (for example) at your own schedule. But who do you discuss it with?
Live news and current affairs is still a shared experience on TV – but even in my own industry (radio) the rise of podcasts is making time-shift consumption the norm rather than the exception.
Some programs on the ABC’s Radio National, for example, have more listeners via podcast than they do at the time of broadcast.
It’s interesting, I think, that the shared entertainment experience was in many ways the hallmark of the 20th century from the rise of Hollywood (and later Bollywood) through the dominance of broadcast radio and television.
But, in these opening decades of the 21st century, what now for that shared experience?
Asimov put it this way: “Damn it, boss, it’s a social affair. A boy and a girl go to a dream palace and absorb some cheap romantic thing with stereotyped overtones and commonplace situations, but still they come out with stars sprinkling their hair. They’ve had the same dream together. They’ve gone through identical sloppy emotions. They’re in tune, boss. You bet they go back to the dream palace, and all their friends go, too.”
But what happens now that those dream palaces are no longer sharing our experiences?