At the end of My Liveblogged Year, I promised a follow up on my evolving opinion of Liveblogging’s form and promise.
This post is not that article. Instead I’m reacting to the announcement of the GoogleTV service. I was prompted to respond by what feels like Google’s profound misunderstanding of how and why people watch television. To start with, I’d like to point out that mostly, people do not watch the television so they can see a particular programme.
If you work in Google this may seem like patent foolishness. If people want to find something on the Internet, they search for it. Why not bring the same sort of pinpoint accuracy to the television? Then we can all do a search for our favourite programme, thereby increasing Television Watching Productivity!
I make the reference to TV Productivity only half in jest. The unspoken presumption is that we have been watching these television channels in a frustrated state all our lives, chafing at the wasted seconds of our lives that every programme which was not exactly the one we want represented.
Sorry, but that’s not Telly Watching as I know it. And, though I understand you’ll have to take this on trust, I have watched a great deal of television.
Television, the jargon has it, is a ‘Lean Back’ activity as opposed to computers- which are ‘Lean Forward’ machines. Google even announced they’re calling their YouTube for TV service YouTube Leanback.
But this isn’t the reality of watching television. When watched in a solitary situation, it isn’t any kind of activity at all. It is the practically the definition of a lack of activity. Never mind whether you’re leaning forward, backward or slumped on the floor in a nest of cushions. With only two exceptional circumstances, watching television as an adult is a ‘Brain Off’ moment.
Of course, it is in the exceptions that all the most interesting stuff lives. For adults, I think those exceptions are when participating in what you’re watching or when what you’re watching is of such exceptional quality that it engages you fully in the same way a novel can.
Or, if you prefer, we only think about a programme when it becomes either a social or artistic event.
I don’t really have much to say about the latter category. It has always been what the best of television drama and documentary has aspired to. It has existed as the traditional goal of any television creator with an ounce of self respect since the creation of the medium.
What I do have something to say about is television as a social event. At the moment, the phrase “event television” is used to refer to a particular style of mass-audience blockbuster programme. X-Factor is the leader of this fleet of pumped-up gong show retreads. A drama can become a social event too- Doctor Who, when in good health, has always provoked discussions in offices and playgrounds alike.
But there is no reason that event television should apply only to programmes with mass appeal. Indeed niche programmes are more likely to call forth deeper levels of engagement the more niche they become. As the barrier to entry rises, so does the remaining fans commitment. Look at the fervour of any of the campaigns for the reinstatement of Joss Whedon’s cancelled series’ for an example.
Put bluntly, a bad programme with a good social element- where it is the jumping off point for shared references, jokes and ongoing stories- is simply more fun than a mediocre programme which stands on its own.
How much more bearable can a terrible programme be made? Why, here’s a lively discussion of the raw streamed feed from a Dublin City Council meeting. That’s how much extra enjoyment can be squeezed out of the least promising of material when people can join a peanut gallery.
GoogleTV as currently imagined wants to help us watch more TV. What it needs to do is abandon its internet-bred idea that the content is what is valuable about television. What is valuable about television is precisely that it is a mass medium. The internet is vast, but it isn’t broadcast.
Google needs to stop thinking about linking viewers with programmes and start focusing how to gently help viewers to link to each other.