TV NOW: How Important is the Water-Coolerness Factor for Today’s Television? (2013)

"Orphan Black"
“Orphan Black”

With the rapidly changing face of television (in the way it is consumed and the way it is made available), it is hard to define just what is “television” today.  Viewers are watching shows both on traditional television sets and online, via smartphones, tablets and other devices.  Viewers are also refusing to be locked into the traditional model of primetime timeslots and are choosing instead to use DVRs, On Demand, and using online options to watch shows any time they want.  So with the medium of television becoming more fluid and esoteric, it also begs the question: how important is the “water cooler” factor anymore?  Do viewers feel compelled to watch TV shows at scheduled times in order to be a part of the global conversation, or are they okay with the hot topic of the day passing them by?

Given the outrage over perceived “spoilers” when someone tweets a big storyline reveal, such as when the show has not yet aired in other time zones or even other countries, there must still be some sensitivity as to when TV shows air and what information is made publicly available.  But I hazard to guess that the “spoiler” outrage does not spark the same interest as whether a viewer is staying current enough to participate in the day-to-day “water cooler” conversation.

Back in the hey-days of LOST, 20 million people tuned in every Wednesday night just so that they could talk with their friends, family and co-workers the next day all about it.  (Hard as it is to fathom now, LOST aired before Twitter and Facebook became all the rage as well as the predominate social platforms for discussing TV shows.) So the “water cooler” aspect of a show was vital to a show’s success in popular culture.  Everything from LOST to 24 to DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES was keyed into the idea that shows needed to be a part of the television “water cooler” conversation in order to be a hit and sustain their ratings.

But, as of this year, the rules have changed.  Digital media (e.g., TV shows not intended to be watched on television sets) blossomed.  While digital media and digital TV shows had been around for a couple years, it is now more than ever widely-accepted to watch primetime-worthy TV shows strictly online.  Blame it (or credit it) on Netflix.  By zealously advocating the idea that big name TV shows could be launched directly from the internet, Netflix launched four new series: HOUSE OF CARDS, HEMLOCK GROVE, ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT and ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, in rapid succession in the first half of 2013.  With big name stars like: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Dougray Scott, Famke Janssen, Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Jason Biggs and Laura Prepon, Netflix made sure that everyone was paying attention to its new shows.  Combined with an unprecedented publicity push, which astoundingly TV critics lauded and supported, it suddenly felt like everyone was talking about the hot new Netflix shows.

After all, if last year proved anything, it was that cable shows like THE WALKING DEAD, GAME OF THRONES, and DOWNTON ABBEY could dominate the global conversation.  Taking that cue, it was not such a leap that digital media could do the same — and they have.

Viewers are savvy to new media and new technology.  They have exchanged their old cellphones for smartphones, their television sets for iPad and tablets, and have discovered that TV shows can be found anywhere, anytime.  It is a TV viewer’s idea of nirvana.

“Binge” watching TV shows is not really a new concept.  Ever since DVD box sets became available, viewers have rushed to buy TV shows that they may have missed.  Shows like FIREFLY, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, and DEADWOOD all found new life and new fans as viewers discovered these series on DVD.  Viewers ecstatically embraced the idea of becoming a part of a global conversation for shows that had already aired.

For example, given the multitude of FIREFLY fans around the globe today, one thing is certain: they did not watch the show when it was first broadcast, otherwise it would have lasted longer than 14 episodes. (Sad, but true.) But because TV viewers were willing to discover shows that had already aired and giving them the opportunity become a part of the ever-expanding fanbases, the benefits were twofold:  (1) new fans could share in the perks and privileges being offered fans through an increasing number of fan conventions and other special access opportunities to meet the cast, writers and producers; and (2) they could be a part of the conversation because they desperately wanted to share in this fantastic TV series that all their friends seemed to be talking about.  (Plus, in the case of FIREFLY, it allowed them to be caught up so they could enjoy the worldwide release of the sequel film SERENITY.)

So DVD sets flew off the shelves during the past decade because everyone wanted to be a part of the conversation.  They watched hundreds of hours of shows like: HOMICIDE, THE SHIELD, SOPRANOS, THE WIRE, DEXTER, and even newer shows like SONS OF ANARCHY, BREAKING BAD and MAD MEN.  Why?  Because across the digital realm of Twitter and Facebook those were the shows that everyone was talking about.  Social ostracism is a powerful motivator.  No one wants to be the person who does not have a clue why everyone is talking about a particular TV show.  So TV “bingeing” became a useful tool.  It gave everyone the ability to be a part of the zeitgeist.

While social-conformity was not as desirable as being socially-included, the predominance of “global conversation” became key.  One could be a social-leper just by admitting that they were not caught up on or did not even watch the TV shows that the entire world was talking about.  With Twitter and Facebook being today’s biggest digital “water coolers,” they are the primary sources of global conversation through which viewers discuss the hot TV shows of the day.  For example, Sundays are all about THE WALKING DEAD, DEXTER, THE NEWSROOM, HOMELAND, and GAME OF THRONES.  It is virtually impossible to get on Twitter and Facebook on Sundays and not hear all about these shows.  With digital realm becoming the “water cooler” of the modern era, the penalty for not keep up with the global conversation can be immediate social isolation.

So access to “binge” watching opportunities became a priority.  One cannot jump in a time-machine to go back and watch all the now-popular TV shows; instead, one must tap into modern resources, whether by DVD sets (which are quickly becoming passé) or, more likely, via online streaming through Amazon, iTunes, Hulu or Netflix.

Perfect examples are the TV shows, SCANDAL and ORPHAN BLACK.  Both became the most buzzed about TV shows this past season, and the average viewer was caught unaware.  They had no idea that these shows would be become the shows that everyone was talking about and now viewers are scrambling to catch up so they can participate in the heated discussions about whether Kerry Washington or Tatiana Maslany will walk away with Emmy gold.   (If you are scratching your head right now wondering why the TV shows ORPHAN BLACK and SCANDAL have escaped your notice, the time to get caught up on these shows is now.  Emmy nominations will be announced July 18th and Emmy awards will be broadcast on September 22nd.)

With shows like MAD MEN, BREAKING BAD and THE BIG BANG THEORY walking away with multiple Emmy awards over the past few years, which not only piqued interested, it spurred large amounts of “binge” viewing.

One cannot be a part of the modern digital world without conforming somewhat to the new norms.  If everyone is talking about a certain TV show, then it is wise to get caught up on it and find out why.  The same is true with sporting events, political topics, and natural disasters.  Everyone watches TV or reads about the news to stay current — to be a part of the global conversation on the events of the day.  This is why films do the bulk of their sales on opening weekend:  it is because everyone wants to be able to talk about it after they see it.  And in today’s television world, that is why the power of “water coolerness” is king.  Everyone wants to be a part of the conversation – and not just at dinner parties or in the workplace, they want to be able to share in the immediate shocks, joys, and horrors with their peers through Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler and all the other social media sites.

Many TV critics have decried the loss of “water coolerness” due to Netflix’s decision to release entire seasons of a particular TV show all in the same day.  Critics have advocated that it dilutes the power of “water cooler” discussion.  Yet Netflix turned a deaf-ear to the naysayers and successfully proceeded with its business strategy by feeding the demand for “binge” viewing.  Netflix recognized, before everyone else, the power of giving viewers immediate access and the appeal of “binge” viewing.  They understood that modern TV viewers were already “binge” TV junkies and Netflix was only happy to feed that habit with new content.  Just like with the popularity of DVD box sets, which initially gave viewers a way to be a part of the global conversation, Netflix found a way to lure viewers and the global conversation in its direction.  They did not need to release episodes like bread-crumbs to lure viewers, they just put out a bag of cookies and viewers came running.  Feeding the compelling need to be a part of global “water cooler” conversation proved to be an excellent business strategy.

The power of “water coolerness” remains undiminished.  In fact, it has blossomed in this ever-increasingly intertwined digital era.  TV fans and viewers are less content to patiently sit back and have TV shows doled out like bread-crumbs.  They have become accustomed to “bingeing” on TV shows at their own pace.  They like being able to choose when, where and how they watch TV shows.  Just like viewers do not like to be told that they have to sit down on a certain night of the week at a specified time to watch a specific TV show (after all DVRs have unchained them from that years ago), they also do not like to be told how much they can watch in one sitting.  They like being able to watch 2-3 hours of a TV show at a time, or more if they get into the spirit of a true “binge” fest.  It also allows them to catch up with a TV show that has suddenly sprung up on their radar, or to savor a TV show they just recently discovered.

“Bingeing” and “water cooler” factors go hand-in-hand.  For a television viewer rarely watches a TV show in a vacuum and they rarely watch TV shows just for their own enjoyment.  It is more likely that they watch TV shows in order to share in the communal experience.  They want to talk about it.  They want to tweet about it.  They want to see what kinds of cool spoilers, pictures, and sneak peeks are available about what is coming up next on the show for which they have become addicted.  They also want to be a part of social community that watches and appreciates the same show.  It validates their choices and reaffirms that they are a part of the cool-kids club.

The “water cooler” factor is still vital in how television shows are experienced.  It remains as powerful whether watching shows episodically (week-by-week) or through “binge” watching experiences.  No matter how or when TV viewers watch a show, they want to be a part of that global conversation – the cool-kids club.  There is no longer such a thing as “late to the party”; it is now “welcome to the party.”  TV fans and viewers bond over TV shows that are airing currently, or over shows that have aired years before.  Thus, “water coolerness” never has an expiration date.  It is also what makes it a pure joy to be a TV viewer (or even at TV addict) in today’s modern era of digital media.  We all get to be a part of a wonderful and wondrous television club.

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