The fall television season is upon us: The season when we not only hunker down to catch new shows and the return of our favorites, but also, the season when we gather around the water cooler or dinner table to compare notes with our fellow TV fans. But is TV still bringing us together—or does online video mean it’s now pushing us apart?
Not long ago, TV watching looked like a fundamentally social experience. For one thing, watching TV meant gathering as a family, as Amanda D. Lotz observes in “What Is U.S. Television Now?”
Introduced as a sizable piece of furniture, network era television was an object around which family life came to be organized as the architecture and organization of domestic space quickly adapted to incorporate this new addition, as Spigel (1992) adeptly recounts. Network-era practices of looking relied upon the construct of family viewing and the family audience. Most homes possessed just one set, and families watched together, which meant negotiations about what to watch—television viewing in the network era was largely a home-based, shared experience.
And the social impact of television went well beyond the immediate family. In “All Media Are Social,” C. Clayton Childress recounts the experience of Timothy Malefyt, a researcher who asked a dozen viewers to abstain from TV for two weeks; to his great surprise, participants quickly dropped out. It wasn’t that they missed their shows—it was that they missed talking about their shows. Quoting Malefyt, Childress notes that TV was
a way to open conversations, it was a way to be in social groupings. People talk about the “water cooler effect”: if you didn’t watch, you were out of the loop and you felt disconnected. People want stories that speak to their own lives, but they also want to have a point of contact with others.
But the role of TV as social convenor was contingent on the way TV was delivered—namely, as a real-time broadcast. As Lotz notes, “networks could assume that audiences would view programs at the times they transmitted them….. Television’s status as a topic of ‘water cooler conversation’ was based on the reasonable assumption that others had viewed the same programming as oneself the night before.”
Even in those glory days of synchronous viewing and next-day plot dissections, the social impact of TV was up for debate. In “Tuning In, Tuning Out: The Strange Disappearance of Social Capital in America,” Robert Putnam blamed TV for the erosion of “social capital,” which he defined as “social connections and the attendant norms and trust.” Putnam argued that the decline of American social capital not only paralleled the rise of television, but that there was a correlation between TV watching and individual-level social trust: “TV viewing is strongly and negatively correlated to social trust and group membership,” he wrote, and “each hour spent viewing television is associated with less social trust and less group membership.”
In part, he argued, this was a simple matter of time displacement: “A major effect of television’s arrival was the reduction in participation in social, recreational, and community activities among people of all ages. In short, television is privatizing our leisure time.” But Putnam advanced the possibility that television’s pernicious impact also lay in the content of TV programs, which could make viewers pessimistic or passive, or in its effects on children, who might become more aggressive or otherwise dysfunctional.
Putnam’s claims have inspired a significant body of subsequent research and counter-arguments. Writing just a few years after Putnam, Eric M. Uslaner challenged the substance of his findings. “There is scant evidence that television makes us less optimistic for the future, less trusting of others, and less willing to participate in civic life,” Uslaner wrote in “Social Capital, Television, and the ‘Mean World.'” Others simply complicated the story: “[T]he relationships between the use of television, civic engagement, and interpersonal trust must be viewed as more conditional,” Dhavan V. Shah writes in “Civic Engagement, Interpersonal Trust, and Television Use: An Individual-Level Assessment of Social Capital.” The impact of TV is “highly dependent on the type of programming under consideration and on audience members’ uses of it.” According to Roger Patulny, the impact depends on the context of co-watching: “the most obvious (and surprising) pattern is that watching TV with friends and family is clearly associated with lower levels of trust, whilst time spent watching TV alone has a more ambiguous relation.”
Even as researchers grappled with the impact of TV on social capital, the ground began to shift, as Lotz describes:
The VCR released content from the network schedules to allow viewing at self-appointed times while making it more interactive: it was now possible to stop, rewind, and re-view what one was watching…Once content broke free of the schedule—either because it was available in a folder of choices for viewers to watch on-demand or because viewers has recorded it on a DVR—nearly all established ideas about how people watch were called into question.
In many ways the internet accelerated this shift. The rise of streaming and on-demand viewing (think about Amazon Video, Netflix, and network streaming) means that there are more viewing options than ever—including more options for when and how we watch our favorite programs. Maybe your office pals share your love of Succession, but that doesn’t mean they’re all in the same place: Some have watched the latest episode, while others are still catching up on season one. The “water cooler” effect, based as it was on people watching the same shows at the same time, might not survive an era in which many of us don’t even know when or on what channel our beloved shows actually air.
If that suggests that any social benefits of TV watching are now behind us, think again. Perhaps we can no longer count on chatting about the latest episode while pouring a cup of coffee: Venture a comment about last night’s episode of The Deuce, and a nearby colleague will inevitably interject, “No spoilers!” But there are new spaces where a TV fan can indulge in a little post-game analysis, as Kenneth L. Brewer notes in “Don’t Make Me Laugh!“: “With the advent of the internet, smartphones, and tablets, however, we are now clearly in an era of social television…Viewers not only consume shows on screens other than the television but also engage in discussion about television via the web.”
These online conversations can make the experience of watching TV richer and more social, in ways that are analogous to the water coolers of the “appointment television” era. Writing about the TV show Community in “Just Tell Me the Rules, and I Will Follow”, Laura Detmering writes that “[m]any members of online fan communities play with material from their favorite texts to create new materials,” and argues that these “communities provide a space in which people who are not scholarly experts in subjects can feel that they have some authority and a right to speak about what they know.” In the LGBTQ community, social media has become a way of voicing dissatisfaction with the representation of queer and trans characters, as Annemarie Navar-Gill and Mel Stanfill write in “We Shouldn’t Have to Trend to Make You Listen”: Where fans once took to Twitter to protest plot developments on a single show, “there is a marked evolution toward cooperation between multiple fandoms” and a “general trend toward greater inclusiveness and cooperation between different queer fandoms in hashtag campaigns.”
With the growth of “second screen” viewing (the experience of engaging with fellow viewers online, even while watching a show), real-time viewing has once again found a niche. “Twitter’s orientation toward realtime, synchronous conversation makes it particularly useful for bringing viewers back to live broadcast,” Navar-Gill and Stanfill note. To participate in the online conversation about your favorite show, you need to watch it when it airs—which means that you and your friends or colleagues might just be watching the same episodes on the very same night. Maybe the water cooler isn’t dead, after all.