The four different ways you can watch television today

Rob Walker
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Remote control, via Giphy

The buzziest trend in television is real-time tweeting about “event” programming, like the Emmys, or new episodes of “Breaking Bad.” The idea is that everyone watches together and technology helps augment the experience, which can be monetized in various ways. (This is why every new television show arrives with an accompanying Twitter hashtag.)

But, speaking of the Emmys, Sunday night we were reminded of the other buzziest trend in television viewing: on-demand programming that everyone watches separately and can’t share the experience. The Netflix-produced, Emmy-winning, binge-watchable series "House of Cards" is a marquee example, and there’s no question that the once-unthinkable model that Netflix has applied to the idea of “a TV show” is working.

The upshot, then, is that TV is getting more social than ever — except when it’s getting more personal and less social than ever.

How can we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory, yet apparently real trends? With a graph, of course, that maps the different scenarios of how social media use (or nonuse) can meet television viewing:

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For my two axes, I settled on OLD vs. NOW and PRIVATE vs. SOCIAL. Then I consulted an exclusive dataset of Stuff I Have Watched In Recent Days and Months.

To be explicit: Programming can be NOW and SOCIAL (you watch live and want to share the experience); NOW and PRIVATE (you watch live and don’t want to share); OLD and SOCIAL (no longer in any sort of conversation, but you share it anyway); and OLD and PRIVATE (no longer in any sort of conversation, and don’t tell anyone).

So, how do these break down, practically? Well, Sunday night, for instance, I watched “Breaking Bad.” While last week we determined that tweeting through a new episode of Breaking Badis crazy, it’s also obviously very popular. Thus, expert opinion aside, it goes in the upper-right quadrant: very SOCIAL and very NOW. This is Real-Time Water-Cooler TV.

The Emmys broadcast goes here, too, and I’ll add another example to this quadrant: Monday I watched a six-minute minidocumentary, on YouTube, about people who stand in line all night to buy the latest iPhone. But wait, is that “TV”? I say if "House of Cards" (distributed via streaming video online) is TV, then so is everything on YouTube, Hulu, Yahoo Screen, Vimeo, TED Talks, etc. In this case, I couldn’t watch this video in real time with others, but it’s pretty NOW and plausibly SOCIAL — not in the live tweet sense, but in the viral-video repost/email/share/FIRST ASAP sense.

And the other quadrants? I’d put "PBS Newshour" in this quadrant. The NOW factor is pretty high, but it’s not something I can imagine talking about, online or off, if I weren’t writing this column. Also NOW and PRIVATE: shows you would never tell anyone you’re watching. “Pawn Stars.” “Storage Wars.” Almost anything set in the American South that airs on TLC. It all goes in the upper-left quadrant: Relevant TV

The lower-right quadrant (OLD and SOCIAL) at first seems the most vexing: stuff that’s not really new and certainly not real-time but has some sort of social value. This is where binge-watching lives! I’ll label this quadrant Cultural Fluency Binging: If you’re just catching up on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “The Wire,” or any other such show that is constantly discussed or referenced, you’re living in this quadrant. Drawing on my own personal data set, I was a latecomer to “Breaking Bad,” plowing through the first four seasons on Netflix and the first half of the current season through iTunes. This experience was nothing to tweet about, but it did help make sense of many, many of my colleagues’ tweets.

That leaves the lower-left quadrant, where the OLD and the PRIVATE converge. This is stuff that’s not very recent and has little to no social currency. For example, my wife and I recently watched the entirety of “Upstairs, Downstairs,” the 1970s BBC series, via Netflix and Amazon. Now, I thoroughly enjoyed “Upstairs, Downstairs,”not least because of the interesting contrast it offered to “Downton Abbey.” But the opportunity to “connect with others” about it seems rather remote.

I believe OLD and PRVATE is easily the most underrated category of media consumption: I’m guessing everyone has his or her private viewing — and reading and listening — passions that have absolutely nothing to do with NOW-ness or SOCIAL-ness. In fact, I’d argue there is likely more of this kind of media consumption going on than ever. And just as much as with the Real-Time Water-Cooler, this is because of technology. But because there’s no trackable public dimension to this category, it gets far less attention.

I’ve mentally tested this quadrant scheme against other stuff I’ve watched semirecently. "Orange Is the New Black": fairly now and pretty social (but not quite Real-Time Water-Cooler, because it’s on-demand). "Parks and Recreation": not new, and at this point I’m so late that the social currency is pretty minimal. An early Wegman video on YouTube: Just For Me. And so on.

So where does this exercise leave us on the matter of predicting the future of watchable entertainment? Right here: In the future, we will continue to watch entirely too much television, and we will love it.