News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

September 29, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Remotely confused

Viewing entertainment more complicated than the days of ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Cosby Show’

TERRE HAUTE — “Must See TV,” where have you gone?

The question isn’t an indictment of the quality of 21st-century television shows. It’s merely a question my mind ponders each time I pick up the remote and search for a program I recognize. The same puzzled sensation also hits me when someone raves about a show they watch online.

Entertainment viewing nowadays is like walking into a buffet. In those restaurants, I’ll either wear myself out, trying to sample every item at every food station (even those circles of unidentified deep-fried somethings) or stick to the old standbys — roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, a salad and apple pie. Either way, a smorgasbord of choices completely disconnects my brain’s responsible-eating lobe.

Last week, the networks rolled out their new fall lineups, and the Primetime Emmy Awards were distributed.

News from the two converging events left me staring at my viewing plate, wondering where those “Must See” Thursday nights on NBC have gone. The ’80s roster featured “The Cosby Show,” “Family Ties,” “Cheers,” “Night Court” and “Hill Street Blues.” By the ’90s, “Seinfeld,” “Frasier,” “Friends” and “ER” moved in.

We knew exactly where and when to find Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer.

As I glanced through the list of last week’s Emmy winners for the best dramas and comedies, as well as the nominees, I realized I’d only seen two of the 12 shows, and neither took the top prize. Loyal viewers locate those programs on a, well, smorgasbord of “platforms,” including cable and network channels — AMC, PBS, Showtime, HBO, CBS, ABC, FX and NBC, as well as on Netflix via the Internet. The latter platform produced “House of Cards,” a Best Drama Series nominee and the first web-based show to receive such an honor. Winners and nominees in other categories came from those outlets, as well as A&E, USA, The History Channel, Sundance Channel and Lifetime.

Please excuse my confusion, likely rooted in my clean-plate-club, we-only-had-three-channels upbringing.

Adding to the plethora of possibilities are, of course, mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. Not surprisingly, the number of mobile subscribers viewing video materials on those devices has increased by 36.5 percent since last year, according to Marketing Charts, a media industry web publication. The same analysis assures us that “traditional TV” — Does that now mean one of those life-sized 72-inch monsters advertised on NFL Sundays? — is not dead. Americans ages 2 and up (Really, they surveyed 2-year-olds?) watched 31-plus hours of TV a week.

Still, laptops, tablets and smartphones tug hard at our attention span. Another firm studying media consumption, eMarketer, estimated the average adult will spend five hours a day online this year (not just watching shows or video), compared to 4 hours and 31 minutes of time spent in front of the boob-tube. Overall, people will spend 12 hours and five minutes a day with all media (digital, TV, print, radio), up 16 minutes from last year. Some of that increase involves “media multi-tasking” — the art of sitting before a television set, while web-surfing on a laptop with one hand and texting on a cellphone with the other.

Kids these days (a demographic encompassing all people other than ourselves) also view shows from “traditional TV” through OTT websites, such as Hulu. If you’re scratching your head, wondering what the previous sentence meant, your pain is felt. OTT stands for over-the-top, an online subscription service for watching television shows, movies, videos, “webisodes,” trailers of upcoming films, movie bloopers.

Anyone who can remember being excited when Channel 38 debuted in 1973 — Three local channels! — must feel like a caveman in 2013.

Again, this isn’t a complaint. Exploring can be fun. In a single, one-week visit with our oldest son on the East Coast, we became full-fledged, dialogue-quoting fans of “30 Rock” and “Community” — a pair of NBC shows my wife, daughter and I had never seen. Until, that is, we watched multiple seasons of both shows on Netflix, late at night after full days of sight-seeing. With “Community,” I found that Chevy Chase remains hysterical; his gray hair and role as the show’s wacky senior citizen reminded me that a few years have passed since his Gerald Ford imitations on SNL, “Fletch,” and the “Vacation” movies.

Obviously, change has two sides. Maybe we’re better off seeing the shifting sea of show-viewing options as liberating, rather than confusing. Perhaps the old 2, 10, 38 channel choices actually amounted to repression disguised as cutting-edge 1970s technology.

After all, as Kramer once said on “Seinfeld,” “The Dewey Decimal System — what a scam that was.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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