TV top trumps: is watching the box now a battle for trend supremacy?

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Netflix. NowTV. Sky+. LoveFilm. A TiVo. Series Record. Amazon Prime. iPlayer. 4OD. On Demand. It seems that with the growth of technology in just the last two decades alone that we are being bombarded ever more with impossibly new ways – and new devices and contraptions – to do the thing our humble TVs were there for in the first place – to, well…watch TV.

But, as I’ve got older – and perhaps more so since I was at uni when I was something of a blissful iPlayer junkie as I couldn’t afford a licence for a full set in my budget back then – I’ve found that, as with most other areas in my life, some of which I’ve spoken about on here before, I’m almost struggling to keep up and be what I call an ‘on trend viewer’.

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Here’s the thing. My TV viewing of childhood was a happy, blissful time – namely in lieu of my then obsession with shows like ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’, ‘Rainbow’, ‘The Magic Roundabout’ and ‘Postman Pat’. Nobody, I’d like to think, judges a 3 year old on what they watch. Naturally anyway.

Then I got a bit older – ie early to mid teens – and that’s when the ball game changed a little bit. Suddenly, the safe, carefree world of talking steam engines and jolly postal workers in fictional Cumbrian villages gave way to being into the ‘cool’ shows – namely US imports or stuff that becomes tabloid and water cooler fodder.

Previous readers from before will know my now obsession with ‘Friends’, S Club 7’s TV series and things like CD:UK were thus dodgy ground to occupy, as was my mid teen love affair with Britcoms like ‘Ab Fab’ and ‘The Vicar of Dibley’. In my case, that meant having to take a vested interest in stuff that was beyond my realm – most of it late at night or on a channel from a Sky box.

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Admittedly, as time moved on further towards my early twenties, I did develop a love for some ‘must-see’ TV – the HBO series ‘Entourage’ from America, for instance, which one of my uni friends at the time, Pete, recommended to me in light of a sitcom pilot I’d been writing, and I quickly developed a love for. I am still, at time of writing, about three or four series behind with ‘Entourage’, which, given the movie of the film is out soon, I should probably crack on with watching.

And now that I’m the age I am, I feel like there is suddenly even more pressure on me to be into so called ‘must see’ TV. My interest in ‘The X Factor’ fell off a cliff once decent talent began getting repeatedly kicked off in favour of hopeless boybands and ‘comedy’ acts (cf the 2012 series with Rylan and Union J) and since then I’ve been a staunch Strictly viewer on Saturday nights in the autumn, likewise with ‘The Voice’ which is on again at the moment (and more on which in my next blog).

But again, it’s apparently not cool for a 25 year old bloke to be taking a vested interest in some guy from EastEnders doing a rather good paso doblé, or in Radio 1 DJ Scott Mills emerging sideways from behind a makeshift rock dressed as the crab from ‘The Little Mermaid’ for a salsa to ‘Under the Sea’ (go YouTube it, readers. It will change your life).

Nor do I take a vested interest in what I called ‘social network baiting porn’. By that, I mean the sort of shows that clog up your timeline or day to day conversation at any given point with a desire to illicit ‘reaction’ from the public and media at large – which basically means things like ‘Celebrity Big Brother’, ‘TOWIE’, ‘Made in Chelsea’, or any documentaries or debates (usually on Channel 4 or Five) attacking the bottom rungs of society for entertainment purposes. Especially if they have the input of insufferable holier than thou rent-a-gob Katie Hopkins and the like.

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But perhaps what infuriates me most of all, is what the sudden pressure of being asked to have an opinion on this unwatchable garbage puts not just on me, but on society as a whole. Recently, Virgin Media have run a ‘Night Owls’ advertising campaign for their TV catchup services (see above) which, I feel, practically encourages, nay forces us to be insomniac zombies obsessed with staying up all night watching some random US show just to keep up with the Joneses (or should that be the Kardashians? I digress).

I put this question of whether we are living in a society that encourages a passive aggressive/competitive culture of ‘TV top trumps’ to my Twitter feed. On the one hand, I found I wasn’t alone in my feeling the pressure to take a vested interest in shows I had no care for. ‘When you say why you haven’t watched a show,’ mused Barnsey, ‘you need to have a good excuse why. Or if you tell the truth, and say it’s not your thing you get the ‘You poor fool’ look of pity and disbelief.’

But what about the reverse side of the coin, for people for whom ‘must see TV’ is their passion and interest? One of my international Twitbuds from Germany, Julia, confessed she was a follower and preacher, although not in a demanding way.

‘I think that I’m sometimes the one forcing my friends to pretend they’ve seen stuff and I always make them listen to me talking about films and shows. But I’m not doing that on purpose.’

‘I just watch a lot of stuff and because I’m a bit “obsessed” with British stuff I watch a lot of things that aren’t on telly here,’ she added, ‘and I watch a lot of the popular stuff as well so I’m most of the time the person who’s seen “everything”. So I guess that’s boring and annoying sometimes for my friends or the people I happen to talk to, but I’m just excited about the stuff I watch.’

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Indeed, what Julia says here perhaps highlights the problem. Getting excited by word of mouth TV – ‘Miranda’, for instance, was a ‘word of mouth’ show for me, as was ‘Entourage’, as was the Aussie sitcom ‘Summer Heights High’ – that’s the kind of stuff that’s great to have a shared interest and experience in. Stuff that you discover naturally as it were. Julia pointed out this was the case with some of our own British shows.

But when we’re being forced to watch and take interest in a TV show that’s all hype and bugger all else by greater powers that be, to the detriment of our own happiness – well, that’s no fun for anyone. So. That complete series catchup of ’24’ (grumbly, weird and trippy)? That 8 hour marathon of ‘Geordie Shore’ (loosely scripted, crass and orange famous for f-all vessels)? Ignore it all readers. As the slogan of an old BBC licence fee ad once proclaimed, watch what YOU want, when YOU want. Live long and prosper.

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