the death of destination television

Poniewozik_bigMy anthro & econ "dream team" of "must read" journalists continues to grow.   

James Poniewoznik is now our man in TVland, joining Lisa Schwartzbaum of Entertainment Weekly (movies), Barbara Lippert of Adweek (advertising), and Joan Kron (plastic surgery).  (Please feel free to nominate people.)

Poniewozik recently noted several TV shows he thinks we might have missed.  And I have to say this sent a chill through me.  TV I might have missed?  It seems like only yesterday, I could take for granted that by this time of the year I would have seen all the new shows.  But sure enough, Poniewozik names several shows I have not seen.

His list: Sons and Daughters (ABC), The Loop (FOX), Free Ride (FOX), Wonder Shozen (MTV2),  Nighty Night (Oxygen), and Slings and Arrows (Sundance). 

TV was for a long time our hearth, the focal point around which families and the nation could bathe together "in the glow."   One measure of how customary (and obligatory) was this participation: everyone knew pretty much knew all the shows, even if they didn’t watch them.  It was rare to speak of a show in conversation and discover that someone had no clue what it was about.  This was a common ground.

Now there are several good shows in their second season, I don’t know.  This is no doubt a measure of my addled condition and one of the many costs of living in Connecticut, but it is also a reflection of changes taking place in the TV producer and the TV consumer.

There are now many, many good channels carrying many good shows.  I am astonished how high the standard of the comedic writing is.  I was watching an episode of How I Met Your Mother recently, and there was a particular jewel about an American boyfriend driving off a French girlfriend that was fiendishly clever.  It’s amazing how many people can write well for TV.  The art of sit com acting is all about dropping the line in at exactly the right moment, delivery it with perfect economy and emphasis, and then giving way to the next joke.  It’s amazing how many people can do this flawlessly.  This tells us that as channels grow, so will the shows capable of supplying them.  There is, apparently, no shortage of talent.  The profusion of "must see" TV that I fail to see will continue to grow.

On the consumer end, there is  an explosion of options.  Lots of channels carried on lots of TVs in the home.  There are DVDs (via purchase or Netflix) and pay per view movies.  There is place shifting (Slingbox) and timeshifting (Tivo).  At any given time, a family has thousands of options.  The chances of them all sitting down to a single moment of "destination television" (aka "appointment television") are increasingly slender.

It’s almost as if TV is going to go the way of the family meal.  A shared meal (sometimes, Sunday night, sometimes Friday) was once the center piece of American family life.  It was the moment when people came together to remember, reenact and otherwise reassert that they were a family, and what it was to be a family.  This institution has been under extraordinary pressure in recent years.  Someone told me recently that Americans now eat something like 10% of their meals while driving in the car!  ("Dashboard dining" they called it.)   "Grazing" and individual preparation is also on the rise.  The family meal is now longer a staple of family ritual, but increasingly an occasional and ad hoc accomplishment. 

This wasn’t so bad because families were still sitting down to destination television.  (In a perfect world, some academic would have worked out the precise differences between shared meals and shared television, but until our scholarly cousins awaken from their postmodernist slumber, this topic will remain unexamined.)  But if destination TV is now for the high jump (as the English say), what can this mean for family life?

Now if this were 1972, we could rely on an academic to write a book about how TV is killing our culture.  Happily, it is now 21st century and we are more inclined to wonder how this will change culture, not kill it.  To some extent, the family has been a balwark against plenitude.  Culture fragmented outside the family, and to be sure, some of this leaked in.  But the family was still largely a world onto itself.  What we are looking at with the end of destination TV might be the death of the family’s last ceremonial center.  In this event, plenitude will have come home in earnest and not even a great room will be big enough to contain the explosion.


Poniewozik, James.  2006.  6 Totally Funny TV Series.  Time Magazine.  March 20, 2006, p. 118. 

4 thoughts on “the death of destination television

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  2. Jack Yan

    I have no concept of the families that don’t sit down together for a meal. For if they are not dining together, where are they during dinner time? Eating while driving? I don’t know—this seems totally foreign to me. Therefore, I hope this is not a greater western phenomenon but something restricted to various pockets of society.

  3. Auto

    for years, my friends who work in entertainment have been making exactly this point — that all the serious writers in hollywood work in TV, not movies.

    TV, they say, is far more writer-friendly than movies. once the studio buys into the idea for a series, the writers take over and do their thing. the person reading their pages is a producer who is himself usually also a writer. meaning there’s not that endless rewriting like in the movies to address flaws and suggestions made by studio execs who didn’t bother reading the script.

    i can’t imagine jerry bruckheimer announcing some morning that CSI would be much much better if one of the characters turns out to be a lesbian. TV just doesn’t work that way.

    but movies still have the prestige that TV lacks. emmies are nice but every writer would much prefer winning an oscar.

  4. Matt

    I’ve never personally met a family that ate together on a regular basis. I know in mine, it’s a holiday thing. On the other hand, my fiancee and I haven’t had more than two meals per week apart since New Year’s (when she moved to my city)…for the two of us, it’s an important component of our relationship, and not just in a purely symbolic or ritual sense.

    It’s all a matter of self-definition. “Family” used to be defined from outside. Two parents and 2.2 children living in a cookie-cutter house in some meaningless suburb. Increasingly, like television, it is defined from within, by the members, according to their own emotional and spiritual needs.

    And while I might sometimes long for a world in which my own preferences in that regard were universal, we continue to live in _this_ world, where each of us is part of a tiny niche in one regard or another…each part of some group’s Long Tail, as it were. And in such a world, profusion of choice — especially in the super-critical matters — is a good thing.

    (To return to the nominal topic of this post…)

    I honestly can’t remember the last time I watched a show aired by a network that existed when I was a little kid. (OK, OK…not technically true, since HBO, which I watch semi-obsessively, is actually almost as old as I am…but it’s undergone a pretty radical transformation in the past decade.) If it weren’t for all that profusion of choice, I’d literally have no reason or desire to own a TV.

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