DVR vs. Twitter

May 29, 2010
By | 6 Comments
iPhone as TV remote

iPhone as TV remote by flickr user nettsu (CC)

New media technologies introduce new temporalities of experience. Most recently, I am finding that the temporalities of two of my favorite new TV technologies are at odds with one another. The DVR is an anytime technology, dispersing the television audience by letting each of us plan our own schedule according to individual needs and desires. Twitter is a now technology, uniting us in a common media moment.

New technologies promising us increased agency in choosing what to experience and when and how to experience it have all nudged television away from “flow.” Remote control devices, cable and satellite, VCRs, DVDs, VOD, and Hulu, in addition to DVRs, have brought about a new kind of TV temporality cut loose from the broadcast schedule. In place of the old way of watching what’s on, when it’s on, we timeshift and binge. We watch our shows on trains and airplanes and at office desks while breaking for lunch. Technologies of agency have disrupted the collective experience of television by making our consumption more like that of movies and books: private, asynchronous, on our schedule. (Of course, “we” is a privileged minority. A sizable portion of the television audience still watches the old way.)

Twitter and other forms of online social media might not seem at first blush like new television technologies alongside iPods and Rokus. But if you have ever watched TV with a web-connected gizmo on your lap, checking in on real-time reactions and conversations, you probably know that watching among a network of online acquaintances adds value and interest, and enhances the communal experience of broadcast media. Even if, like me, you aren’t really into posting frequent messages with your own thoughts, keeping up with others’ conversations can be pretty fun — especially for “event” television like an election, Olympics, awards show, or Survivor finale. (I’m @mznewman on Twitter, btw.) But unlike technologies of agency, Twitter and other online networks bring everyone together at once and return us to the synchronous network-era temporality of a communal now. (Maybe in this sense — pardon the pun! — we can think of our current predicament as a new network era?)

I find myself more eager to watch “live” TV these days and one big reason why is the social experience of watching along with everyone else on the internet. But I also feel compelled to watch on the broadcasters’ schedule — TVittering certainly serves the interests of the broadcasters whose business model is threatened by technologies of agency — because I can’t stand to be spoiled. Now it seems the only way to safely keep yourself from being spoiled is just to stay off the internet, or at least the social web.

As an assistant professor and parent of two young children, I can’t find more than an hour or two most nights for watching TV, and TVitter has done nothing to make commercials more appealing, so some timeshifting will always be desirable. But if you don’t watch #glee when it’s on, it’s hard to avoid hearing all about the numbers. I find myself staying away from the internet for hours while timeshifting, thus denying myself all of the non-TV info I might have read about during that time.  Increasingly I’m wondering if I can live with both the DVR and Twitter, or if ultimately these rival new TV technologies will be simply incompatible. What do you think?


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6 Responses to “ DVR vs. Twitter ”

  1. Sean C. Duncan on May 29, 2010 at 10:23 AM

    Great post — I’ll admit that I’m very new to the DVR world (just got my first one a few months ago) and have, for years, been aligning myself much more with the Twitter style of television engagement.

    Back in 1990, in a college dorm room, I used to chat with friends online while watching M*A*S*H reruns, hop onto as soon as an episode had finished, or jump into a MOO and talk with friends while watching the Oscars. The kinds of live tweeting we see today aren’t anything new other than in scale and platform independence (sitting on the couch tweeting from a laptop or sitting in a bar tweeting from a phone, etc.), and are something I’ve personally found powerful over the years.

    But, as a fan (and decidedly not a TV scholar), I find myself preferring the live or near-live interactions afforded by jumping into that online conversation while the DVR is used simply to catch up on shows that I don’t particularly care as much about. That is, “appointment television” is the only television that really matters to me — the DVR is about completism and breadth of watching (so I can see what happened on a show I don’t care enough about to watch when it airs), while Twitter is about experiencing a show that I care about with others whose opinions matter to me.

    I’m probably very atypical for the readers of this blog, but I’ve considered getting rid of the DVR entirely and just waiting for these other shows to inevitably show up on Watch Instantly, Hulu, or DVD/Blu-Ray.

  2. Jason Mittell on May 29, 2010 at 10:35 AM

    I’ve been a DVR user for 10 years now, and certainly cannot imagine viewing without it. While sometimes I get annoyed at having to disconnect from Twitter to accommodate my timeshifting, this helps me compartmentalize my various connections. I like being forced to disengage every once and awhile, as my instinct is to be always plugged in – the disincentive of spoilage gives me permission to ignore the constant Twitter flow for awhile. And the few times I do watch live narrative TV (which, unlike sports, requires my full attention) like with the Lost finale, the reminder of what I’ve gained by going ad-free via my TiVo is enough to tip the scales toward time-shifting.

    One point you didn’t address is that this conundrum is very much tied to the Eastern/Central timezones – when I was in LA in March, I realized that late-afternoon was TVitter time and I wasn’t invited. It’s even worse abroad, where the choice isn’t even available to flow with Twitter except for through the black market of online pirate streaming.

  3. Myles McNutt on May 29, 2010 at 10:52 PM

    One thing I think we sometimes overlook is that it isn’t just that DVR users miss out on “live” discussions of certain shows and the dialogue therein. There’s also that guilt when you see people talking about a recent episode of a show (like, for example, Breaking Bad’s “Fly”) while it sits unwatched on your DVR due to other life commitments. You not only miss out on the live discussion, but also the critical conversations which could emerge in the days after, extending the incompatibility of these two parts of our lives beyond the evening the shows are airing (when we’re simply trying to get rid of commercials) to the days beyond.

    At the same time, though, our expectations of remaining spoiler-free or truly being part of the discourse become less realistic over time, so we expect to be out of the loop or hear which songs were performed on Glee ahead of time. It would be perfect if everyone could agree to not start watching Glee until twenty minutes of commercial buffer time has built up, but you can’t always get what you want (including not having it spoiled that Glee used “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”)

  4. Derek Kompare on May 31, 2010 at 2:05 PM

    The only times I ever do real-time TVittering (or similar, as in following message boards) is when watching the occasional football game. The collective experience of a fan’s Saturday or Sunday afternoon is more enjoyable when keeping tabs on other games and POVs (technologies like GameCast are also pretty fantastic in this regard, enabling one to zoom right in to real-time stats).

    Otherwise, I’m firmly in offline mode while I watch. TV is exclusively via DVR (or online, or Netflix, or home network, etc.) in our house, and I’m not interested at all in reading or posting thoughts in real time during episodes. Moreover, I’m only occasionally interested in reading and writing about shows between episodes (e.g., here on Antenna), and much prefer the online discussions that happen between entire seasons, where there’s plenty of time for post-mortems, speculation, theorizing, and everything else.

    I like being connected, but I resent being implored to be connected at all times. On the couch watching TV is valuable to me in part because I can be disconnected at that moment.

  5. Faye Woods on June 1, 2010 at 2:24 PM

    I live on the DVR and rarely watch TV live. But this is quite a timely post to two twitter-related things i’ve experienced. As a British viewer who follows US TV critics twitter feeds i’m grateful for those who do not produce real time reactions (and avoid those who do) to shows due to spoilers. Though I really felt it going internet dark in the day’s lag between US broadcast and UK itunes upload of the Lost finale as I felt i’d lost out on being part of a communal experience.

    There’s a recent trend in the UK of arch intellectuals, writers and comedians providing twitter commentary to Saturday night variety TV – Britain’s Got Talent in particular. This weekend, in a bid to create a partial Eurovision Song Contest party atmosphere watching with only my Euro-virgin partner for company, we set up my laptop and twitter feed on the sofa, refreshing constantly throughout. Thus (along with text commentary from friends) we had a highly entertaining virtual Eurovision party of puns, quick fire jokes and perceptive musical commentary from my range of British comics and broadcasters.

    This, along with the recent UK election, really illustrated the power of twitter as a community builder to me, and I doubt i’d have enjoyed either (the election masochistically so) without twitter and tv combined.

    • Michael Z. Newman on June 2, 2010 at 3:29 PM

      Faye, thanks for the info about the Twitterstreams of arch British intellectuals. Care to share any in particular?

      Your comment reminds me of a distinction I was going to make between different kinds of television and their likelihood of being watched in modes of communal commentary or solitary appreciation. I notice that TVittering sometimes goes on moment-by-moment, and sometimes seems to wait for an episode to finish. (Jason sort of references this above in comparing sports and narrative.) This distinctino maps onto one of value, between the television programming we might say we feel superior to or that we consider unworthy of our full attention, and programming that we value highly enough to want to watch absent any distraction. The Eurovision experience suggests that the commentary is in some ways more significant and worthwhile than the text, or that this kind of television (e.g., live events, reality shows) has value to the extent that it gives people a community within which to discuss or make fun of it. If I’m right about this, I find it interesting that new modes of television consumption are reproducing familiar distinctions of value between “quality TV” and more disposable or ephemeral forms of programming.