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Have long form, “quality” shows made TV seem more like work or have they shown it for what it really is?

It has often been asserted that this is a golden age for TV with a wealth of high quality dramas and comedies. Due to widespread availability of on-demand services such as Netflix it is also conceivable to only ever watch TV shows through active choice rather than watching whatever happens to be on.

While this transformation of TV has occured I think there has been a significant change in the way in which people talk about how they watch TV which has perhaps oddly made an old analysis of the media even more relevant than when it was first developed.

I have noticed that people often talk about watching TV like it is work. They will mention that they have “fallen behind” with a particular show or that they need to “catch up”. People will talk with resignation about how they should watch a show everyone is talking about but haven’t had time. Often watching a particular show will take on the character of a project as people have “made it” to season five. These are also often projects which people work through together as a couple or with friends.

TV used to be seen as a type of distraction while today it is taken seriously and requires effort. It used to be the case that TV shows were written in such a way that it did not matter too much whether the viewer had seen previous episodes in order to understand what was going on as they were episodic. Today, many of the most popular shows tell one long story over five or six years.

In the 1970s media studies scholars developed the notion of “audience labour” to capture the way in which value was generated in commercial TV and radio. Most notably Dallas Smythe (in his paper ‘Communications: Blindspot of Western Marxism’) proposed that for most people if they are not sleeping they are working at the reproduction of capitalism in some way or another and the biggest proportion of this time is spent as audiences. Many media are free at point of use (or at least sold at less than their production costs) but are paid for through the sale of advertising space which is only of value the “work” of watching is performed by audiences.

This analysis was used to explain the economics of media industries through a  Marxist lens but I imagine it would be unlikely that the experience of watching TV at the time seemed anything much like work. While TV watching is still one of the most popular leisure activities (although not dominant in the way in which it once was) the notion of audience labour is perhaps much closer to the experience of audiences today.

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