Sep 6, 2008

Columnists - Vir Sanghvi

Why Video doesn't kill TV Stars

I have recently come to two reluctant conclusions about my home viewing habits. The first is that though I have scores of movies on DVD, I don’t really watch them that much. The discs just pile up, unwatched and unloved, and often I forget I even have them.

The second is that I don’t watch much entertainment on TV either. There was a time when I loved watching TV shows. When Star came to India, I made it a point to stay at home to watch the latest serials. And through the 1980s I became a fan of such American TV shows as LA Law. Plus, there were those that I remembered from my childhood in England: Batman, Charlie’s Angels, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Mission Impossible, The Saint etc. But these days, I hardly ever watch any fiction on TV. No matter how good a show is — and BBC Entertainment has some terrific programming — I can’t be bothered to read the papers each morning, find out when it is on and rearrange my evening accordingly. Hell, I can’t even be bothered to watch the damn thing if I stumble across it accidentally. I’d much rather watch news or current affairs.
I admit to all this reluctantly because, at some mindlessly egotistical level, I regard myself as a guy who is into popular culture. I think that I should make it my business to find out what people are watching on TV or to work out why a movie is doing well. And yet, here am I, evening after evening, leaving the pile of film DVDs untouched, switching channels when Life On Mars plays on BBC Entertainment and watching TV news in bite-sized 10-minute chunks.
And when I’m not doing that, I’m watching DVDs. Aha, I hear you say, but we thought you had stopped playing DVDs? Well, yes and no. It is true that I don’t often watch movies at home. But my DVD player comes on virtually every evening.
And what do you suppose I watch?
Why, the very same shows that I refuse to watch on TV. It’s a habit that started in the 1980s, when there was no satellite TV. I was cleaning out my video drawer recently and found that I had innumerable 1980s and early 1990s TV shows on video: The New Statesman,Spitting Image, Absolutely Fabulous, Blackadder, Prime Suspect, French and Saunders, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smiley’s People etc.
My reason for buying the videos then was that there was no other way I could have seen the shows. Even when Star Plus finally came to India, it tended to focus on the Baywatch kind of mass-market TV rather than the stuff I wanted to watch (which, in those days, was mostly British).
But when you watch a TV show on video, two things happen. Not only does it seem right for the box (in the way that movies, made for the big screen, never quite manage) but you are also no longer at the mercy of channel programmers. Do you want to watch four episodes in one night? No problem. Would you like to rewind to figure out some plot twist you did not fully comprehend? Easily done.
The consequence of my video-watching years is that I can no longer enjoy TV fiction in real time. I must see it at my own pace, in my own time and in as large a dose as I want —11 episodes in one night, if I so desire.
The DVD boom has made it worse. When I first started watching 24, I found it strangely compulsive, even allowing for all the times when Jack Bauer’s foolish daughter was kidnapped. I thought I’d watch a couple of (hour-long) episodes a day. No chance: I ended up seeing the whole first season plus extras (over 24 hours of programming) in less than three days.
Since that first season of 24, that’s pretty much been the pattern of my TV viewing. I buy whole seasons of an interesting show and then devour the episodes with a glutton-like glee. Look through my DVD collection, and away from the movies, still pristine in their shrink-wraps, you’ll find another pile of well-watched discs: Spooks, Hustle, Murder One, Life on Mars, Californication, Dirty Sexy Money, Boston Legal, Mad Men, Dr Who, The Tudors, Rome, Poirot, Hotel Babylon, Dirt, 24, State of Siege, Entourage, 30 Rock etc.
Sometimes, the shows become an obsession. The first few seasons of 24 had me staying up all night. (Not the last two seasons though.) So did the first season of Murder One. When one of the discs on the second season of Heroes did not work, I scoured Delhi looking for a replacement. (I found it.)
And sometimes they take over my life. I got into the West Wing late, long after the show had been cancelled. But the first season grabbed me so completely that I bought all seven seasons (something like 150 hours of programming) and watched the show relentlessly. If I travelled, my West Wing DVDs travelled with me. I watched the continuing travails of President Bartlett in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Mauritius, Bangkok and London and when the last episode was over, persuaded myself that there had to be a Season 8 and that inefficient shopkeepers were remiss in not stocking it.
The end result of all this is that I now know most major American and British TV shows inside-out, having watched every episode in sequence, something that could never have been possible if I had watched them on TV in real time.
Consequently, my movie watching has suffered. I’ll go and see movies in cinemas (Sex and the City and The Dark Knight, both subjects of previous columns) or watch them on planes (Shine A Light). But they seem curiously shrunken and short on my home screen.
The TV set is meant for watching TV shows. And in today’s world, we can do that — in our own time and on demand.

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