One Sunday back when I was at school The Untouchables was on TV.
I had seen it several times, I had it on video and yet for some reason I still watched it.
When I went into school the next day, I asked my friend, who also had it on video, if he had seen it. He had, so we chatted about the best scenes and agreed that it still held up really well.
Then I said how odd it was that although we could both watch this movie anytime we felt like it, we ignored it, yet when it happened to be on TV we gave it another go. We didn’t really consider it consciously but whether it was the fact that we knew we were watching it at the same time as millions of others, or that the immovability of a TV schedule meant that we couldn’t just pause it to make a cup of tea, thus making it closer in experience to watching it in a cinema, or that we preferred to have someone else decide how we spent our Sunday evening, there was some way that the lack of choice beat the ostensibly superior option of being able to choose.
I guess this happened again on Saturday night when I felt strangely drawn to the final of X Factor. (That Irish kid who looked like a teddy bear and sang like someone emptying the bins nipped the feeling in the bud pretty quickly.) I hadn’t watched the series up until then and had little idea what was going on, but it felt like one of those occasions where the whole country was doing something at the same time, however educationally subnormal it might be.
But hang on.
Doesn’t this fly in the face of the Tivo, BitTorrent, Sky Plus, Long Tail world where we can all have exactly what we want, exactly when we want it?
On the surface, having all entertainment at your personal beck and call sounds fantastic. In fact, where’s the downside? This is what the entire rise and spread of individuality, fueled mainly by the internet, has grown from. We want things on our terms and now, finally, for the first time in history, we can have just that (nearly).
Isn’t there still something to be said for the communal experience? That’s part of the reason why millions of us will go to movies, theatre, gigs and stand-up comedy: the collective occurrence where you can look around and see that you are part of something bigger than your own personal tastes. No man is an island and all that, and sometimes you want a reminder that you’re not as unique as you might think.
So where does that leave the future of the media experience?
It’s all heading one way, with not so much expanding into the other direction. Yes, there’s social networking and flashmobbing, but the appeal of those is provided by the participants rather than the medium.
Perhaps that’s where the next gap in the market, or even in the joy of human existence, will be filled.