Streaming Community: How #QuarantineLife is Connecting us through our Watch List

Victoria Johnson smiles

This interview is part of “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond.” In this installment, television scholar Victoria E. Johnson sits down with Tyrus Miller, dean of the School of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine, to discuss how streaming is building a sense of community and more.

Tyrus Miller (0:05–025): Hello, everybody! Thanks for tuning in to “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond.” I am Tyrus Miller, dean of the UCI School of Humanities, and I’m pleased to be joined by Dr. Victoria Johnson, a professor in our Department of Film and Media Studies and a nationally recognized television scholar.

Victoria E. Johnson (0:25–0:29): Hello! Greetings to everyone!

Miller (0:29–1:27): Today we’re going to be chatting about “Tiger King” and other things that people are watching on streaming TV. That’s just a part of it. We’ll be discussing how physical distancing during the pandemic is influencing what we’re watching, how we’re talking about that with other people, how we’re getting recommendations from people. In other words, how our viewing during this time and our passing our time by viewing is being influenced by this situation. How are people creating these kinds of communities around the content? I’m going to just quickly ask you something just about what you’re noticing in terms of the ways in which we’re getting content through streaming online, through our various subscriptions, online platforms, open access platforms and so forth.

Johnson (1:27–4:53): Well, first of all, I’m joining you from one of the phenomenas that’s happened with streaming is television channels and producers have been uploading Zoom backgrounds for people to use. So those of you out there who are “Better Call Saul” or “Breaking Bad” fans will recognize that I am Zooming to you from Los Pollos Hermanos, which is a background that AMC dropped this week for fans of those shows. One of the things, statistically, Nielsen did a study during the week that California itself kind of went into lockdown mode, so these numbers are now probably higher than this but Nielsen Media Research reported that the average time spent connected to media during social distancing has increased by almost 60%. That’s not just of course streaming entertainment media but also that means our phones for data, for work, and laptops and other connected devices. That said, Americans were already spending just under 12 hours a day each, on average, engaged with different media platforms. So to see an increase in even that is quite staggering. And that said, there has been kind of a transition in how people obtain their entertainment content because now almost three-quarters of U.S. consumers have streaming subscriptions of some kind and TV connected devices, so almost twenty percent of Americans’ TV time is now spent on streaming services as opposed to the traditional kind of delivery modes of cable and over-air broadcast digital TV.

Americans were already spending just under 12 hours a day each, on average, engaged with different media platforms. So to see an increase in even that is quite staggering. And that said, there has been kind of a transition in how people obtain their entertainment content because now almost three-quarters of U.S. consumers have streaming subscriptions of some kind and TV connected devices, so almost twenty percent of Americans’ TV time is now spent on streaming services as opposed to the traditional kind of delivery modes of cable and over-air broadcast digital TV.

Prior to the current lockdown, of the current pandemic, there had been a growing chorus of criticism among TV critics, among industry executives and creatives that there had become just a glut of content across media devices and it was becoming increasingly difficult to cut through the clutter, that people were becoming increasingly atomized in their viewing practices, and so there was less and less of a sense of a sort of shared culture that I think folks have extrapolated out to a kind of more divided political culture among us as well, this idea that we would only engage with bubbles of content that we already know we enjoy or agree with. One of the things that’s potentially happening with the coronavirus as social distancing is practiced is an arguable return to some, at least a desire for shared viewing experiences and a return to some viewing in common practices that have been a little atypical of the streaming era but always characterized more traditional modes of broadcast TV and certainly particular genres that were very schedule-dependent like sports and reality TV.

One of the things that’s potentially happening with the coronavirus as social distancing is practiced is an arguable return to some, at least a desire for shared viewing experiences and a return to some viewing in common practices.

Miller (4:54–5:33): I resonate with that. I remember, especially from my childhood, the nightly news broadcast and things like the Walt Disney Show and certain variety shows, were just kind of family time and even times when friends would come over and kind of gather around the hearth of the glowing television screen. How does that work in in the streaming era? Can you give us some examples of that kind of — I don’t know, I mean we’re socially distancing — but a kind of community gathering at least around common viewing?

Johnson (5:33–8:58): What folks used to refer to as “water cooler television,” where when you could get together in office spaces and such, you’d talk about what you saw in common on TV the night before. Now we’re seeing this type of shared viewing has never gone away. It’s always been quite prominent in the streaming era. We see that through the use of second screen technology, so for instance, engaging Twitter while you’re watching “Real Housewives of Atlanta” for instance, or the schedule-bound programs and genres, particularly like reality and sports always have had a real-time, second screen engagement that’s quite high. You also think of things like the Super Bowl or awards shows that still a function very much in that way. I think now what we’re seeing is social media platforms sort of doubling down on encouraging that sort of engagement. You have Facebook encouraging that mutual friends join together in Facebook Watch parties, you have Netflix encouraging a kind of Zoomified chat function so that friends can watch together. In a way, it’s an amplification of ways that folks were already using second screens and also engaging with one another while viewing things in common.

I’m also been struck by the way that musicians and podcasters and others have used kind of schedule-bound, regularly scheduled posts, so they’re kind of using broadcast scheduling logics but on social media platforms to encourage people to show up at the same time every day through that venue to join in on dance parties or musical concerts and things like that. Also, finally, we see in the daily briefings from political leaders, mayors and governors, a kind of return to the old-school radio fireside chats, which you know we always associate with figures like FDR. But in a way this has also been used in a relatively polarized political climate to really try to humanize and maybe depolarize these figures so you have like these kind of humanizing events like in Ohio, Governor DeWine’s “Wine with DeWine” sessions and obviously Mayor Cuomo and Eric Garcetti, you see these very humanizing press conferences happening as well. Also, I would say the other final phenomenon is now the opposite, that so many people are under one roof together with so many different devices, you also have the roll out of phenomena like Quibi, which allow these short-bite programs but everyone in the house could be watching a different thing essentially if your internet connection was robust enough.

Miller (8:58–9:08): And those are like 15 minutes pay-per-view type of things where everybody including the dog could be on their own television?

Johnson (9:08–9:28): Yes, so with your media in hand — through your phone or your tablet or your laptop and then of course the traditional TV — everyone can kind of be in their own world, so there’s togetherness but also the ability for people to scatter from one another within the same space.

Miller (9:28–10:19): So just picking up for a minute on what you were saying about the fireside chat and the kind of press conferences that people like Mayor Garcetti are having, obviously the perhaps counter example is the presidential press conferences that are going on for two hours and are involving showing materials that are almost like campaign advertisements and so forth. I just wonder if you wanted to speculate a little bit about that phenomenon, not necessarily just with the White House but as we’re moving towards an election, if you have any ideas about what we’re likely to see in terms of political manifestations of this of this new phenomenon.

Johnson (10:19–11:25): There’s where you also see a kind of amplification of what folks have found really gratifying and useful about outlets like Twitter to this point. I think you probably have more eyeballs now on venues like Twitter than you have in the past. Folks who maybe had avoided that forum before are now engaging it as a kind of fact-check medium and a way to vent and to, again, kind of respond in real-time and fact-check in real-time and lead you to streams.

Podcasters have been really good about being able to be very timely and topical about bringing in guests that then kind of rebut or offer more robust information to counter certain media streams that are out there. My feeling is that people have found Twitter to be very therapeutic in this moment around that.

Miller (11:25–12:00): I was interested to see and it was a little counterintuitive to me at first that podcasting consumption had actually gone down but it sort of makes sense. For me, if I listen to a podcast, it’s almost always in my car and if you’re not commuting to work, I’m curious if you think that that’s just a sort of temporary blip, where people who normally would have listened to a podcast on their commute may actually be bringing them into the home or their jogging or their bike ride or whatever might be the alternative.

Johnson (12:00–12:49): That’s a really interesting point. One of the things that’s happened also is there’s just been such a huge proliferation in podcasts that are available. Here’s where again it sort of makes the Netflixes of the world seem more old-school in relation, to seem less cluttery now than they may have seemed in the past, because how do you even make sense of all of the different podcasts that are out there, right? It may be kind of a dual phenomenon where at the same time that those kinds of numbers are going down, I think that’s a terrific point about commuting, absolutely, but you also have this great uptick in anybody who has a microphone has a podcast.

Miller (12:49–14:13): To come back for a minute to the idea that we’re using today’s technology to kind of, what media scholars have called re-mediate, in the sense of kind of taking a newer medium and replicating in a new form some of the kinds of experiences that were possible in older media. I talked about sort of sitting around in the living room in front of the television set, but one of the phenomena that really came with streaming content was more the idea of binge watching that was available not just when the network decided “we’re going to do some type of marathon of these films” or something like that, but it actually became possible to watch eight seasons of a show in however much time it takes you to kind of move from one to another. Do you think that’s going to be something that — there have been reportings about things like “Tiger King,” where that was a sort of a binge-watch phenomena. Have you noticed that that’s taking place with other content? Are there trends that we should be thinking about?

Johnson (14:13–16:14): That’s always been the sort of claim for streaming services is this breaking out of what’s known as the legacy or linear model of media, where it’s completely schedule-contingent, to the kind of mode of being able to curate your own menu of viewing and to be able to view things all at once. That said, some streamers have resisted that model a bit. For instance, “The Good Fight” on CBS All Access releases a new episode weekly, mimicking as a kind of mediating site between CBS television network, which is still available over air, and cutting the cord of having streaming services. There are definitely models out there that are still kind of doing the best of both worlds.

Now, as everybody’s kind of locked in at home, it certainly lends itself well to phenomena like bingeing “Tiger King” that you don’t have things spoiled and you can talk knowingly with your friends across platforms about what was going on. I also find from our students that there’s also a kind of return to programming in a binge model, but not necessarily through streaming. One of the things we’ve seen is that DVD boxset sales actually went up in this moment. You have a kind of older school medium of DVD but the ability to engage with the series like “Friends,” for instance, which is sort of now permanently in rights limbo until the launch of its new streaming availability. That’s kind of interesting as well.

Miller (16:14–16:35): That’s an interesting point; as somebody who actually just finally got rid of my VHS tapes and as you know several shelves of accumulated DVD tapes, I kind of felt like a dinosaur with these, so it’s good to know that I at least have some company there.

Johnson (16:35–17:29): I was actually wondering the other day if my Blu-ray player would still update any longer. I’m not sure that it will. I’ve been really interested in this kind of archive of viewing for genres that are scheduled and linear dependent. For instance, in the absence of sports broadcasting you have these sort of nostalgic viewings of greatest games and things that are playing out across all of the different league-owned networks, which is kind of fascinating. Also, in terms of multi-generational viewing going on in the home again, which had sort of fallen away for a while but now the opportunity to introduce someone’s kids to like, your favorite athletes or whatever, who they otherwise wouldn’t have seen except perhaps on highlight reels on YouTube or such.

Miller (17:29–18:18): I wanted to ask you just also a little bit about something that is obviously a greater concern beyond just media consumption. We’re in a university where we’re having to deliver our classes remotely online. But that’s the question of access to digital means, the so-called digital divide of people, who may not have access to sufficient bandwidth in their homes or may not have computers or certain kinds of devices to be able to access this. Do you want to comment at all about the limits that that might set on this kind of happier vision of reforging community around shared media content?

Johnson (18:18–21:03): I mean this is really an issue near and dear to my heart and my own research area. It’s one of the reasons I still work on broadcast media culture. But I think one of the hoped-for takeaways of this moment is that it might lead to an invigorated debate and policy intervention in terms of the fallout from the nation’s active concerted move away from principles of common carriage and universal access, which had defined communications technology basically as a private business with public effects within the U.S. context, which was already a tricky paradox to navigate historically but the idea was that really until the 1980s you have a universal public service and public good understanding of communications as a utility.

That then goes away in favor of a model of the kind of á la carte patchwork of competing providers, who increasingly own both the delivery of the media and media content. This may be a moment that helps provoke return to debate of those principles but it’s clear that there remains a real unevenness in terms of Americans’ access to, particularly, high-speed Internet and robust data plans which especially impacts rural America. To even talk about streaming services implies a kind of level of privilege that’s simply out of reach for a large swath of the American public. That said, a lot of streaming media particularly in rural locales is primarily engaged through data plans, through cell phone technology. But you think of monthly subscription fees for individual á la carte streaming services. The original argument was cutting the cord would make access to TV much more affordable and of course, what we’ve seen is the complete opposite, that in fact now the rather bloated cable packages are actually comparable in price to having multiple, many different streaming services. Of course, technologically, there’s the question of on what devices people are able to access the screen, so, you know, the high-def, giant television set versus the older generation cell phone. Even when there’s a kind of connected experience of viewing, the experience itself may be very radically uneven.

Miller (21:03–21:26: This whole experience, and again, obviously not just in the question of consuming media, but it really is raising the question of broadband development and the need for a digital infrastructure to be more accessible and to hopefully accelerate that development in the United States.

Johnson (21:26–21:55): One of the forms that may also help in that respect is this necessity to turn to telemedicine and telehealth technologies, which I don’t see receding. I would imagine that that will be a real growth area for medicine and it does offer really good possibilities also in terms of access to services that otherwise one would have to drive a couple hours to receive.

Miller (21:55–22:15): A couple of concluding things and maybe a little something a little bit more lighthearted. If you were wanting to advise someone who wanted to create a group or a community around viewing, what would be some of the things that they could think about doing?

Johnson (22:15–23:00): What I’m seeing is these kinds of conversations, finding out what it is that your friends and you are watching in common or reading in common or listening to in common or fostering puppies in common. Just basically embracing your joy in this moment and sharing that and really trying to carve out a little bit of time in each day for restoring and connecting with friends and such. Maybe stepping away from streaming content would also be my advice in that respect.

Miller (23:00–23:24): That all sounds like excellent advice. Now we’ve come to that moment of truth. I’ll confess that right now I’m watching the Netflix series — it’s a German production — “Babylon Berlin,” which is a kind of detective underworld story set in late 1920s Berlin. What are you watching?

Johnson (23:24–23:36): Well, so I will admit it’s hard to describe the joy that was watching the Philadelphia Eagles beat the New England Patriots again in the Super Bowl.

Miller (23:37–23:38): You’re also a sports scholar!

Johnson (23:39—25:06): But this time time without all of the nervousness about how the outcome would be. So that was thrilling for me I must admit. And I will say I think there’s kind of an illusion that people have more time right now and I know for sure, especially folks who have little kids at home are not feeling that. That said, I’ve actually been introduced to some really cool media content because of friends who have little kids at home, such as Dolly Parton’s nightly story time, where she reads children’s books. It’s fantastic. And is it cosmic kids yoga? Some really nice things that have developed for folks who are also having to teach their kids at home. We’re actually going back and recovering some network series that we missed out on the first time around. I’m currently plowing through, what is it, season two of six seasons of “The Shield” and I have regular series I keep up with such as “Better Call Saul,” hence the background, and “Better Things” on FX and we’re looking forward to a new season of “Bosch” on Amazon Prime — just started — so yeah, there’s a whole bunch, a whole bunch of things. But I’m trying to keep in the stream of all at the same time, basically.

Miller (25:06–25:25): Sounds like good suggestions. Thanks so much, Vicky, for sharing your expertise and for engaging in this really fascinating conversation. We’ll see everybody in our next episode of “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond.” Thanks a lot!

Johnson (25:25–25:26): Thank you. See you soon!

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