Tubing together

Gathering in groups to watch favorite TV shows is the 'book club' of the new millennium.

Some are small gatherings - an intimate pocket of three, occasionally four, on a sofa in Bedford, Mass., sharing an evening and the latest episode of "The Bachelor" or "Lost." Some are unwieldy crowds - a packed lounge in Chicago, where viewers crane to follow "Desperate Housewives," when they're not taking in the female impersonators who mimic the women of Wisteria Lane during commercial breaks.

And in this city just south of Birmingham, Ala., they are a group of 10, brought here, to the Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon, by C. Frog Price for the Sunday night première of Fox's "24."

Informal groups like these, clustered around televisions in homes and in public places, hark back to a time when TV was in its infancy. Fewer TV sets and a handful of channels meant a common pop culture lexicon. Everyone watched Carson; everyone watched M*A*S*H.

Now, with the proliferation of satellite and digital TV, blogs and iPods, those universal cultural touchstones are disappearing. It's less likely that the chatter at the office water cooler will center around last night's prime-time hit.

Those who study TV and pop culture say these gatherings over a favorite show, like the one convened by Mr. Price, come out of two things: the desire for more shared experiences and the types of programs being produced today.

"Part of it is that kind of longing for communal experiences," says Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University in New York. And part of it, he says, is campy and ironic shows like "Desperate Housewives" and "American Idol," which are "way more fun watching with other people." While guilty pleasures such as "The Bachelor" are "almost sad to watch by yourself." Then there are dramas, like "24" and "Lost," with story lines so dizzying and clues so obscure that it helps to have other people around just to follow along.

The Lone Star Steakhouse is home to a collection of fake cacti, fake aluminum siding, and dramatic scenes of cowboys herding steers. Country music plays in the background. At the head of a table in the center of the restaurant is Price, a classified-ad salesman, math tutor, and avid "24" fan. (He legally changed his name to Frog after the nickname, for the frogs he had collected as a boy, stuck.) At the foot is the big-screen TV he borrowed for the occasion.

He drew his friends here with an e-mail: "To celebrate the start of the Fox TV Show '24,' a party will be held!!!" it read. He wouldn't disclose how many people the e-mail went to, but said that "hundreds" was a good estimate.

Four of Price's friends have never seen the show. Three drove from Florence, Ala., a town 125 miles north. "Frog says it's good," says Joel Coker, a professional marketer. "And I'll watch anything. I grew up in the TV age."

History of communal watching

Television has long been enjoyed in public spaces, historically as a shared medium. Black-and-white photos from the late 1940s and early 1950s depict passersby before appliance-store windows, transfixed by television sets faced streetward. Even after TVs began making their way into homes, they were a rare commodity - like a swimming pool, says Thompson. Neighbors would congregate at the lone house on the block with the TV.

As they became more affordable in the '50s, and a TV set in each home became standard, families would watch together. It was a time when, around bedtime, seemingly every family in America could be found huddled in front of "The Ed Sullivan Show."

The '70s marked the heyday of collective viewing in sports bars.

But in the '80s, this type of TV gazing began to break up. With a set in each room and the explosion of channels, families splintered off to watch Nickelodeon and MTV, CNN and ESPN.

Now, whether its helping each other unravel complex yarns in a series like "24," or grousing over the inanity of "The Apprentice," or even just savoring "The Sopranos" with a friend who has a subscription to a premium channel like HBO, viewers are doing it in groups.

Stories about these informal gatherings are anecdotal; there is no one tracking the numbers of people getting together and what shows they are watching.

In an e-mail, Jean Dutton writes about her own Wednesday evening gatherings in Bedford, Mass., with her adult daughter Kelly and Kelly's friend Heather.

"It started out because the night was convenient," she says, "but it just happened that there was always a show airing on Wednesdays that was perfect to watch as a group. 'Lost' is a mystery with clues to look for and theories to discuss, while 'The Bachelor' is just fluff, but it provokes lots of opinions and lots of laughs."

The "24" website is one of the few with a section devoted to "fan gatherings;" there are more than 5,000 postings. One reads: "Dallas, TX Viewing Parties? If any exist I would love to know. If not, Frankies on McKinney near downtown might be a great place to meet. I'm sure they would give us at least one big screen." Another: "Hey. My TV is out - Looking for a place to watch the premiere Sunday night - in Denver. Anyone know a bar or anyplace that will be showing it? I can't miss it!!!"

Anna McCarthy, author of "Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space" thinks in part these gatherings may happen because movies are no longer the opportunity they once were "to experience community and collective identity through sitting in an audience." Hollywood, she says, offers "more monumental collectivity," while TV may provide something more personal. "The TV narrative is pitched more toward social groups, movies more toward demographics," she says.

Biker Santa

By 8 p.m., the start of the second hour, just five of Price's friends are left. Price, a cross between a Hells Angel and Santa Claus, has moved toward the front of the table. His hair and beard are long and wavy, reddish brown. He hasn't shaved since 1980. He wears a horizontally striped T-shirt embellished by American flag suspenders and the denim jacket an ex-girlfriend decorated with patches.

His drawl is deep and warm as he discusses "24," filling in newcomers - and those distracted by their dinner and the friendly banter. He explains how it is that Kiefer Sutherland's character, Jack Bauer, isn't actually dead, even though he was killed off last season, and what C.T.U., Jack's former employer, stands for (Counter Terrorism Unit).

The night is an amalgam of riveted fans and chattier folk just along for some time with friends - and at this sort of gathering, there's room for both.

"Sometimes a performance is best experienced with other people," says Thompson of Syracuse. "The real advantage of television - that theater and the movies don't have - is you're allowed to talk through it."

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