How do you watch your favorite television show? We have so many options that we need to ask: which way of viewing is best? For some time we have been able to videotape our favorite shows and watch them when it is convenient for us, but now it's even easier with DVR (TiVo). Still, other ways of watching television have also become popular. If you don't have DVR you can legally or, more often, illegally download shows from the internet and watch them on your computer. Also, these days, nearly any TV show worth its salt is released on DVD.

In fact, I've particularly enjoyed watching certain shows on DVD, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example. I was late catching on to Buffy, which was in its fifth season before I saw my first episode. But thanks to DVD I caught up in a hurry. In fact, watching the first two seasons of Buffy on DVD was one of the best viewing experiences I've ever had. In the evening my wife and I would sit on the couch and watch episode after episode; we couldn't wait for the next one. I can't imagine we would have enjoyed the show nearly as much if we had to wait a week between episodes and then months between seasons. The horror!

This is not an entirely new phenomenon, of course. Think of the serialized novels of Charles Dickens and other writers. Did Dickens' contemporary readers have a richer, preferable experience reading the stories as they were serialized? Or do we today have the richer, preferable experience when we read the work as a whole? What's better, the anticipation of reading the next installment or the satisfaction of having it all at once? This, of course, applies to comic books and graphic novels. While today's young fans no doubt appreciate having Watchmen available to read all at once, I suspect many of them envy older fans who read Watchmen in installments as it was being published. Clearly there are benefits to either approach.

Certain shows I love watching week to week, The Office, for example. Not only do I prefer to watch it week to week, but I strongly prefer to watch it as it is airing, rather than tape or TiVo it for a more convenient time sans commercials. That strikes me as odd. Why do I do this? Sure, I don't want to wait until all the episodes for a particular season are over and collected on DVD, but why don't I want to tape or TiVo it for a more convenient time? Well, for one thing, The Office is event viewing. Watching it at 9:00 on Thursday night is something I look forward to all week. The work week will be almost over and my wife and I will settle down with snacks for some laughs. And the next day there will be water cooler chatter that I'll want to be a part of. I won't want to turn a deaf ear to that chatter so as not to ruin any of the jokes or surprises. And I genuinely look forward to the camaraderie and bonding that goes on in bantering about The Office in the office.

Yet even with shows that don't lead to the same water cooler banter for me, I feel a need to watch them as they air. Why is that? My wife and I could tape or TiVo The Office at 9:00 and watch it at 10:00. In fact TiVo would actually be more convenient for us. We could be sure that the kids were soundly asleep and unlikely to interrupt us, and we could take care of some more work and chores before relaxing. But we don't do that. We insist on watching the show as it airs at 9:00. Maybe we're crazy, and maybe with time we'll allow ourselves to enjoy the benefits of TiVo more readily.

Still, some clue to our behavior can be found in thinking about sporting events. My Sunday afternoons are usually busy with my children, and this means I miss most of the football games that I would like to watch. I could easily tape or TiVo them and watch them Sunday evening. I don't, however, because when it's over, it's over. The metaphysical fact that the game is finished, that the winner and the score are determined, makes watching the game unappealing to me. It's not this extreme with a sitcom like The Office or a drama like House. If I have to miss the original airing of the show for whatever reason I'll always gladly watch a recording of it, whereas I'll never watch a recording of a sporting event. Yet there is something in common. Both are events, communal happenings. There is something exciting about being part of an event. It's the reason we'll go to a sporting contest even though we could watch it more clearly and comfortably on the television at home. It's one of the reasons we'll go to a rock concert even though we could hear clearer, crisper versions of the same songs on our iPods. It's also the reason we'll stand in line and pay ten dollars to see a certain movie on opening night at the theater rather than wait a few months to rent the DVD. There is an excitement in event viewing.

Ultimately, though, when it comes to the question "TiVo or not TiVo?" the preferences of one are not the preferences of all. So let me know what you think and do.

Copyright William Irwin

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