The Personal Blog

DVR Etiquette for our time-shifted culture

The Walking Dead Season 2 Shane as Walker

Once upon a time, television was a shared experience. People gathered around the TV set to watch “M*A*S*H” or “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” at the appointed time each week, the same moment as their neighbors and co-workers. If they missed an episode, they’d have to wait weeks or months to catch it first-hand during reruns.

Then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the videocassette recorder became a mass market consumer product. You could set these devices to record TV programs and watch them later at your convenience. Still, you pretty much watched “General Hospital” right away rather than letting it sit neglected in your VCR.

A few years ago, the digital video recorder, or DVR, started finding its way into the typical household, allowing us to record entire seasons of our favorite television shows with little more effort than pushing a handful of buttons on the remote. Today, advertisers fight for ways to remain relevant as time-starved consumers become armed with the ability to fast-forward through ad breaks in recorded programming.

Modern technology also presents challenges for viewers who want to communicate about outstanding shows without spoiling the experience for other, future viewers. Add instant sharing on social media, and you’ve got all the ingredients for someone shooting you a bird or yelling at you in ALL CAPS on your Facebook wall. How do we collectively enjoy the water cooler experience if many of the people are waiting a while to take their sip?

Case in point: My favorite TV show right now is AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” It is the closest thing to what network marketers used to call “appointment television.” It is a serial, which means each episode ends on a cliffhanger to get viewers eager to tune in the following week to see what happens, as opposed to many shows that are self-contained with happy closure (so that you don’t get hopelessly lost if you miss an episode).

I have joint custody of a 10-year-old daughter who would experience terrible nightmares if I allowed her to watch a TV show about zombies trying to eat people and the people trying to avoid being eaten routinely shooting the zombies in the face. Hell, sometimes it gives ME nightmares!

On the Sundays when I have her, we watch some age-appropriate show on Nickelodeon while “The Walking Dead” discreetly records on the DVR. After I take her to school, one of the first things I do on Mondays is watch those zombies chew up beloved characters like fried chicken. Every other weekend, she’s at her mom’s house making her watch the cartoons while I sit parked in front of my TV watching the latest episode live.

I enjoy sitting with the iPad and Tweeting about the show or commenting on Facebook. It gives me a sense of sharing in a community experience, enhancing my enjoyment. Twitter lets you track comments using a #, AKA hashtag. The only problem is that I’m friends with people on social media who may not have watched it yet (or conversely, may be Tweeting or commenting about it when I haven’t watched it yet).

Imagine my grumpiness the other day when I visited Facebook and saw my friend Stuart commenting about Rick killing Shane. Not the best way to start a Monday morning.

I had that in mind last night, during the Season 2 finale, when I commented and Tweeted general comments about how great the episode was, careful not to reveal any details that might ruin it for others. Still, I wasn’t careful enough, because one of my Twitter followers asked me to stop talking about the show because he hadn’t started watching Season 2 AT ALL!

This all leaves me scratching my head, wondering what the happy compromise is. What’s an acceptable period of time for someone to view something for themselves before you talk in a general conversation about how Bruce Willis was actually dead or Darth Vader is Luke’s daddy? Oops, sorry if I ruined those ancient pop culture references for you.

And what about sporting events you want to watch but can’t as they happen? I’m reminded of the episode of “How I Met Your Mother” where the gang, after feeling pressured to attend the funeral of their barkeeper, goes to comical lengths to avoid seeing the final score of the Super Bowl as they try to resist newscasts and headlines reporting on the game until they can all get together the next day to keep their tradition of watching it together.

I attempted to find some guidelines for DVR etiquette. But most of what I’ve found relates to families or roommates not hogging the available space to record or rules about not deleting something that someone else hasn’t watched yet or when it’s okay to pause something to pee or blabber while watching something live with another person.

What’s the rule on sharing commentary on what happens during a sportscast or TV episode?

Perhaps we should all approach talking about television the same way we discuss movies: in very general terms that don’t give away key plot points or spoil a great ending for those who haven’t had a chance to make the first showing on opening weekend.

At some point, though, the content of our favorite programs should be grounds for analysis or discussion, because if we are not allowed to talk about the things we love in entertainment, how are our friends and family ever supposed to be turned on to something new and cool? There’s a reason we still use the phrase “the show that everyone’s talking about.”

I’m not sure how long we should refrain out of polite courtesy when people now wait months or years to view shows or movies they’ve recorded for watching later. At what point is it acceptable to discuss something in pop culture without throwing up a “spoiler alert” disclaimer at the start of a conversation? Can we talk about what happened in episode 24 once episode 25 has aired?

Each of us could, as a viewer, practice some defensive driving, the same way a smart person stays attentive behind the wheel out of an assumption that everyone else is a reckless jerk who is just looking for someone to crash into. In other words, if you’re waiting to watch something you are especially eager to view, stay the hell off Facebook and Twitter until you get a reasonable chance to sit down in front of the tube and watch for yourself.

It’s not particularly fair or realistic to expect the rest of the world to accommodate your schedule just because technology gives you the ability to be a slacker.


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