News Column

'Water-Cooler' Shows Viewed Differently Now

September 15, 2013


Remember when lines like "Yada, Yada, Yada" became instant catchphrases and had TV viewers yakking and yukking it up -- seemingly all at the very same moment in time?

How about the communal grieving over the shocking death of thirtysomething Gary Shepherd? The speculation about what kind of sexual maneuver "the Venus Butterfly" could be? Or the collective conjecturing about "Who Shot J.R.?"

A new television season is officially about to start -- but will any of the 30-odd new scripted series from the five major broadcast networks inspire those kinds of national conversations? The odds of that happening are slimmer than ever.

Beyond the fact that most of the buzz in recent years has been going to dramas on cable television, traditional "water-cooler" shows like "Seinfeld," "thirtysomething," "L.A. Law" and the original "Dallas" are -- like the old-fashioned water fountains that baby boomers grew up with -- hard to find anymore. There are still lots of programs that have the so-called "water-cooler effect," but nowadays, these are shows that people discuss online -- on blogs, Facebook, message boards, fan sites and, most especially, on Twitter.

More and more, hashtags are appearing at the bottom of the screen as we watch a show. And some producers, including Shonda Rhimes ("Scandal" and "Grey's Anatomy") and Carlton Cuse ("Bates Motel," and formerly, "Lost") have taken to live-tweeting while their programs air, as a way of enticing viewers to watch an episode when it originally airs. And Nielsen now issues a weekly "Nielsen Twitter TV Rating," an industry-standard metric based entirely on Twitter data.

"Scripted programs like 'Breaking Bad,' they really are water- cooler shows in a way, but the water-cooler experience has sort of mutated, because people experience these shows in their own time," says TV Guide business editor Stephen Battaglio. "The way that we are watching television is evolving and so is that collective experience."

Terence Winter, the Emmy-winning "Sopranos" writer-producer who created and executive-produces HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," agrees that it's increasingly more difficult to have a traditional water-cooler show these days.

"With the vast amount of programming and the niche viewing we seem to have these days, less and less of a mass audience has the same viewing experience, so the whole presumption that everybody in the world has seen the same thing or gets the same joke, is really, I think, a thing of the past," Winter says. "Obviously, things change and I don't necessarily know that this is a bad thing, but it's just a different thing. The cultural reference points that we all had, we all shared, 30 years ago, are now different and everybody's got their own little thing."

But Beau Willimon, creator, show runner and primary writer of the Netflix series "House of Cards," thinks that today there are lots of different ways to have a shared conversation.

"I think social media has changed the game entirely," Willimon says. "You have people that are live-tweeting as they're watching the show. It used to be you had live conversations with your family and friends sitting around in a living room, which is still, of course, possible. But now, you can actually have that conversation in real time with thousands or millions of people, which I think is pretty great.

"People may be watching 'Breaking Bad' and live-tweeting it, and then immediately go to the blog postings and forums and read recaps the next day that they can comment on," he says. "It opens up the conversation."

Even with a Netflix show like "House of Cards," where the online streaming network releases all 13 episodes at once, "people have found pretty ingenious ways to have their conversations," Willimon says. They will, for example, seek out a forum designed for contributors who have watched the entire season, or one for those who want to dissect a particular episode. Or they "will live- tweet," he says. "A bunch of people will say, 'We're all going to watch episode 7 of "House of Cards" at the same time.' And that allows them to comment on stuff in real time as they're watching it."

A few months before "House of Cards" was released, Willimon, 35, started to use Twitter as a tool for "shameless self-promotion of the show," he says. Then, after the first season was released, Willimon started to do a live half-hour Q&A with viewers about once a week, so he could have a "direct dialogue" with fans of the show.

Twitter may be the new water cooler, but, for many of us who grew up thinking of TV as an electronic hearth, tweeting is a far cry from talking. Virtual conversation is not nearly as satisfying as big, spirited morning-after discussions we used to have in our workplaces -- or the viewing experiences we once shared in our living rooms.

"We used to sit home as a family and watch 'Walt Disney Presents' or the Oscars," said actor Billy Crystal, whose role as Jodie, the gay character on "Soap," generated lots of water-cooler talk. "We used to stay home and watch these things together and now, we don't watch things together. People watch them later. They watch them on their phones, they watch them on a computer. It's not the same family experience that we used to have. And I think that's sad, actually."

And often, frustrating.

Technological changes, along with "time-shifted viewing," "binge- watching" and social media, make it increasingly difficult to have an actual, in-the-flesh "water-cooler" chat anymore. In this office, people regularly wander by to ask, in a somewhat desperate tone, "Is anyone here a fan of 'Breaking Bad'? I'm dying to talk about last night's episode." Pretty soon, I can imagine people walking around with the kind of sandwich boards collectors used to wear at the massive Brimfield Flea Market in New England. Instead of advertising things like, "Stop me if you have or see Elsie the Cow collectibles," these boards would say, "Looking for someone to discuss 'Game of Thrones' with."

These days, attempting to have morning-after conversations about shows can be exasperating. First, you have to remember who likes what. Then you have to ask if a person watched the episode live or DVR'd it and hasn't yet watched. If you do find someone, you have to make sure you don't give spoilers to the other people in the area. They may be catching up on Season 3 when you want to discuss Season 5.

And so, as the 2013-2014 season officially begins, even comedies from stars like Michael J. Fox (who has an eponymous NBC show) and Robin Williams (who co-stars with Sarah Michelle Gellar on CBS' "The Crazy Ones") face an uphill battle. (And that would be the case even if those shows were not disappointing.)

For the broadcast networks, Battaglio says, live competition programs -- like the Oscars, the Super Bowl and "American Idol" -- are their best shots at getting people to tune in as they air. "That's one reason why shows like 'American Idol,' even with its diminished ratings, and 'The Voice' are really valuable to television -- you really have to see them in order to vote on the contestants, and as a result to really be involved in the conversation the next day. ... That's why live shows are becoming more valuable over time."

Recently, while walking through the storage facility where the props and furniture used on "House of Cards" are kept, Willimon had an experience he found symbolic.

"It's funny ... I was taking a stroll through all of the props and stuff that we have on the show and I saw five water coolers sitting there, and I thought it was fitting that there they were in storage," he says. "I don't remember seeing any of them on set. So, they're there if we need them -- I guess if we needed to do a flashback to the mid-'80s. But we don't do flashbacks, so I think that's highly unlikely."



Given all the variables, and the fact that the networks have mostly sent out just pilots of their new fall series, it's hard to pick winners. Here are five shows that hooked me enough to make me want to see more.

-- Virginia Rohan

The Blacklist

When: 10 p.m. Monday beginning Sept. 23, NBC

Stars: James Spader, Megan Boone, Diego Klattenhoff, Harry Lennix and Ryan Eggold.

Why: Not all actors could pull off playing the shadowy man at the center of this drama, but Spader nails it. His Raymond "Red" Reddington is an ex-government agent who's long been one of the FBI's Most Wanted fugitives. The mystery begins when he walks into FBI headquarters and claims to have information about a soon-to- take-place abduction, then insists he will speak only to one person: Liz Keen (Boone), a freshly trained FBI profiler. Reddington claims to have a "blacklist" of wrongdoers (politicians included) and will help the FBI catch them all, as long as Keen continues to be his partner. Why her? What are his true motives? It's intriguing.

Lucky 7

When: 10 p.m. Tuesday beginning Sept. 24 , ABC

Stars: Matt Long, Christine Evangelista, Stephen Louis Grush, Summer Bishil, Lorraine Bruce, Anastasia Phillips, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Luis Antonio Ramos

Why: The characters are interesting and the premise could make for lots of good story lines: A group of seven employees of the Gold Star Gas N' Shop in Astoria, Queens, have been paying into a lottery pool for years. All of them could use the winnings, but some of them need money desperately -- and two have resorted to a crime whose detection could ruin everything. The group finally hits it big, but their win will change the friendships they have long had, as well as the bond between two brothers (Long and Grush) who are both among the winners.

Sleepy Hollow

When: 9 p.m. Monday, Fox

Stars: Tom Mison, Nicole Beharie, Orlando Jones, Katia Winter

Why: Its largely unknown star, Tom Mison, is mesmerizing as Ichabod Crane, who's not the timid schoolteacher of Washington Irving's tale. The TV Ichabod is a British soldier who defected and served under Gen. George Washington during the American Revolution. Suddenly resurrected, he finds himself in modern-day Sleepy Hollow, working with a detective (Nicole Beharie) to solve a mystery dating back to the founding fathers. Also resurrected is the Headless Horseman, who has ties to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It's all very strange and might be too limited. (How many times can we see the Headless Horseman lopping off a head?) But it's also fun. And then there's Mison.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine

When: 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Fox

Stars: Andy Samberg, Andre Braugher, Terry Crews, Melissa Fumero, Joe Lo Truglio, Stephanie Beatriz.

Why: Because it's fast moving -- and very funny. It's also filled with a diverse group of unusual characters, which is always a good sign. This single-camera ensemble comedy, from "Parks and Recreation" writer/producers Dan Goor and Michael Schur, is mainly about two people: a talented, but carefree, pranks-playing Brooklyn detective, Jake Peralta (Samberg), who gets a strict new captain, Ray Holt (Braugher) whose promotion, for reasons you'll learn before the pilot's end, has been a long-time in coming. And Holt is not about to let an immature, authority-challenging underling -- who refuses to wear a tie -- bring his new precinct down.


When: 10 p.m. Monday beginning Sept. 23, CBS

Stars: Toni Collette, Dylan McDermott, Tate Donovan.

Why: Because the opening episode is far more compelling than the promos initially suggested. Collette plays surgeon Dr. Ellen Sanders, whose home is invaded by rogue FBI Agent Duncan Carlisle (McDermott) and his team, the night before she is to operate on the president of the United States. Their threat: Make sure the president dies in surgery, or they'll kill her husband (Donovan) and their children. What's behind the political conspiracy? And how will Ellen resolve this impossible moral dilemma? My only reservations about the series is the seemingly limited premise; the first season is 15 episodes and the central story line may not be solved by then as CBS originally suggested.

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