The death of watercooler TV

Originally published in the Los Angeles Loyolan. For original, please refer to: The death of watercooler TV – Los Angeles Loyolan.

During the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, a phenomenon known as the “watercooler show” was in its peak. The trend was so named because of a TV show’s tendency to cause people to discuss the previous night’s episode. Perhaps the show was full of twists and turns that just begged to be discussed. Perhaps it was a cultural touchstone that couldn’t be missed for fear of being out of the loop. Perhaps it was just a really good sitcom that everyone enjoyed. Regardless of why it was a watercooler show, these programs were event television – something not to be missed under any circumstances.

Fast-forward to the second decade of the millennium: The watercooler show is all but dead. Social media has rendered the concept obsolete, and the increasingly large diversity of programming across hundreds of cable channels has divided the country into several smaller audiences for all shows rather than one larger audience for fewer shows.

With the death of the watercooler show comes the end of event television; there is no reason to get everyone together for consistent viewing of a show every week. Sources like Hulu and TiVo have made it far too easy to access programs missed during their live airings, so why stop your own life to watch something you can just catch up with later?

The fade of event television is really disappointing for someone who wants to work in the entertainment industry because it indicates a growing disinterest in seeing television as a cornerstone of American culture. What happened to shows like “Seinfeld” and “Friends” that got audiences so thoroughly invested in the lives of the characters that they consistently drew giant audiences for every episode up to and including the series finale? These days, we have shows like “30 Rock” and “Community,” which are designed to be joke dispensers, not impactful stories about characters. The former series found humor in the strangeness of life while the newer shows are more about making life strange.

Even former cultural touchstones have become passive experiences. In 2003, the battle between Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard for the title on “American Idol” was considered a climactic point in the year of not only reality TV, but of the year overall. These days, while “Idol” still draws sizable audiences, no one seems particularly invested in the outcome. That is, unless you were a Haley Reinhart fan last season like I was. I still say she was robbed.

It’s increasingly rare that any new show can successfully capture the zeitgeist, which leads to an increasing dearth of collective TV conversation anywhere except the Internet. “Glee” managed to become a watercooler show before flaming out in fantastic fashion last season. “The X Factor” has failed to replicate the success of “American Idol” so far. Even highly-rated new shows like “Once Upon a Time” and “2 Broke Girls” don’t seem to be catching much fire for those who prefer their “Friends” reruns on Nick at Nite.

As absurd as it sounds, Americans need watercooler shows because they’re a unifying experience in a time where we are growing increasingly disparate from one another. Television has long been one of the greatest uniting factors in our country – historic moments from the moon landing, to the Academy Awards, to many a Super Bowl triumph have all drawn giant audiences and brought the country together, if only for a few hours. The absence of event television is yet another factor that causes Americans to drift apart.

With the advent of the Internet, it may be impossible to ever revive the watercooler show. Even when a show manages it, the show seems to fizzle out in popularity a short time later. The era of television as a uniting factor in our country appears to have come to an end. We can all simply keep up with our shows on our personal computer screens, headphones on, away from the rest of the world.


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