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In an age when solitary TV and movie viewing is easier all the time, some couples meet remotely to share their entertainment.

Matt Collins • New York Times,

Sync-watching: TV viewing as only couples can

  • Article by: ANAND GIRIDHARADAS
  • New York Times
  • January 29, 2014 - 3:43 PM

Far-flung lovers once took solace in sharing the same big sky. Now they take it in sharing the little screen. They count down — 3, 2, 1 — to begin “Breaking Bad” at the same second. While Facebook-messaging about it on another slice of the laptop screen. While glimpsing each other’s faces on cellphone video chat.

It’s obsessively synchronized media consumption in this age when supposedly every viewer is an island: Call it sync-watching.

Never has it been easier to watch television and movies solo — on your own time, on your own terms, on devices you need not share. And plenty of people do. But even as technologies create new ways to disregard others in pursuit of entertainment, people seem to crave shared viewing experiences, sometimes inventing complex technological schemes to arrange them. An outgrowth of these efforts is the little-reported use of Skype, FaceTime and the like to send content across borders, coordinate viewing and skirt copyright restrictions and even censorship in places like China.

“It’s the 21st-century version of distant lovers writing letters to each other, saying that they’ll look at the stars and know the other is looking, too,” said Adam Robbins, a graduate student at Boston University, who sync-watched “Doctor Who” with his girlfriend, Sarah Palmer, last year when, just months into their new relationship, winter break tore them briefly asunder.

Perhaps you’ve read the recurring obituaries of so-called appointment viewing. We no longer all watch Walter Cronkite at the same time, which apparently is dangerous for the republic. But it’s telling that this longing to watch together has survived the Cronkite age, though with considerable mutation. People will go to great lengths to watch in pairs. Nations may no longer watch together, but people coordinate their own little republics of two or a few, warding off solitude by sharing leisure hours in the same room — virtually — with loved ones or friends.

Julianna Aucoin, 19, said she and her family used a combination of Netflix and Skype to sync-watch “Lost” when she went off to Harvard, as if to distract themselves from the realities of homesickness (on her part) and a shrunken household (on theirs). To make the experience maximally binding, each party used its own Netflix connection for the visual but used Skype to relay one side’s audio connection to the other. This way, they could listen to the show as well as laugh and talk, without the clashing of two audio tracks a few milliseconds out of sync.

How social is TV?

The rap against television has long been that it “isolates people from the environment, from each other, and from their own senses,” as Jerry Mander famously said in his 1978 book, “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.”

But what these arduous efforts to sync-watch suggest is that the medium isn’t intrinsically isolating or intrinsically social. It is only a medium, and the way people use it — and other technologies with it — decides whether it becomes more like a sealed-off phone booth or a rollicking, motormouth coffeehouse.

What is clear these days is that viewers around the world are determined to push for the coffeehouse vision: sync-watching joins other phenomena, like the live-tweeting of shows and programs and the creation of fan content on platforms like Tumblr. If these efforts spread to a wider public, discussion, debriefing, remixing and live-snarking may one day be considered the authentic TV-viewing experience, even more than sitting alone in a BarcaLounger, armed with snacks.

“There is something about taking that emotional plunge together which is more comforting for the viewer,” said Sylvia Tonska. “People need people, and television takes our emotions to a level sometimes we will never experience in our own life; it’s nice to have your partner at your side during that mini adventure on your couch.”

‘Cheat’-viewing

Of course, where there are shared viewing experiences, there are commitments, and where there are commitments, there is, inevitably, cheating. When Sam Burke started dating Samantha Stanfield, and she left to study in Belgium, they agreed to sync-watch to stay close.

“I thought that watching the best B movies would allow me to tune out for a couple hours while still spending time with my old lady,” said Burke. If only it were so easy.

“Thou shall take extra precaution while surfing the Web and co-watching a movie with your significant other in a dark room,” Burke said. “The second the luminescence on your skin is visibly changing at a rate different than the movie being watched, then you’re finished.”

Burke was engaging in one form of what has been called stream-cheating: watching something other than what you’ve committed to watch together. The more common form, though, is watching ahead: making a commitment to experience, say, “The Wire” with another, then being unable to resist checking what happened to Omar when your partner can’t join.

The most determined sync-watching adulterers — whether thousands of miles apart or sharing the same sofa at home — can learn to fake it. Peg Keller, 46, a writer from Cedar Falls, Iowa, fell into the habit of watching “Breaking Bad” with her husband, David Keller, 50, the day after it would air. But during the fifth season, he started working more overtime at the John Deere plant where he is a machinist, and sometimes it took them weeks to advance to the next episode.

She strayed. She even had the nerve to take some ill-gotten gains. “When the show would come on, I would say, ‘If I were writing this show, this is what I would do …,’ ” she said. “We would bet over the outcome, and the loser had to do dishes. I almost never ‘lost.’ ”

© 2014 Star Tribune