Can telly still draw a crowd?

Despite the growing trend for 'event dramas', the nation rarely watches TV en masse, argues Fiona Sturges
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The Independent Culture

I had every intention of watching Five Days, the BBC's heavily trailed crime thriller that was screened nightly last week. It looked classy, and I liked the idea of devoting myself to a regular programme that didn't involve Barbara Windsor yelling,"Get aht of my pub!"

But then came Monday evening and, as my husband and I settled on the sofa, a familiar indecision set in. A scroll through our Freeview+ archive revealed that we were behind with Mad Men and Glee, and we still had to watch the final two episodes of Nurse Jackie. Meanwhile, a DVD of the fifth season of The Wire: sat next to the telly, taunting us with its aura of superiority. In the end, Nurse Jackie won, and Five Days was consigned to our ever-expanding back catalogue. And no, since you ask, we don't get out much.

Five Days was billed not just as a thriller but an "event drama", meaning that it was served up over consecutive days. There is, ostensibly, a lot of sense in this. With the narrative unfolding night after night, it brings with it an air of importance and is a good way to maintain tension, leaving viewers with cliffhangers that aren't forgotten as the week wears on.

But in the era of on-demand services, PVRs (Sky+, Freeview+ etc) and DVD box sets, are we really prepared to give that level of commitment? I don't suppose I'm the only one whose viewing is locked in a permanent state of catch-up, and who rarely, if ever, consults the listings before hunkering down in front of the box.

There was a time, of course, when watching television was a shared experience. Shows would be singled out and dissected in the schoolyard or, according to lore, by the office water cooler. New dramas, news reports, Top of The Pops performances, soap theatrics: all were the subject of impassioned debate the next day. Television schedulers could, to some extent, dictate how we went about our day. In some households, dinner would be arranged around Corrie or EastEnders. Being part of a farming family, my childhood mealtimes were built around the weather reports. Woe betide anyone who spoke while they were on, lest our livestock get caught out by a surprise hurricane.

Now we have 24-hour news and weather channels where we can get updates minute by minute. The torment that was operating a video recorder is also, mercifully, a thing of the past. Along with Sky+ and its ilk, we have the BBC iPlayer, and whole channels – E4 +1, ITV2 +1 etc – dedicated to repeating shows you might have missed an hour ago. Now the question "What's on telly tonight?" is almost as outmoded as "Have you warmed up the radiogram?"

That's not to say that the advent of Sky+ has signalled the end of television as we knew it. Talent shows and soap operas are the last bastions of communal viewing, in that we still tend to watch them at the scheduled times. EastEnders underlined this with great panache last month by screening a live episode in which a killer was finally unmasked. It was, perhaps, the last of the great water-cooler moments, with the revelations discussed everywhere from offices and schools to social-networking sites.

But these are exceptions to the new rule of television that has put once-passive viewers in the driving seat, able to decide exactly what they watch and when they watch it. It may not be good news for the makers of event drama but for those of us wanting to binge on backed-up episodes of Nurse Jackie, what's not to like?