Deborah Orr: Suddenly, we are all taking television more seriously

There is a desire for TV that can be shared around the apocryphal water-cooler
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The Independent Online

For me, one detail in the messy, horrible death of the rock star Jimi Hendrix at 27 years old, has always stood out. Early in his distress, he left a message asking for help on the answering machine of his agent. An answering machine! In 1970! How modern.

No one really needs answering machines any longer. In fact, if you leave someone a message on an answering machine, particularly at their home, they are likely to call you back weeks later, explaining that they are dreadfully sorry, but they have got out of the habit of listening to their messages. If you need to impart some significant information to someone these days, then you call them on their mobile or email. I don't even have an answering machine any longer.

I am not, in the parlance, an early adopter. I can – and have – resisted technologies until they have been overtaken by obsolescence. Perversely, I take some pride in this. So I felt only mild shame last Sunday, when it became apparent that my husband and I didn't have the technology we needed to be able to watch Generation Kill on FX.

Generation Kill is a drama about the invasion of Iraq and is written by the team that made The Wire, which was also broadcast in this country by FX. The Wire is lauded by many as one of the finest television drama series ever to have been created, and it is a pity that it was initially seen, communally, by such a small number of viewers.

Yet while my husband and I had been quite happy to watch the The Wire on DVD, we surprised ourselves this weekend by making an urgent call to our supplier, asking for our cable package to be immediately updated, because we just didn't want to wait to watch at our own leisure.

Yesterday, the reason for our sudden shift in viewing priorities became crystal clear. It's a reaction to the recession. A report this week from the TV marketing organisation, Thinkbox, confirmed that 2008 has been a record year for television watching, with British viewers watching an average of 26-and-a-quarter hours of broadcast television each week.

The report suggested that the popularity of the X Factor, which reached ratings highs last year, had been a contributing element, along with bad weather. But other statistics, such as BSkyB acquiring 171,000 new customers over Christmas, are being explained as the consequence of a heightened reliance on television for entertainment during the economic downturn.

For Sky, this is great news. The satellite broadcaster announced a 26 per cent increase in first-half profits, and also said it planned to recruit 1,000 engineers and call centre staff in a push to get more people to sign up for high definition TV. So, jobs for people to do, things for them to buy with their wages, and healthy audiences for advertisers to target their wares at. It makes a change from news of unremitting gloom on all these fronts.

Certainly, there are many people who might query the idea that more people at home on their sofas slumped in front of the telly could ever be a cause for celebration. But there are signs that the trend might turn out to be culturally beneficial as well as economically positive. The chief executive of Thinkbox, Tess Alps, is mainly interested in numbers. "The broadcast audience may not always be watching the same programme at the same time, as it did when there were a handful of channels," she says. "But viewers haven't gone anywhere."

Alps also noted that the huge growth in viewing online and on-demand, through services such as the BBC's iPlayer, has been in addition to traditional viewing habits, usually to catch up on programmes that have been missed. The effect of digital video recorders, such as Sky+ was the same. The technology increased TV viewing, rather than just moving it about.

All this evidence conspires to suggest that viewers might be taking their television more seriously. Early on in the rise of satellite and cable television there was a sense that viewing had become atomised, and conditional. Trawling though pages and pages of listings seemed like a fag, and people tended to plan less what they wanted to watch. The habit of knowing when notable new shows were being broadcast became so unusual, that some newspapers dropped their television review pages completely.

Less serious viewing, one could argue, led a demand for less serious programming. For a long time, when I wanted to watch TV, I would just plonk myself down, pick up the remote, and surf until something appealed to me. Usually, this would mean watching something that was already familiar – like a repeat of Friends – or something that was easy to get into – like a conventionally formatted makeover show. The tailend of documentaries I'd missed the start of, or a drama in mid-series, anything that looked, at a glance, hard to get into, was rejected.

Gradually, though, as the media itself has got to grips with multi-channel telly, and has started to run features about upcoming shows, such as Generation Kill, that are being broadcast on relatively obscure channels, I've begun tailoring my viewing again, and it makes for a more satisfactory relationship with the medium.

This might be part of a more general trend. It is acknowledged that one of the things that people love about the X Factor, or Strictly Coming Dancing, is that the whole family watches it, and enjoys the fact that this communality spills over into other aspects of life. Sure, it was a bit barking that John Sergeant's resignation from Strictly was urgently discussed on Newsnight. But the frenzy around this one story might also speak of a more general desire for television that can be shared and discussed round the apocryphal water cooler.

Teenagers, for example, insist that the real must-see appeal of late-night comedy-drama Skins is not the sex and the drugs but the experience the next day, of having a cultural reference point that everyone can enjoy talking about. Presumably, the online or digital recorder viewing allows those who missed out on the night to slide seamlessly back into next week's conversation.

Yet the move towards more committed viewing is not confined to the young. The trend is reported among all ages. It would be good, for example, if the flurry of interest in Generation Kill that was fanned by widespread advance exposure in the press, persisted through the series in the form of week-to-week commentary.

I don't believe that listless channel-surfing is going to disappear, any more than the answering machine has disappeared. But the response to multi-channel TV, when it was a novelty to be tackled with the help only of a remote control and the baffling Videoplus, might be tempered as our brief reliance on the answering machine was, by further technologies that make targeted or sustained viewing less complicated. Perhaps the recession will give us time to get to grips with it all, and perhaps quality television that offers something valuable to the general debate will be the beneficiary