Every day calibrations

Let’s celebrate

Back in the old days life was a little short of personal celebrations. We were born, got engaged, married and died. People who retired before they died received a watch and a short speech. If they were lucky.

Happy retirement. Here’s your watch. Though you won’t need it any more

The greetings card industry was a paltry thing, relying on Christmas and Valentine’s Day to see them through quiet months, and a drip feed of birthdays and people passing driving tests.

Well look at it now.  Our lives are punctuated by cork popping, slapped backs, moments to savour, and platitudinous comments in cards from people in accounts you don’t really know.

So we have parties when we are old enough to go trick or treating, Sweet 16, Prom Night, coming of age at 18 or 21, graduation, engagement, stag and hen nights, weddings, baby shower, gender parties, divorce parties, job-leaving parties, birthdays ending in zero, special wedding anniversaries, house-warming and retirement. And for parents, there’s a reflective glory in their progeny reaching these milestones.

It’s a Sweet 16 cake. They’re always pink. It’s borderline offensive

And there are the annual events such as religious celebrations, Mother’s Day, (or as my mother insists, and why shouldn’t she, Mothering Sunday) and Father’s Day (hurrah!), but these (Bar/Bat Mitzvah aside) aren’t really about reaching personal milestones.

(New Year’s Eve is another one but really the only thing that makes this personal is that when I type my name into Google Images I get to see photos of someone called Jeremy seeing in the New Year)

Yes it’s a bit crass. But at least it’s spelled correctly. And you are, YOU ARE GREAT!

Why is this happening?

Trend consultants have long identified a desire among people for experiences rather than things.  We want to do more rather than acquire more.  We want something, anything to relieve the boredom.

Books like this one have been published to help give us something to talk about when someone asks what we’ve been up to.  The winner in life is the person who does the most and has the anecdotes to relate.

This isn’t easy for Television is it…

Not really. Television may be responsible for many things, but jacking up the number of personal celebrations isn’t one of them.  But that doesn’t mean that TV channels don’t celebrate their own anniversaries from time to time.

(And then there’s Guinness’s attempt to create an annual event around the birthday of its founder.  Which raises two questions: why does his birthday change each year, and isn’t St Patrick’s Day enough)?

The big celebration that television does join in with is Christmas – the only one in which TV viewing actually goes up, and awkwardly at a time when advertising spending is low.  The problem with most of the personal celebrations is that they take people away from the TV, so where’s the fun in that?

Digital marketeers would say that the net is perfectly suited to tracking an individual’s life because it delivers personalised messages, and it knows when your birthday is.  And we remember that story of the supermarket that delivered coupons for baby products to a young woman before she had told her parents that she was pregnant, on the basis of a clever loyalty card based algorithm).

Television struggles with rites of passage because they happen at different times for each person. You could imagine a Mexican wave across the country as people celebrated a milestone before passing the wave on the following day, but we don’t live like that.  It’s atomised parties spread across the country (which is so much easier for catering).  And only a few people are doing any one thing on a particular day.  The only regular sight of TV marking viewers’ celebrations are the birthday cards on children’s programmes, and these are really only there to encourage creativity from tiny viewers, and to give an illusion of personal intimacy.

Television does cover weddings and births a lot (though the latter, perhaps with a certain ennui), but it’s about watching others celebrate (or suffer), it’s not really about the viewer.

39th Wedding Anniversary.. Let’s PARTY!

Contrast with films.  These are full of plotlines which celebrate life’s journey – even elevating ‘losing one’s virginity’ into the list of milestones.  So we get the school based John Hughes ones about school Prom, marriages (Wedding Singer, Best Friends Wedding, Bridesmaids etc etc), and births (Friends with Kids), and stag nights (The Hangover), retirement (About Schmidt), and funerals (…. And a Funeral). And besides the plot-lines they have their own certification system based on ages.

TV as aid to calibration, not celebration

What TV does do very well, it seems to me, is celebrate the passing of time each day and week, easing the viewer through, or rather, it calibrates the day.  Television is temporal in its focus – marking the flow of each 24 hour period, and allowing audiences to adjust their equilibrium as it passes.

So each evening is carefully calibrated – the little lift, the settling down, the home from home, the gentle inspiration, the main event, the evening challenge, a chance to explore, and the time to switch off.

Or as they are better known, 5pm, 6pm, 7pm, 8pm, 9pm, 10pm, 11pm.

Or, if you insist on specifics, Pointless, the News, Emmerdale (or The One Show), Masterchef, Call the Midwife, Drugs Live, Something Random on Digital TV, and Jackpot247.

Subtle milestones marked by TV viewing

Television also marks the passing of years, although rarely by offering calibrated TV for different age groups.  Such targeting efforts are ruined because older people watch more of everything.  (Although when I worked at MTV, it was striking how quickly viewers gave it up as they hit their 20s). People’s relationship with TV changes as they get older.   See more on this here.

There are, perhaps 6 ages of television as marking social rites of passage:

  1. TV as surrogate parent (baby-sitting for toddlers and beyond)
  2. Enhancing our contact with other people (something for teens to talk about)
  3. A reason to see others (a cosy sofa for families)
  4. A means to avoid talking (tired couple wanting stimulation)
  5. Filling a quiet house (empty nesters)
  6. Replacing a social life (elderly)

Television isn’t great at marking the passing of life’s milestones, but it adapts to our own lives, as well as giving structure to the days and weeks and years.



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