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Actress Julia Garner in the show 'Inventing Anna' on Netflix

JUST AN ILLUSION? Julia Garner is a phony German heiress trying to scam her way to success in the Netflix hit Inventing Anna.

Do Hit Shows like Inventing Anna on Netflix Mean We’re Sharing Cultural Experiences Again?

Maybe, but flooded with content choices and channels, audiences remain drifted apart, experts say

By Greg Beaubien

By GREG BEAUBIEN     March 23, 2022


“IT’S TOO WEIRD,” the young lady in line at the clothing store in Chicago was saying to her friend. “Before, she talked in a southern accent, and now it’s like, Russian-meets-California-valley-girl. I can’t get used to it.”

Did those overheard words, which the listener knew referred to actress Julia Garner in the hit Netflix show Inventing Anna (and to Garner’s character in Ozark, another smash for the streaming service), signal a return to shared cultural experiences in the United States?

Entertainment that connects people to their friends, neighbors, coworkers and fellow citizens used to be commonplace in this country. But for decades, since the advent of cable-TV and the rise of the internet, those shared cultural experiences have been presumed lost, as audiences have fragmented into their own niche interests.

In 1983, the finale of the TV-show M*A*S*H on CBS was seen by 106 million people. The next day at work, people could talk to one another about what they’d watched and how they felt about it—a social opportunity that was as important as seeing the show.

In 1973, Elvis Presley’s “Aloha from Hawaii” concert reportedly reached the screens of more than a billion people, thanks to emerging satellite technology. At the peak of its popularity in 1996, the show Baywatch enjoyed an estimated weekly audience of more than 1.1 billion in 142 countries, according to Guinness World Records. In 2007, 11.9 million people watched the last episode of The Sopranos on HBO—a far smaller audience than for the M*A*S*H finale, but still considered large by cable-TV standards.

Today, a streamed show like Inventing Anna is unlikely to match those audiences, but it might herald a return to shared cultural experiences, nonetheless. According to the BBC, internationally Inventing Anna had been watched for 273 million hours as of Feb. 23, a Netflix record.

“We no longer engage in mass media, thanks to the number of choices now available to us, as well as divisions of our attention spans and in our culture/politics,” Brian Sheridan, a communications professor at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Penn., told Moresby Press. “While Inventing Anna is popular with audiences, is it a return to a shared experience that mass media used to provide? It is hard to judge given that streaming services do not uniformly share the same viewer data, unlike the Nielsen company that tracks broadcast television viewership.”

‘We’ve traded common cultural touchstones for niche gratification,’ says Andrew C. Billings, a journalism professor at the University of Alabama

As the number of media outlets and choices has increased, fewer people are sharing the same content, said Dr. Katie Foss, a professor of media studies at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. But while mass, shared cultural experiences have declined, within particular cohorts, such as age groups, “people have more opportunities than ever to connect others to their favorite shows, videos, memes and other products,” she said.

With on-demand content, people consume entertainment at their own pace, diluting the sense of shared experience while also increasing the content’s reach.

“Streaming shows allow individuals to watch programs at any time and to binge numerous episodes, thus intensifying the impact of the shows,” Foss said. “This impact is magnified further when people talk about shows on social media platforms or create their own content based on the shows, such as a parody on TikTok.”

It wasn’t long ago that people tuned in to popular shows like Friends, Lost, The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones each week and discussed them. But “Nowadays, there’s an overwhelming amount of content and content providers, so most people don’t even subscribe to the same streaming platforms, let alone watch the same shows,” said Chris Charles, who co-wrote the Liam Neeson film The Marksman and also produces movies through the company he co-owns, Throughline Films. “And even if there is some overlap, people rarely view content concurrently unless it’s a really big release. As a result, I’ve found you often can’t discuss shows in groups like you used to, for fear of revealing spoilers.”

As technology advances, the generation gap between shared experiences is growing wider, Foss said. “Historically, generational divisions existed in the content consumed, not the platform or medium,” she said. Now, generations are separated not only by the content they consume, but by the technology they use to access that content. “Older adults tune into television shows, while teens and young adults stream shows or use TikTok and social media. Within age groups, it’s easy to find shared viewing.”

Still, streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ can facilitate common viewing experiences, as some of that content attracts large numbers of viewers, said Erika Engstrom, Ph.D., director of the School of Journalism and the Media College of Communication and Information at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

“For example, Squid Game became the number-one show on Netflix based on viewing hours, according to Variety,” Engstrom said. But “I’m not sure that it means it’s a shared cultural experience. TV viewing used to be more communal, where families would gather and watch the same show at the same time in the same place, [which] contributed to more of a sense of shared experience.”

That communal experience—and the connections with other human beings we enjoyed when discussing our favorite shows around the watercooler the next day—aren’t happening much anymore, “thanks to our ability to access content whenever, wherever, and on whatever device we choose,” Engstrom said.

“It’s hard to find a group of people now who have similar viewing tastes and have watched the same shows than it used to be back when choices were more limited,” she said. “With the near-infinite range of content now available, it’s more difficult to find these shared experiences. I think that the days when people could talk about a certain show and knew about it are past us.”

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But as audiences fragment, social media supplants friendships, people stare at their cellphones instead of saying hello to one another, political divisions become more hateful and our collective isolation deepens, our longing to connect with others only grows stronger.

“The longing for shared experiences is quite real, but the ability for them to organically unfold is nearly impossible, now seemingly found only in a live sporting event taking place in an appealing time zone,” said Andrew C. Billings, Ronald Reagan Chair of Broadcasting at the University of Alabama’s department of journalism and creative media, in Tuscaloosa.

“I don’t think the communal experience of a Squid Game or Inventing Anna can match anything near the cultural experiences of decades past,” Billings said. “This is not to say that some of the most prominent streaming shows are failing to draw mass audiences, but they’re doing so in dramatically different manners.”

If we could sample three people who have each recently seen and liked a program like Inventing Anna, he said, perhaps one of those viewers binged the entire series during its opening weekend. Another completed it a few weeks later. A third viewer is still working toward the series conclusion.

“The content is the same, but the pace in which it is consumed still is rarely matched,” Billings said. “We’ve traded common cultural touchstones for niche gratification. That’s not necessarily to be applauded or lamented, but rather is a function of vast choice and the ease with which we can find content to consume now.”

Even as he agreed that audience fragmentation has pulled viewers apart, Charles sounded a note of optimism for the possible return of shared cultural experiences. With most people subscribing to streaming giants like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+, “My guess,” he said, “is that those streamers’ big tentpole series such as Amazon’ s upcoming The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power may bring about a return to the watercooler-TV-show era.”


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