Media has been a part of the holiday season for centuries. The form may have changed, but the essence of seasonal cheer, religious observance and family ritual have remained pretty much untouched.
When I was a boy in England (some decades ago), the excitement began to mount in earnest only when the double-sized editions of the two guides to holiday TV programming were published -- the TV Times for the commercial channel ITV (note the singular reference) and the Radio Times for BBC 1 and BBC 2 along with Radio 1 through 4. Life was simpler back then.
The presence in our home of these two bumper editions of televisual goodies was made doubly special by the fact that we didn't use them at any time during the rest of the year. In the absence of any electronic TV guide, we relied on the simple listing found in the daily newspaper to tell us what we mostly already knew from our own ingrained viewing habits and of course, word of mouth (some things never change).
We would pore over the details of what was coming to our TV screens and the accompanying features and interviews in order to try and plan at least some of our viewing. It was like peeking into the Christmas stocking in advance.
Of course, all this was back in the days when the kind of content that the BBC and the ITV network produced could only be found within the confines of a traditional broadcast schedule. Although the VHS recorder emerged during my boyhood, it was not something one could buy series for -- although the option to record them as broadcast was always there.
There were no DVD movies or series box sets, no DVRs or on-demand services and no plethora of channels where one could watch syndicated reruns.
Everything was structured around a glorious festival of holiday specials, variety shows, sporting events, movie premieres, movies that were traditionally rolled out at this time of year and kid's holiday specials.
And it was all served up at the times prescribed in the season guide – the one time of year when most of us got to see this far into our entertainment media future and the normal schedule was largely abandoned. Now the holiday season is probably even more interwoven with more media and more content, but the notion of the season having a starting point is largely gone. After all, what signifies the start of the holiday media season in your household now? In mine it's the moment we all sit down together to watch "Elf" -- always on DVD and usually of an afternoon. (It's more indulgent that way.) There's a smattering of other movies that we have to see during the season -- some of them as a family, some of them just for kids -- but always on a DVD at the time of our choosing. But conventional TV is still a major part of our holidays; we just pick and choose from the massively expanded array of options and the means by which we consume.
We'll harvest a few "Iron Chef" specials from the cable on-demand service and that will be our evening's viewing. My son and I will hit the game console. My wife will take advantage of some special holiday offers on her Kindle and curl up with a book.
From time to time, someone will be playing "Angry Birds Seasons" – on the phone or the iPad. And there's the array of seasonal music we listen to at no other time of year.
Effectively, the holiday media season has become fragmented. Like the rest of the year, we curate more of our own festive media consumption than ever before -- and it will continue going that way.
Some would say this is a bad thing -- that we've allowed for the dissolution of precious family moments of togetherness and shared enjoyment to be replaced by technology. I don’t hold with this view. It's not just media that is changing but our work and lifestyles, too. The changes in media and our ability to select what we see and when we see it provide a way to remain connected with our loved ones in the same communal fashion that we did when I was a boy.
The difference is now that my son is able to do so in more ways than I ever was and on many more occasions. Never again need he be torn between the "Dr. Who Christmas Special" and time spent socializing with friends and family. Now he gets both (and each one is a social family event).