HBO Go And The Case Against Family Viewing

“Dad, turn the movie down, please -- I am trying to sleep and you are shaking the house.”

Kids aren’t usually the ones complaining about the stereo being too loud. But my daughter had the mixed fortune of being raised by a dad whose job it was to engage the latest media toys. She loved being the first one on the block with every game console, the coolest laptops and a wireless network years before WiFi was even coined. And she never complained about all those games and media company swag that Fedex delivered most mornings. She still owns the original Tomb Raider t-shirt EIDOS sent us in the mid-90s. It started as a nightshirt when she was four, trailing on the ground behind her, and we could gauge her growth by the bottom hem of her “Lara shirt” advanced up her legs.

But Dad’s subwoofer on the surround sound kit was too much. Get a good Star Wars DVD in there with THX-certified FX and that John Williams score would go straight up to walls and into her headboard.

“Dad! Don’t you watch any quiet movies?”

Yeah, well, mom and I made sure we turned down the volume on the movies with sex scenes. At the first note of a provocative moan, my wife and I were frantically scrambling for the remote.

“I am hearing all of this,” my daughter teased from upstairs.

“Go to sleep.”

“Trying! -- Parents! Jeez!”

 In a daring act of cleverness, HBO is reversing the polarity on parent embarrassment over watching adult fare with the kids nearby. Their latest run of hilarious spots targets the kids with the message that their favorite HBO programming may be too mature for your parents to handle.

Dad comes into the room during an especially provocative sex scene in “Girls” and he somehow finds a life lesson in a kinky sex scene. Mom drives the kids crazy trying to ID actors in “Game of Thrones.” It gets worse when a “True Detective” scene triggers Dad sharing with his son the near misses in cheating -- the women he could have but didn’t have affairs with.

The clever twist here is that the on-air content is not the source of discomfort. It is the solicitous behavior the content provokes in parents. Mom makes sure -- really sure -- her daughter knows she would be okay with her being lesbian. “Lindsey Lamford’s daughter is a lesbian.” Wait a beat. “She’s thrilled.”

The campaign works for both targets, of course. The teens have characters with whom they can identify. Most parents can distance themselves from the goofiness of this Dad and Mom.

On some level the idea of making family fragmentation a marketing point is depressing in that “we’re going to hell in a hand basket” offhand observation that is easy, shallow and unhelpful. But the campaign does tease out a richer point about the countervailing implications of mobile technology. It is at once capable of connecting and isolating us from one another. Or to be more precise, the technology enables and amplifies both of these impulses.

The amount of connectedness mobility allows is frightening to see in practice. We all witness and overhear relentless, obsessive and meaningless conversations on cell phones in public places. These conversations often are less about messaging than feeling connected. Many people are spending a great deal of time with one another on their phones merely to stay in touch, keep one another company, share the mundaneness of experience in real-time. The irony is that being untethered to media makes the tether all the stronger and ubiquitous among people.

On the other hand, when it comes to media consumption, those same devices are socially isolating. They encourage and enable radically personalized electronic media experiences that earlier in the last century were defined generally as social because of the nature of the technology. It was large, bulky, expensive. Film, radio, TV became centerpieces of social and familial relations. To be sure, personal devices only extended a process already begun by personal radios, headphones and Walkmen, smaller TVs in everyone’s rooms, the PC.

With smartphones and tablets the potential fragmentation of entertainment experience is complete. Media consumption is still social, but those social fabrics are disrupted by these personal screens. There is no second-screen social TV channel when you are watching the media on that “second screen.”

This final untethering of media consumption from predictable, anchored and limited physical contexts is going to be one of the turning points in media history, I believe. Without living room prime time, car drive time, morning newspaper time, or even weekend theatergoing as the primary, central nodes and modes of consumption the formats of information and entertainment themselves may start melting along with the circumstances of consumption.

We already see some of this reflected in the advertising about these untethered formats. HBO Go is using media isolation as a marketing point. The recent set of Netflix TV spots depicts a wife sheepishly admitting she secretly binge-watched a series in advance of the couple sharing the viewing experience. This is a new kind of marital media “cheating.” We are reinventing social codes around shared and isolated media. Or to borrow an older tagline -- it’s not TV, it's HBO. Whatever the hell that means now.

The full run of HBO Go spots have been collected at digg.  

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