By Megan Anderle
Beginning in 1933, a generation of besieged Americans found solace in a special radio program: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats.
“My friends,” Roosevelt would compassionately begin his 30-minute broadcast, before delving into world events. For the 11 years he was president, FDR decrypted the complexities of the banking crisis and the recession, his lofty New Deal initiatives and World War II updates in a way that was accessible to all Americans. Delivered in an informal, conversational tone, FDR used concrete examples and analogies to calmly explain the news of the time as well as his intentions for the future.
His empathic style, transparency and optimism quelled the fears of both unsettled high school students and the state Supreme Court justices with whom he worked, just two miles away. He inspired his listeners with lessons from the nation’s founding fathers and reminded them to have faith, understanding and patience as they confronted life’s difficulties.
With each broadcast, a feeling of comfort and community flooded America. It kept people tuning in. It kept Roosevelt in office. It kept families in one place for 30 minutes.
In the 1950s, “The Ed Sullivan Show” kept American families in the same place: the special room in the house where parents and their children gathered after dinnertime. Studies conducted in late 1940s and early 1950s showed that Americans believed television would revive domestic life by keeping the family at home—even curing marital problems— and it was during this time that the word “family room,” a space for togetherness, was coined.
But some academics considered television viewing to be an anti-social event that disengaged people from reality, calling it a fundamentally isolating experience — “one that gives the illusion of contact with the world while discouraging actual human contact,” wrote William Hoynes in Public Television for Sale.
Researchers are making the same claims today, claiming we’re isolated in solitary viewing experiences due to a plethora of devices, apps, online content and streaming media. We’ve graduated from single radios and televisions to a multitude of second screens, which are to blame for our collective, mounting loneliness, they say.
Families are no longer huddled around the same radio, awaiting FDR’s next piece of wisdom that will later turn into a discussion about the health of the economy, nor are we rowdily singing along to “Hound Dog” as the king of rock makes his appearance on “Sullivan” after dinner. These images evoke feelings of sentimentality that make old timers shake their heads and lament how things have changed. Things have changed, undoubtedly. But for the better. We’re arguably more connected than ever before.
Today, we’re binge-watching shows like Making a Murderer and tweeting about the injustices of the criminal justice system, retweeting the followers who agree. We’re texting friends asking if they’ve finished Breaking Bad yet because — come on, it’s been on Netflix for two years (basically forever) and we need to discuss it. We’re Skyping with mom, who now lives hours away, for a Sunday night catch up and Downton Abbey time. We might be using more devices and consuming content over different mediums, but the sense of connectedness is alive and well. Our reach has far surpassed the insular family circle. Now we can enjoy a group viewing experience with people across the world.
Online communities have grown exponentially over the years, with the open exchange of opinions as television, podcasts, online videos and music are consumed in real time. According to Nielsen, 60 percent of smartphone and tablet owners use their devices while watching TV several times a week or more. Second screens are used to browse the Internet, connect with friends about what they’re watching and to read discussions about TV programs. In conjunction with social media, the multi-screen experience has transformed passive television viewing into an engaging social experience enjoyed with friends, family and fellow fans.
The same principles apply as they did years ago. When the content is compelling and speaks to us on a personal level, whether it’s FDR’s consoling radio talks or the gory (albeit human) action on The Walking Dead, we will continue to tune in and enjoy it in a shared experience, whether it’s in person or virtual. Regardless of the medium, when we consume meaningful content, we crave a sense of community, and technology has further enabled that self-expression and connection.
It’s only a matter of time before we’re romanticizing the Red Netflix screen on our iPads, greeting us in bed after a long day, the same way we romanticize the warmth of FDR’s voice pouring through the radio.
Megan Anderle is senior editor at Group SJR covering technology, business, and sustainability. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Tech Crunch, Venture Beat, QZ.com and The Record.
Top image shot by Chris New, Director of Multimedia, art direction by Joelle McKenna, Visual Designer.