On his 20th anniversary as a TV critic, Alan Sepinwall remembers not only how different the content was two decades ago, but how we consumed it:
The recordability of VHS tapes did allow for the kind of DIY programming and binges we take for granted now, but it was an enormous hassle to do it. In the ’80s and ’90s, it became pop culture shorthand to explain that someone was old, out-of-touch, and/or bad with technology by showing the blinking 12:00 on the clock of their VCR, since you had to program the time yourself whenever you plugged it in. But even people who could master that function often found setting the VCR to record things to be more trouble than it was worth. No matter the make or model, the recording settings always seemed to be counter-intuitive, and even if you did everything exactly right, your plans could be foiled by something as simple as someone else in your household changing the channel on the TV or cable box between when you set the recording and when the show aired. If you weren’t very careful and lucky, your plan to go out and watch Friends later might result in you coming home to a tape of the first half of Diagnosis: Murder. Even the VCR-Plus codes, introduced late in that technology’s lifespan as a way to idiotproof the recording process, didn’t always work the way they were supposed to. You could be a power user if you really set your mind to it — as a teenager, I recorded every episode of Hill Street Blues as they aired in the middle of the night on WPIX-11 — but that level of obsession was rare, and network research at the time found that even the most passionate fans of shows watched, on average, only one out of every four episodes.
This is why serialization used to be so frowned upon, and why reruns were still so lucrative for the networks; as a late ’90s NBC marketing campaign put it, “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.”